Trawling for Spies

A new article in Intelligence and National Security by Stephen G. Craft reveals how the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) ran a counterintelligence program using fishermen along the southern Atlantic seaboard during the Second World War. Expecting that the Axis would land agents on US shores (something that happened, but only rarely) and use German and Italian-American fishermen to support U-boat operations (which seems to have happened not at all), ONI created Selected Masters & Informants (SMI) sections under naval district intelligence officers to recruit fishermen as confidential informants. Their operations caught no spies but offered some comfort that subversion was never rampant along the coast.

For fifty years from 1916 to 1966, the district intelligence officers were ONI’s contribution to local counterintelligence, security, and information-gathering in US coastal areas. The official responsibilities of the district intelligence officer were numerous. According to Wyman Packard’s A Century of U.S. Naval Intelligence they included:

maintenance of press relations for district headquarters; liaison with the investigating units of federal, state, and city agencies within the naval district; liaison with public and private research agencies and with business interests having information in intelligence fields; liaison with ONI and the intelligence services of the other naval districts, and with forces afloat within the district; counterespionage, security, and investigations; collection, evaluation, and recording of information regarding persons or organizations of value (or opposed) to the Navy; preparation and maintenance of intelligence plans for war; and administrative supervision over the recruiting, training, and activities of the appropriate personnel of the Naval Reserve within the district.

The position was only eliminated in 1966, when its investigative and counterintelligence duties passed to the Naval Investigative Service, its intelligence-collection duties to local Naval Field Operational Support Groups, and its other sundry tasks to the district staff intelligence officer.

Admiral Ingersoll, Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet, and Rear Admiral James at Charleston, South Carolina during an inspection of the Sixth Naval District, 23 November 1943. Courtesy of Mrs. Arthur C. Nagle. Collection of the Naval History and Heritage Command, NH 90955.

In October 1942, the creation of SMI sections added recruiting fishermen as counterintelligence agents to the long list of task mentioned above. By January 1943, the SMI sections had recruited 586 agents, 200 of them in the Sixth Naval District (headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina). Ship owners were paid $50 to cover installation of a radiotelephone, which were provided to about 50 craft. Otherwise masters were to report by carrier pigeon (the Navy operated lofts in Mayport, Florida and St Simon’s Island, Georgia) or by collect call once ashore. Some masters also received nautical charts that were overprinted with a confidential Navy grid for reporting purposes.

Shrimp fleet in harbor, St. Augustine, St. Johns County, Florida, 1936 or 1937. Photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/csas200800452/. (Accessed April 20, 2017.)

The absence of winter shrimp fishing, a tendency to cluster in good fishing spots, and the total absence of enemy covert activity all combined to limit the program’s impact. Further south in the Seventh District (headquartered in Jacksonville and Miami, Florida), most fishing was done so close to shore that the district did not bother to implement the program. In a few cases fishing boats were attacked by U-boat and two confidential observers were reportedly killed in submarine attacks. Though the program operated until V-J Day, few reports of interest were ever received. Similar operations took place elsewhere in the US as well, with scattered references in Packard’s Century of U.S. Naval Intelligence to fishing vessels as observers in other naval districts too.

Shrimp boats were the basis for both overt and covert surveillance. Navy patrol craft like the YP-487 were known as “Shrimpers” because of their origins as commercial fishing boats. Collection of the Navy History and Heritage Command, NH 106994.

How successful you consider the program will depend on how plausible you consider the Navy’s fear of subversion and agent landings. However, the idea of using commercial seafarers as observers and informants clearly proved itself enough to resurface from time to time after the war. In 1947, the Chief of Naval Operations issued a letter authorizing the placing of informants on US merchant ships to detect any crew members involved in subversive activities (this was known as the Special Observer–Merchant Marine Plan). In 1955, merchant ships and fishing vessels were included in plans to collect “merchant intelligence” (MERINT) on sightings of ships, submarines, and aircraft (both efforts referenced in Packard). Did the use of fishermen for counterintelligence continue into the 1960s or beyond? If so, there might have been agents on the boats involved in joint US–Soviet fishing enterprises of the 1980s, carefully watching the Soviets carefully watch the Americans.

