Five Military Intelligence Successes that Changed the Course of War (Revisited)

I wrote an earlier version of this article for Yahoo! News several years ago. At the time, the media were reporting on some purported American intelligence failures in the Middle East. The appropriateness (and the conclusions being drawn) aside, I was motivated to  highlight some of the significant (acknowledged) successes that American and Allied intelligence agencies had accomplished over the past 75 years or so.

Today, with the Intelligence Community facing political assaults here at home, I thought it’d be a good time to dust off the article and share it again. The American Intelligence Community has a proud history, and while thorough scrutiny of that community is essential in a democracy, those who would undercut the professionals dedicated to the defense of the nation for political gain need to be rebuked at the ballot box.

But I digress.

When the public hears about the CIA, NSA or military intelligence, it’s often not a good thing. Often, we find ourselves uncomfortable with the very idea of secret intelligence, as it seems at odds with the ideals of an open democratic republic. So when questions about data collection against US citizens arise, a shadow is cast over the intelligence community as a whole. In addition, as I alluded to above, significant intelligence failures (e.g., the September 11 attacks), can shake public confidence in our intelligence apparatus. And frankly, questions about the scope of intelligence collection, and whether the IC is fully capable of meeting today’s evolving threats are right and proper. However, we should never lose sight of the fact that the IC has a record of achievement second to none, and that’s just with what is known and acknowledged. Successful intelligence collection and analysis has been instrumental in turning the tide of war, and in some cases has aided in the shifting of the global balance of power.

I’ve collected here five success stories from modern history, each of which demonstrates the critical role that intelligence played in preserving national security. This list is, of course, subjective, and in no particular order. In every conflict, intelligence plays a vital role in victory. I chose these particular examples because of the relatively clear strategic impact these definable intelligence victories had. Also note that this is not a “top 5 of all time” kind of thing. I’ll work on that project sometime later.

Cracking Enigma (World War II): The German military‘s machine-based cryptographic system called Enigma had a ciphering capability that was theoretically unbreakable. And for the early part of the war, it was. Cracking Enigma took a combination of old fashioned spy work, signals collection (meaning the interception of radio transmissions), and cryptography.  Polish breakthroughs combined with a German traitor provided by the French resulted in the first successes against Enigma.  The British and Americans were able to expand this success into breaking the even more resilient Enigma machines used by the German Navy.

Enigma
German Enigma machine (Museum of the US Air Force, Dayton, Ohio)

Result: Deep penetration of Hitler’s military movements.  Cracking Engima helped save the vital support that the US was sending by ship to Britain by helping to counter the brutal German U-boat attacks.  According to Ms. Wilcox, many historians believe that the success against Enigma shortened World War II by as much as two years.

Further Reading:    There are many good books and articles detailing the story. For a concise telling, Jennifer Wilcox’s Solving the Enigma: History of the Cryptanalytic Bombe is a great read. The Enigma of Alan Turing, CIA, posted 10 Apr 2015. Also, Polish codebreakers ‘cracked Enigma before Alan Turing’, bySarah Knapton, the Telegraph, 17 February 2016.

The Battle of Midway (World War II): The U.S. Navy pretty much had one last chance to contain the burgeoning Imperial Navy, and that was at Midway. What transpired from roughly early March – June 4 1942 was a game of cryptographic cat and mouse. But through a mix of diligent signals collection and cryptographic analysis, the US Navy was able to forecast not only the timing of the impending attack on Midway, but also the direction it would come from.  In his book Intelligence in War, John Keegan cites a source that describes this as “the most stunning intelligence coup in all naval history.”

Result: Despite the shortcomings of intelligence collection, the U.S. Navy was able to crack Japanese encryption, enabling them to concentrate on defending Midway, giving American forces this most critical of victories in the Pacific Theater.

Further reading: Intelligence in War, by John Keegan.

The Cuban Missile Crisis (Cold War): Leading up to the discovery of the construction of Russian Medium Range Ballistic Missile installations in Cuba, U.S. intelligence had observed a rash of surface to air missile sites popping up at various locations across the island. While this Russian military build-up had been detected using various maritime and other intelligence methods, the smoking gun that brought the world closer to nuclear war than it has even been was uncovered by American U2 imagery intelligence collection in mid-October 1962. Armed with this intel, President John F. Kennedy and his Administration took the evidence public a week later, beginning the tense confrontation that many feared would end in war.

800px-Cuba_Missiles_Crisis_U-2_photo
U2 Imagery of Soviet Missile Site (The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, via Wikimedia)

Result: Caught red handed, the Soviets backed down and withdrew the missiles. This prevented the USSR from having the ability to reach the U.S. with its intermediate range nuclear missiles.

Further reading: Trust But Verify: Imagery Analysis in the Cold War, by David T. Lindgren.

Operation Desert Storm: From January 15 to February 24, 1991, Coalition aircraft hammered Iraqi Military and Command and Control targets. On some days, there were as many as 2,500 sorties. These attacks were not random, and except for military equipment found out in the open, were not typically targets of opportunity.  The attacks were designed to “cut off the head of the snake.” Logistics lines and Republican Guard command centers were destroyed or evacuated for fear of bombing.

Result:  When ground operations initiated on 24 February, it took only 100 hours to completely liberate Kuwait. But an even more far reaching impact wouldn’t become clear until December of that year.  Some historians believe that the complete routing of the Iraqi military, which was trained and equipped by the Soviet Union, was the final nail in the USSR’s coffin.  Iraq’s overwhelming loss completely discredited Soviet air and ground defense doctrines and weapons systems.

Further reading: Heart of the Storm: The Genesis of the Air Campaign against Iraq, by Col. Richard T. Reynolds, USAF. Also, Desert Storm: The Military Intelligence Story, by Brigadier General John F. Stewart, US Army.

Eliminating Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (Operation IRAQI FREEDOM): As the war in Iraq started shifting into sectarian chaos, the mysterious al-Zarqawi led the way. The leader of what would eventually be called Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQIZ), this brutal terror leader declared war on Western forces and Shi’a Iraqis in a bid to incite country-wide civil war. He also became one of the most wanted men in the country.  He eluded Coalition forces for some time, but eventually, through the work of the intelligence community and a special US military task force, this key leader of the Iraqi insurgency was eliminated on June 7, 2006 by a targeted air strike.

Result: While of course, Iraq continues to face instability and had to deal with ISIS in recent years, the death of al-Zarqawi delivered a body blow to the Iraqi insurgency, threw AQIZ off balance, and likely magnified the effects of the soon to come military surge.  It proved that the nascent Iraqi Government, the US-led Coalition, and reginal allies (Jordanian intelligence reportedly helped locate Zarqawi) were determined to oppose the ethnic warfare being waged by AQIZ.

Further reading: How Surveillance and Betrayal Led to a Hunt’s End, By Dexter Filkins, Mark Mazzetti and Richard A. Oppel Jr. New York Times, June 9, 2006. Also, JSOC and the Hunt for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: The End Game, by Dwight Jon Zimmerman, DefenseMediaNetwork, May 26, 2013.

Of course, there’s so much more that we outside of this world don’t get to see.  But I think it does us good to see from time to time what kind of return out tax dollars are getting from our significant investment in national intelligence.

 

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The Museum of the United States Air Force, Memphis Belle, and the Evolution of Air Intelligence

Recently I’ve started doing something that I’ve wanted to do for years: I’ve become a volunteer at the Museum of the United States Air Force, located in Dayton, Ohio.* Once or twice per month, I get to spend several hours within this fine institution, walking among the legacies of the men and women who created modern air power. It’s an incredible experience, and if you haven’t visited, you need to make time to do so. The museum is truly a national treasure, comparable to the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.