Subversive Pigeons

The introduction to Jacob Shell’s Transportation and Revolt (my semi-review here) begin with a précis of pigeon paranoia: the shooting of pigeons in occupied Belgium during the First World War, the systematic slaughter of British pigeons at the start of the Second, pigeon registration in the postwar USSR, a ban on carrier pigeon by the Taliban, the temporary prohibition on pigeon racing during the 2012 Communist Party congress in Beijing. Renowned as a tool of smugglers, criminals, and secret agents – in the imagination even more than in reality – the pigeon is the spur to the question that Shell’s book attempts to answer: “What sorts of carrying technologies have political regimes associated with the movement of weapons papers, or people for political subversion and revolt?”

Pigeon paranoia goes well beyond the examples that Shell notes, wide and fascinating as they are. My favorite anti-pigeon countermeasures remain the Second World War efforts to weaponize birds of prey in both Britain and the United States to hunt “enemy” pigeons. Attempts during the same war by the British to distract German pigeons with British ones (and therefore lead them to British lofts) or to poison the enemy’s pigeon supply with friendly birds (who would fly back to Britain rather than to their expected destinations) can only come a close second.

Pigeons have several advantages as a form of clandestine communications. They are easily concealed, have no electronic signature, and can even be hidden in plain sight where civilians keep pigeons themselves. In fact, the homing pigeon is, to some extent, the living equivalent of espionage’s dead drop. In a dead drop, neither user necessarily knows the identity of the other. The separation between them prevents the capture of one user necessarily revealing the identity of the other. The same is true with a homing pigeon, which is trained to fly regardless of circumstances back to its home loft. Depending on how the pigeon was delivered to its sender, the recipient knows nothing about him or her apart from what they themselves disclose. Likewise, the pigeon’s sender has no way of being sure where the bird is heading.

Perhaps the best example is British intelligence program known as COLUMBA. Starting in 1941, a sub-section of army intelligence (known as MI 14(d)) parachuted homing pigeons with which sympathetic French, Belgian, or Dutch individuals could report back to Britain on the German defenses in their area. As the Telegraph describes it, “Each pigeon came with a miniature spying kit: a bakelite tube to put a message in; sheets of ultra-thin paper and a special pencil; detailed instructions in French, Flemish or Dutch on how to fill in a report.” The attached questionnaire asked about preparations for the invasion of English, troops in the area, military movements, enemy morale, German lodgings, and restrictions on the movements of civilians, among other topics. (Jennifer Spangler has posted many documents related to COLUMBA at her blog, World War 2 History and the WW2 Pigeons. Scroll down in this entry to see the questionnaire.)

COLUMBA relied on the faith of the European resistance that its pigeons were heading for England and the faith of British intelligence that the reports received were genuine. There was, after all, no way to be sure it hadn’t been a German soldier who attached the message to a pigeon’s leg.

In December 1943, MI 14(d) summarized its impact in five points:

1.One out of every nine birds returns.
2. Supplies are ample.
3. Enemy fully pigeon minded.
4. Service worth while.
5. Liaison between 21 Army Group, “I” and R.A.F. to be established for coming operations.

By the middle of 1944, the British had sent more than 13,000 pigeons to the continent. 1,373 returned to Britain, 808 of those with messages. That was only 6% of messages sent out but apparently the resulting information was impressive. The staff of COLUMBA cheerfully reported all evidence of Germans reacting to the Allied operation. Reactions included a 2,000 franc reward for turning out a pigeon with equipment and message and occasional reports that the Germans were dropping their own decoy pigeons to sew confusion among potential correspondents. They also concluded that there had been little or no contamination of the intelligence with deliberate German misinformation.