My time spent within the museum has spurred a number of article ideas and projects that I intend to pursue. But before I get into one of them, I’m going to highlight an exciting upcoming event: on 17 May 2018, the museum will unveil the Memphis Belle to the public, the storied B-17 Flying Fortress that became the first U.S. heavy bomber to complete 25 bombing runs over Europe.  The date selected for this is quite purposeful: it will mark the 75th anniversary of the final mission flown by the crew, on 17 May 1943. After months of careful restoration, the Memphis Belle will be presented amid a celebration from the 17th to the 19th.  Check out the official web page, and the flyer below:

http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Upcoming/Boeing-B-17F-Memphis-Belle-Exhibit-Opening-May-17-2018/

Memphis Belle Flyer

Apart from this, I’ve started to outline a blog series on airborne (and eventually space-borne) intelligence capabilities. The series is directly inspired by my time in the museum. The collections on display are divided into four massive hangars: Early Years/World War I, Southeast Asia/Korea, Cold War, and the newest, Space/Experimental/Presidential aircraft.  With so much history within its walls, there are countless stories and themes one can explore. My interest in military intelligence has led me to start examining the displays that speak to the evolution of air intelligence capabilities. While there are many intelligence-specific exhibits, I hope to present a cohesive narrative of the milestones that have led to the breathtaking capabilities the US Air Force possesses today, starting with the humble balloon.

 

Aeronauts.jpg
US Army aeronaut mockup at Museum of the US Air Force.

More to come.

WEL

*This is a good time to emphasize that, although I am fortunate to volunteer at the Museum of the USAF, I do not represent them. Everything posted to this blog is my opinion and analysis, and in no way represents the Museum.

“Shall I arrest Colonel Taylor?” Confusion in Alexandria, May 1861

In the first days of May, 1861, with the echoes of Fort Sumter scarcely faded, Confederate forces stationed at Alexandria, Virgina, directly across the river from the Union capital, waited nervously for the next move. Flush with zealous patriotism, the new nation’s leadership in Richmond was adamant that not an inch of sacred Southern soil be yielded without a heavy price in blood. It was easier said than done.

Alexandria from Pioneer Mill, looking north-west (1865)
Alexandria from Pioneer Mill, looking north-west (1865)

Leading the Confederate soldiers in Alexandria was Lieutenant Colonel A.S. Taylor. With orders to stand ground “unless pressed by overwhelming and irresistible numbers”, he conducted a sober accounting of his fighting strength as compared to the swelling army across the Potomac. Two companies of “raw Irish recruits” armed with “altered flint-lock muskets of 1818, and without cartridges or caps…”; a company with 86 musket-armed troops; an additional 52 men in various states of armament (including 15 with no weapons at all); two companies of about 160 men armed with minie rifles, but only from five to nine cartridges each; and two companies of cavalry, one with 40 troops armed with carbines but “limited” ammunition, and one with no weapons except Colt revolvers. So with less than 400 soldiers, Taylor was tasked with holding or delaying the inevitable Federal invasion.

Probably about the same time as he received his orders, which had been delivered on 5 May, Taylor received intelligence from one Mister J.D. Hutton, who until recently worked as a cartographer for the War Department. From Mr. Hutton, Taylor was dismayed (but certainly not surprised) to learn that the Yankees intended to occupy Alexandria within days, either the 7th or the 8th of May (in fact, it would be a few more weeks before Union troops organized enough to even venture across the river). With forces arriving almost daily around Washington, and two steamers only a few miles downriver seemingly ready to move troops, the colonel decided the threshold for “overwhelming and irresistible numbers” had been met. He quickly gathered up his small command, and retreated to Springfield, 10 miles west of Alexandria.

The commanding general of the Potomac Department, General Philip St. George Cocke, was furious that Taylor had not

Philip St. George Cocke (1809–1861). After perceived slights from General P.G.T. Beauregard and General Lee following the Battle at Bull Run, General Cocke took his own life in December, 1861.
Philip St. George Cocke (1809–1861). After perceived slights from General P.G.T. Beauregard and General Lee following the Battle at Bull Run, General Cocke took his own life in December, 1861.