I don’t know exactly what happened to COLUMBA after the invasion of Normandy, but a summary report a month after D-Day said they were ramping up to deliver 2,000 pigeons a month and that mobile lofts were ready to join the 21st Army Group in France.

Several European countries, including Britain, maintained military or intelligence service pigeon operations after the Second World War. The Swiss had 7,000 military-owned birds in 1995 and the French were still maintaining a cadre of 150 in 2012. The fact the Cold War stayed cold meant none of them saw action, but one homing pigeon did find itself unexpectedly drafted into the propaganda war being fought across the Iron Curtain.

I turned out that it was possible – albeit difficult – to “hijack” a homing pigeon en route and use it to deliver an entirely unexpected message. In 1954, a homing pigeon involved in a race from Nuremberg to Munich got lost and crossed the Iron Curtain, landing in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. Found by someone who recognized its West German banding, they attached a message for the US-operated Radio Free Europe:

We plead with you not to slow down in the fight against Communist aggression, because Communism must be destroyed. We beg for a speedy liberation from the power of the Kremlin and the establishment of a United States of Europe.
We always listen to your broadcasts. They present a completely true picture of life behind the Iron Curtain. We would like you to tell us how we can combat Bolshevism and the tyrannical dictatorship existing here.
We are taking every opportunity to work against the regime and do everything in our power to sabotage it.
– Unbowed Pilsen

The message and pigeon, delivered to RFE by its owner, were an instant propaganda coup. “Leaping Lena” became the symbol of RFE’s 1955 fundraising drive, then retired to US Army Signal Corps pigeon breeding center at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. (The story appears on the RFE website, but that seems just to repeat what’s in newspaper articles from the time.)

Elizebeth Friedman, Cryptographer: Part Two

The first twenty years of Elizebeth Friedman’s career as a cryptographer took her to a private research lab, the US Army and Navy, and the Department of the Treasury’s many law enforcement agencies. The start of the Second World War in Europe brought new challenges, starting with the preservation of American neutrality.

With the Coast Guard
The Coast Guard Cryptanalytic Unit began monitoring messages connected to foreign exchange for the Money Stabilization Board in 1938, watching for signs of imminent hostilities so the Board could freeze the funds of the belligerents. Starting in 1939 they also began picking up coded transmissions connected with the two sides. A presidential memorandum gave responsibility for espionage, counterespionage, and sabotage cases to the FBI, but when the Coast Guard turned their intercepts over to the FBI the FBI asked the Coast Guard cryptanalytic unit to solve the codes. The FBI was a relative latecomer to the code-breaking business, having only hired its full full-time cryptanalyst in October 1939. It leaned on the Coast Guard for cryptographic support. The first chief of its cryptanalytic section, W.G.B. Blackburn, was trained by Elizebeth Friedman.

Once the United States entered the war, cryptanalysis began to look like something of a free for all. In addition to the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and FBI operations, the Office of Censorship, Federal Communications Commission, Weather Bureau, and Office of the Coordinator of Information (the future Office of Strategic Services) all announced that were setting up their own cryptanalysis programs. Thankfully, within about seven months all involved had agreed to centralize code-breaking activities in the Army, Navy (including the Coast Guard), and FBI. The division of labor split clandestine radio messages in the Western Hemisphere between the Navy and FBI and gave the former responsibility for intercepting clandestine communications in the rest of the world. The Coast Guard cryptanalytic unit, now a sub-section of the Navy’s code-breaking division (OP-20-G) continued to focus on these secret messages. It also grew, first to twelve and then to twenty-three people. Elizebeth Friedman was not the commander of the Coast Guard cryptanalytic unit. That role belonged to a commissioned officer, L.T. Jones. After the war she described herself, with perhaps an excess of modesty, as “just one of the workers.”