only retreated, but was in such a hurry that he didn’t bother to communicate his intentions. It’s this break down in command and control, as well as in the convoluted handling of intelligence, that is highlighted here. Taylor received credible intelligence from a trustworthy source, but his first instinct was not to disseminate this up the chain of command in order to coordinate a response or seek reinforcements. Cocke’s order to remain in place was clear that this should be done: “keep up your communications with the various parts in your rear, so as to call every resource to your aid and support in making a gallant and fighting retreat, should you be forced to it, and can stand at all without danger of uselessly sacrificing your command.” It wasn’t until 7 May that Cocke located Taylor, and up to this point he was still completely ignorant of why Alexandria had been abandoned. Late on the 6th, in a dispatch to Richmond, Cocke wrote that he had not “been able, from any other source, except that furnished me by the arrival of Mr. Skinner, direct from Alexandria…to learn the cause of that movement; and, so far as I am informed up to this moment, there was no proper or justifiable cause whatsoever for any such movement. After waiting for further intelligence and receiving none, and duly considering and weighing all the circumstances and bearing of that movement with the information before me, I have ordered the return of the troops, as communicated by telegram, a duplicate of which has just been transmitted to the general-in-chief.” Cocke even requested permission to arrest Taylor, but was talked out of it by Robert E. Lee, who instead asked for a reason the forces evacuated.

By the 9th, Taylor had explained his reasons, and this seemed to placate Cocke. On 13 May he forwarded Taylor’s written statement to Richmond. The request to arrest him was absent from this communication. But the lesson here is that, although strategic intelligence around the overall disposition and intent of the US military was becoming clear, operational intelligence operations were off to a rough start, at least in the northeast corner of Virginia. Unfortunately for the Union, more competent leadership would soon arrive, and intelligence preparations were to be put in place over the next three months that proved critical to the Confederate victory at Bull Run.

The Union’s Intelligence Chiefs: The Bureau of Military Information

Brandy Station, Va. Col. George H. Sharpe, John G. Babcock, unidentified, and Lt. Col. John McEntee, Secret Service officers at Army of the Potomac headquarters
Brandy Station, Va. Col. George H. Sharpe, John G. Babcock, unidentified, and Lt. Col. John McEntee, Secret Service officers at Army of the Potomac headquarters

The first such organization of its kind in a modern military, the Bureau of Military Information sought to provide the commander of the Army of the Potomac with all-source intelligence capabilities. Despite its rapid maturation and success, it was abandoned after the war. For a comprehensive history, read Edwin C. Fishell’s excellent The Secret War for the Union, The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War, from which much of this post is derived.

General Joseph Hooker
General Joseph Hooker

General Joseph Hooker:

Quickly after taking command of the Army of the Potomac in Jan, 1863, General Hooker ordered the establishment of an organization to “organize and perfect a system for collecting information as speedily as possible.” The order was directed to General Marsena R. Patrick, the Provost Marshall.

General Marsena R. Patrick
General Marsena R. Patrick

As part of his duties as Provost Marshall, General Patrick was responsible for the disposition and interrogation of prisoners and defectors. Originally concerned specifically with the security of Washington, Hooker’s mandate to create a “secret service” was the first step toward creating an institutionalized intelligence service for the military.

Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, Chief of Staff to General Hooker
Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, Chief of Staff to General Hooker

General Hooker’s Chief of Staff. Butterfield’s vision and administrative skills were critical to establishing an efficient intelligence reporting system.

Gen. George H. Sharpe, the first head of the Bureau of Military Information
Gen. George H. Sharpe, the first head of the Bureau of Military Information

The first chief of the new military information bureau, Sharpe would oversee the coordinated intelligence operations of espionage, prisoner interrogations, cavalry reconnaissance, the Union Signal Corps, newspaper intelligence gathering, and balloon and signal tower surveillance. (See Fishell, The Secret War for the Union, p297)

John G. Babcock (pictured at top, in group photo)

While a private in the Union army, Babcock’s gift for cartography caught the attention of General McClellan. After a stint working for the infamous Alan Pinkerton, General Burnside offered Babcock Pinkerton’s job once the McClellan spy chief left with his former boss. Babcock accepted, and was hired as a civilian. He stayed on once the Bureau of Military Information was established. (See Fishell, The Secret War for the Union, pp 154, 257-258).

The talents of these leaders were instrumental in the creation of an efficient intelligence organ for the Union.The quality of the Bureau’s reporting was quickly evident. In this dispatch, dated June 7, 1863, sent to General Butterfield, then-Col Sharpe outlines Confederate force disposition, assessed intent, and enemy troop strength.

“Letter of intelligence to Butterfield and Lincoln”, 7 June, 1863

The above image is only the first page (full letter and transcript can be found by clicking the image, stored by the Library of Congress), but within it Sharpe provides an updated threat assessment of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart’s forces since the battle at Chancellorsville (which ended 6 May, 1863). “I estimated them then at 4700 men in the aggregate, for duty. We now estimate the same at 7500 men for duty.” Equally as impressive is how Hooker sought to qualify other intelligence in the same letter, rather than present sketchy information as more credible than could be vouched for (as was often the practice by many a general before). “We have considerable reason to believe that two brigades of cavalry have recently arrived from the direction of North Carolina not heretofore connected with General Stuarts command. We can of course give no estimate of their force; but it would not be safe to put them down at less than 1500 men to a brigade.” The Bureau began to make rapid strides in making American intelligence operations more professional, more analytical, and more reliable.

WEL

Lieutenant Jones’ Intelligence Network and the Evacuation of Harper’s Ferry, 18 April 1861

The burning of the United States arsenal at Harper's Ferry, 10 P.M. April 18, 1861

“Up to the present time no assault or attempt to seize the Government property here has been made, but there is decided evidence that the subject is in contemplation, and has been all day, by a large number of people living in the direction of Charlestown; and at sun-down this evening several companies of troops had assembled at Halltown, about three or four miles from here on the road to Charlestown, with the intention of seizing the Government property, and the last report is that the attack will be made to-night. I telegraphed this evening to General Scott that I had received information confirming his dispatch of this morning, and later to the Adjutant-General that I expected an attack to-night. I have taken steps which ought to insure my receiving early intelligence of the advance of any forces, and my determination is to destroy what I cannot defend, and if the forces sent against me are clearly overwhelming, my present intention is to retreat into Pennsylvania.”

First Lieutenant Roger Jones, Mounted Rifles, U.S. Army, reporting on the situation at Harper’s Ferry, 18 April, 1861.

Days after the fall of Fort Sumter, the vulnerable military outpost at Harper’s Ferry was on high alert. Lieutenant Jones had been growing increasingly pensive as reports arrived of groups of Southern troops arriving in the vicinity intent on seizing government property. His concerns were quite legitimate. The Union army at this point was still woefully undermanned for any significant combat operations (perhaps explaining why a First Lieutenant was commanding the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry). Additionally, the historic arsenal was surrounded by high ground: the Maryland Heights to the east, and the Loudon Heights to the south. Harper’s Ferry was, in the words of historian James M. McPherson, a “trap waiting to be sprung by any force” that could place artillery at those locations.[i]

Harper's Ferry, photographed immediately after its evacuation by the rebels. 1861Both the Union and the Confederacy would find defending Harper’s Ferry difficult. This photo was taken after Confederate forces found the position untenable as well.

Of course, much has been written about these earliest days of the war. What I want to draw attention to here are these words of Lieutenant Jones above: “I have taken steps which ought to insure my receiving early intelligence of the advance of any forces…” This statement demonstrates the reality of military intelligence operations during the Civil War era. For most of the conflict, intelligence operations were the responsibility of the commanding officer. There was no institutional support for such activities, and the successful use of intelligence rested almost exclusively on the skill and disposition of the officers in charge. If the officer had little ability or faith in intelligence (as demonstrated by many military leaders of the time), then his operations usually would benefit his forces little, or actually impede battlefield success.

It would appear the Lieutenant Jones’ home-spun intelligence network was effective in this case. Shortly after the above dispatch was sent to Washington, Jones became convinced that he could not defend Harper’s Ferry. “Immediately after finishing my dispatch of the night of the 18th instant,” he informed Winfield Scott, ”I received positive and reliable information that 2,500 or 3,000 State troops would reach Harpers Ferry in two hours…” He set out immediately to destroy some 15,000 arms within the arsenal in an attempt to deny their use by the rebels, then evacuated his command to Carlyle Barracks, Pennsylvania. But the next four years of combat would reveal just how inconstant Union and Confederate leaders would be in the effective direction of intelligence operations.