The ciphers that reached the Coast Guard for decryption came from both individual agents working in secret and substantial radio stations operating out of German embassies. Messages were enciphered using a range of classic ciphers that either replaced (in a substitution cipher) or shifted around (in a transposition cipher) the letters in the message. Most agents were using hand ciphers, in which the message is enciphered using pen and paper rather than a mechanical device. A few used a mechanical device, the Kryha machine, which created a shifting substitution cipher. Agents in Argentina used the same Enigma machine that the German army and navy used to protect their messages (and whose decryption was most recently depicted, with substantial inaccuracies, in The Imitation Game). The Coast Guard was able to use intercepted messages to reverse engineer the wiring that scrambled each letter in the simpler, commercial Enigma machine – those messages turned out to be from the Swiss army. According to NSA historian David P. Mowry this was “the first instance of Enigma wiring recovery in the United States.” Then, with the assistance of British techniques, the Coast Guard team was also able to decrypt messages sent on the Enigma between Argentina and Berlin.

The traffic that the Coast Guard’s code-breaking operation intercepted was never critical to the war effort. Interviewed after the war, Friedman herself suggested that the unit could probably have been better used on other material, rather than working the problem “to the point of overkill” (in her interviewer’s words). Mowry, who wrote a Top Secret history of the topic for the NSA, judged that the US effort to decrypt German clandestine transmissions from the Western Hemisphere had little or no impact on the conduct of the war. Still, American cryptanalysis ensured that nothing snuck up on US operations. Nor was the Coast Guard work Elizebeth Friedman’s only contribution to the war effort. When the Office of the Coordinator of Information was created, she also developed its first code systems.

A Long and Varied Career
Cryptography has such a long history that it’s sometimes hard to remember that large government code-breaking organizations are such a new development. Elizebeth Friedman entered the field at the moment those organizations were being created. Without schools or training programs, cryptographers were few and far between. While her husband spent his career with the Army and the National Security Agency, creating the institutions that would perpetuate the government’s cryptanalytic programs, Elizebeth worked far and wide. Between when she left Riverside Laboratories and when she retired from government service, she worked for or taught at seven of the sixteen members of the current US Intelligence Community (Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Central Intelligence Agency, Department of the Treasury, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and National Security Agency). Her career was not only remarkable for its scope but also probably unrepeatable. By the time she retired, these agencies were on their way towards the extensive permanent organizations that exist today. Retirement was also not the end of Elizebeth’s involvement in cryptography. She consulted for the International Monetary Fund on creating that agency’s secure communications and published a book, The Shakespearian Ciphers Examined (with William Friedman), on their work studying Shakespeare’s works for hidden codes.

Source Notes: The NSA’s history office commissioned several relevant histories as part of its Second World War series. One by Robert Louis Benson, The History of U.S. Communication Intelligence during World War II: Policy and Administration, covers the various organizations; two others, both by David P. Mowry, cover German Clandestine Activities in South American in World War II and The Cryptology of the German Intelligence Services (available amalgamated here). Some of Friedman’s own comments in an oral history interview with Benson (online here) were also useful.

The Enemy is Listening

Aileen Clayton’s The Enemy is Listening (1980) is part personal memoir and part history of the RAF Y Service in Great Britain and the Mediterranean. The Y Service was the RAF’s contribution to the interception of enemy radio signals, and Clayton was one of the first operators for the service’s program intercepting voice transmissions (in British parlance, voice transmissions were Radio Telephony, or R/T; Morse code transmissions were Wireless Telegraphy, or W/T). R/T intercepts were valuable during the Battle of Britain because they offered immediate information on German operations as or before they happened. But, as The Enemy is Listening describes, R/T interception overlapped with many other aspects of the intelligence war: Bletchley Park and the breaking of Enigma, radar and non-communication signals like guidance beams and navigational beacons, and communications security. Clayton makes it clear that Allied signals security was often lousy, and that her German counterparts must have been gathering an awful lot of information on Allied air activity.