WEL

[i] James M. McPherson, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 106-110.

Quotes of Lt Jones taken from the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. / Series 1 – Volume 2.

“12000 strong…they intend to seize the capitol” – the pitfalls of human intelligence, 11 April 1861

Unknown to Abraham Lincoln, Thursday, April 11, 1861 (Plan to seize Washington) (Library of Congress)
Unknown to Abraham Lincoln, Thursday, April 11, 1861 (Plan to seize Washington) (Library of Congress)

In early April, 1861, the possibility of civil war was growing by the day. Seven southern states had already seceded, and tensions in Baltimore and Virginia were poised to make things even worse (the attack on Fort Sumter would commence on 12 April). Intelligence gathering was a lost art, and insurrection outside the gates of Washington was of utmost concern to the new president. Scarcely a month following his inauguration in March, a poorly written intelligence warning was sent to President Lincoln:

“Baltimore April 11. 1861 “Dear Friend I take this metod of informing you that you better prepair yourself for an asailing mob that is organizing in Baltimore as far as i can inform myself is about 12000 m. strong they intend to seize the capitol and yourself and as they say that they will tar & put cotton on your head and ride you and Gen Scot on a rail this secret organation is about 70000 m members in Maryland and Virginia and thay can be all brought to gether in five days, the person that rits this was a member and is bound by a strong oath which if they now ho i was i wold not be suffer to live but justis to you and my country make me do this”

There’s no record (that I am aware of) that Lincoln reacted to (or even read) this letter. Clearly, no such force attempted to seize Washington, but such intelligence certainly contributed to the mounting wariness of a possible attack. A week later (19 April), US soldiers did clash with a mob in Baltimore, but this was hardly an organized attempt to overthrow the government. Rather, southern-sympathizers were outraged that Union troops were passing through their city, and tensions ultimately exploded into a riot. Also of note, on 1 July, the Union army, by order of Winfield Scott, arrested Baltimore’s chief of police and the city’s police commissioners in order to “carry consternation into the ranks of our numerous enemies about you [General Nathaniel Banks].” This dramatic move was based on the recent discovery of supposed secret armories, and the suspect allegiance of certain key members of Baltimore’s civilian leadership.

Ascertaining the credibility of intelligence is always a tricky endeavor. However, making matters worse for Lincoln (and the forming Confederacy, for that matter), was that there was no institutional intelligence capability to help provide such guidance. Intelligence capabilities (and the skills needed to use them) were as lacking as the general military readiness of the North and the South – and probably more so. The consequences of this were many. Among them was a hyper-sensitivity to possible threats to Washington, as Lincoln and Scott demanded significant forces be always held back to protect the city, which at times frustrated generals who felt they had better use of the army. But such weakness in the Union’s intelligence apparatus arguably contributed to the early defeat of Union forces at Bull Run, as military leaders  – scarcely more competent in intelligence operations – were largely left to their own devices and cunning to collect and assess intelligence.

WEL

Richmond Captured, April 3 1865 #OTD

There are a few #OTD posts about the fall of the Confederate capital.

"The Fall of Richmond, Virginia, on the Night of April 2nd 1865"
“The Fall of Richmond, Virginia, on the Night of April 2nd 1865”

In the History.com post linked above, one item of particular interest to me here lurks behind this sentence: “On the evening of April 2, the Confederate government fled the city with the army right behind.“ But they did more than flee. In a move that was all at once understandable and tragic (from a historian’s perspective), the records of the Confederate Secret Service were burned due to fear of possible reprisals against Southern-sympathizers (spies). So to this day, a hole exists in our knowledge of the extent and efficiency of Confederate intelligence capabilities. This knowledge-gap helped develop what historian Edwin Fishel called a “mythology“ of Civil War intelligence, where beautiful southern maidens and daring spies stayed one step ahead of Union generals. Even today, many elements of this mythology linger on, propagated as they have been over the decades by popular historians and even some academics.