The cover of my Ballantine edition tags Clayton as “the first woman in British history to be commissioned as an intelligence officer.” R/T interception in Great Britain was, from almost the first moment, almost exclusively staffed by the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Clayton lavishes her WAAFs with praise from the very first, but she has very little good to say about the administrative staff of the service. Sent out from Great Britain to Egypt at the end of 1941 to help set up a R/T intercept network in the Middle East, she clashed time and time again with the service’s restrictions on how close to the front and how independently a WAAF could operate in the field.

Sadly, the book cuts off with the end of the Anzio landings and Clayton’s transfer back to Great Britain in 1944. Still it makes for an interesting read, and one that puts a remarkable amount of interesting context into a personal wartime story.

CIA Closes Climate Change Research Project

Apropos yesterday’s post about the longstanding relationship between DoD and the civilian scientists at NASA, Mother Jones is reporting that the CIA is closing down the Medea program, which gave civilian scientists classified environmental data to analyze, and sometimes even publish (h/t io9). The basic exchange is pretty simple: civilian scientists get access to better data than they would otherwise have, and the CIA gets analytical capacity that would cost far more to acquire directly. According to Mother Jones, Medea dates back to 1992 (with a hiatus during the George W. Bush administration).

The general principal of drawing on data collected by the intelligence community for broader scientific purposes is not a new one. As I mentioned yesterday, James E. David catalogs a number of such projects in Spies and Shuttles, including Project ARGO in the 1960s. The Environmental Science Services Administration, White House Office of Emergency Planning, Agency for International Development, Departments of Transportation and Agriculture, and especially the US Geological Survey were all early users of spy satellite-collected data. A 1990s Government Applications Task Force similarly brought in classified satellite data to use for wetlands mapping, crop yield
estimation, and bilge oil monitoring, among other projects.* The USGS even built an entire facility outside Washington (Building E-1 in Reston, Virginia) so that it could handle classified imagery of the US from CORONA, the first generation of spy satellites.

What makes Medea different from many of these applications, at least at first glance, is that the CIA was releasing data in order to generate knowledge it wanted. Unlike in Project ARGO or the USGS use of satellite imagery for mapping, where the intelligence community let classified information be used on issues in which it was essentially uninterested, the CIA does want information on the process and short- and long-term impact of climate change.

With that in mind, that Mother Jones and io9 have pitched this story as a sign the CIA is stopping or slowing its climate change research is probably incorrect. Unless the agency has suddenly decided that climate change’s impact is overblown (and nothing in the last decade suggests that’s likely), it seems more plausible – and probably more disturbing – that the issue is now being treated seriously enough that the CIA wants the outcome of its analysis with the high quality classified data to remain classified. That suggests a perception that understanding of climate change and its impact might have some geostrategic value (or at least the chance thereof; the bar for keeping things classified in the US can be pretty low). It also, unfortunately, means that whatever discoveries CIA-funded research makes from now on will be harder and harder to share with the rest of the scientific community, let alone the rest of the world.

*Jeffrey T. Richelson’s article “The Office That Never Was: The Failed Creation of the National Applications Office,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 24:1 (2011), covers both eras.

Evaluating Open Skies

Open SkiesI recently read Peter Jones’ Open Skies: Transparency, Confidence-Building, and the End of the Cold War. Jones, who was part of the Canadian Department of External Affairs’ Verification Research Unit while the Open Skies treaty was being negotiated, offers an insider’s view of the process. The book’s subtitle, with its reference to “the End of the Cold War,” doesn’t capture just how quickly events overtook the planned treaty. What had begun as a US presidential initiative to test Soviet openness in 1989 was, by the time the treaty was signed in 1992, a multilateral European confidence-building measure. What had started as an alliance-to-alliance process (NATO to Warsaw Pact), had become a tool for defusing international tensions in East and Central Europe.

The basic principles behind Open Skies are the kind of thing that makes security-conscious intelligence officers blanch. Any signatory can, on about three days notice, fly a sensor-equipped airplane (carrying cameras with a resolution of no greater than 30 cm and synthetic aperture radar with a resolution of no greater than 3 m) anywhere over the territory of another signatory. Any signatory can then acquire the images from that flight, regardless of whether or not they were involved. The intrusiveness is the whole point behind the treaty as a “confidence-building measure,” since it signals that signatories have nothing to hide.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, intelligence communities on both sides of the Iron Curtain were lukewarm on the whole concept, since it was unclear how much it added to satellite reconnaissance in exchange for adding all sorts of security complications. So Jones’ narrative offers some very interesting explanations about why Open Skies was able to overcome that resistance.

Firstly, the signing of the Treaty of Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), meant that the Soviet Union (and, later, Russia), moved many of its forces east of the Urals. Since NATO powers other than the US had limited satellite assets, monitoring those troops required some sort of agreement. Open Skies fit the bill.

Secondly, the former Warsaw Pact powers had little or no interest in supporting Soviet or Russian security. Lacking much in the way of surveillance assets themselves, they too were interested in taking advantage of the possibility of cheap aerial observation. With border tensions coming out of the Cold War deep-freeze, confidence-building between former Pact members would also be valuable.

Lastly, though the Russians might have been assumed to be as wary as the US, or warier, they realized that the Soviet satellite reconnaissance system was unsustainable, and that they too would find a use for lower-cost surveillance opportunities.

US Air Force 030328-F-JZ000-061This last reason turns out, it seems, to be one of the most persistent facts about the Open Skies treaty. While the US continues to fly the same 1960s era airframe it put into service in the mid-1990s (the Boeing OC-135B Open Skies), as do most other signatories (many of the NATO powers share a pod that can be mounted on any countries C-130; most of the former Warsaw Pact countries fly Antonov An-30 survey aircraft), the Russian Federation invested in a pair of new Tu-214ON aircraft that first flew in 2011 and will probably be certified for Open Skies in 2016.

The current Russian–Ukrainian crisis, which intensified after Jones’ book went to press, probably constitutes the biggest challenge for Open Skies to date. For the first time, Open Skies signatories are on the brink of war with each other (or effectively at war, depending on one’s point of view). A cautiously optimistic article in the newsletter Trust & Verify summarizes how Open Skies monitoring continued to function through July 2014. The US was still overflying Russia in November (according to Stripes). The US Mission to the OSCE has a twitter feed (@marvindiana), which mentions the latest missions. It reports that Russia has rejected two Ukrainian Open Skies missions last month, but a US flight is supposed to be flying over eastern Russia tomorrow after engine trouble today (the OC-135B’s engines first flew in 1959 – these are an old design). We’ll have to keep watching #openskiestreaty to see how things go from here.

Getting to Know the President

In honor of last week’s US presidential inauguration. I finally got around to finishing Getting to Know the President: Intelligence Briefings of Presidential Candidates, 1952–2004, from the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence.

The book, written by one of the CIA staffers who briefed then-Governor Clinton in 1992, is an account of how presidential candidates and presidents-elect since World War Two have received pre-election briefings from the CIA, and how that experience has affected their campaigns and their time in the White House. The author, John Helgerson, studiously avoids any scandalous tittle-tattle, but still manages to produce a characterful portrait about how American politicians—whether national security naifs or consummate insiders—responded to that access to classified information.

Despite the disclaimers, this is an official history, which means there’s some shying away from controversy. The euphemisms fly thick and fast in the section on the George W. Bush presidency, densely enough to make the author’s opinion on the use of intelligence in that administration unclear (which, I suppose, is the point). Still, the official angle means that Helgerson had unparalleled access. What political science professor from Cincinnati (Helgerson’s job before he joined the CIA) would get to interview four former presidents and scores of senior CIA staff, and to go through reams of still-classified paperwork?

Like an increasing number of US federal agencies, the Center for the Study of Intelligence makes its publications available online in PDF. So rather than pay $65 (international price) to buy it from the GPO, you can download and read it for free.