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Covert Operations

Throughout history espionage has been, until the coming of the electronic intelligence age, a pursuit of personal opportunity. From Biblical times to the middle of the twentieth century the lone agent has been the most potent intelligence weapon. The most effective of these were spies who acted, for the most part, without the support of a network and were thus able to avoid being betrayed by confederates, as was the case with Julius Silber, the Abwehr mole who worked undetected in the British censorship office in London throughout World War I, or Fritz Kolbe, the German OSS spy who worked in the Nazi Foreign Office, supplying Allen Dulles with invaluable information throughout World War II.

This was not the case, however, with the Black Orchestra, the German underground working against the Nazis, or the Red Orchestra (Rote Kapelle), the widespread Soviet networks in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II. Even the best of these networks were destroyed from within, after one or more of their agents were captured then betrayed their fellow agents, a deadly domino game that led dozens, even hundreds, to their deaths.

The definition of covert operations differs among countries. But generaly such operations include any clandestine activity designed to influence foreign governments, events, organizations, or persons. Covert action may include political and economic actions, propaganda and paramilitary activities and is planned and executed so as to conceal the identity of the sponsor or else to permit the sponsor's plausible denial of the operation.

The image of the spy that the public holds dear is one invented by Ian Fleming, John Le Gaffe, and others, in which the valiant agent penetrates the enemy's security single-handedly, obtaining information that saves the world from destruction. The truth is that all intelligence agencies, from the CIA to MI6, and counterintelligence agencies, from the FBI to MI5, rely on enemy nationals who have turned against their own country, and provide inside information. They do this out of a kind of universal patriotism, or for money, sex, drugs, or thrills, while others because they have been blackmailed into being agents. Billions are spent each year on these agents or double agents and what they provide is, for the most part, of questionable practical value, although occasionally a stunning intelligence coup is achieved.

Spies are not to be confused with the common or uncommon criminal. In their own eyes they are not sinister nor intentional lawbreakers. Each acts according to what he or she considers to be a moral or sensible criteria. The most challenging of spies is the patriot. His dedication is complete, his loyalty unswerving and the threat of death cannot deter him from his goal. To the enemy he is the true fanatic, and, fortunately for the enemy, he is also too embued with his own sense of purpose to fully protect him or herself from detection. This was the character of the heroic but inept American patriot spy Nathan Hale whose execution by the British during the American Revolution so incensed George Washington that he later refused to pardon the British spy John Andre, whom he sent vindictively to the gallows.

The great Soviet spymaster Richard Sorge of World War II fame, was another of these, a Soviet patriot who, after his tight little ring of spies was unearthed in Japan, lamented in his cell how he had been "defeated for the first time in my life!" Sorge's vanity, a superior attitude endemic to the personality of any first-class agent, was his undoing. Coupled to arrogance, overconfidence—the intellectual disease that invariably infects most agents who operate successfully for lengthy periods of time—corroded Sorge's operations and his own ability to function properly. It was the same overconfidence that corrupted the ambitious intelligence operations of the Abwehr in England at the beginning of World War II, a feeling that their trained agents were so expert at their jobs that most went on functioning and sending important information back to Germany almost throughout the war. In reality, almost all of the German agents were captured by Special Branch and MI5 and many of them "turned" so that any information dispatched to their German controls was doctored and of little value. German pride convinced Admiral Canaris and other Abwehr chiefs that they had succeeded when, in reality, they had failed from the beginning.

The lust for wealth motivates most spies, from ancient times to the present. Few ever make the millions gleaned by CIA traitor Aldridge Ames, although many have lived in luxury, like the notorious and blatantly obvious Mata Hari who was probably used as a decoy spy by the Germans in World War I. Greed drove Yevno Azev, the unscrupulous Okhrana spymaster who directed countless assassinations of both revolutionary and Czarist figures and was utterly without loyalty to either side. The same held true for Elyeza Bazna, the notorious "Cicero," the glib, polished valet of the British Ambassador in Turkey who filched England's greatest secrets during World War II and was paid off by the Germans, in a final irony, with counterfeit money. Many agents dream of great fortunes but settle for ditchdigger wages, used cars, second-hand watches, trinkets, junk.

Sex is another strong motivation for some spies. Many politicians or diplomats are compromised by female ("swallows") or male ("ravens") prostitutes working with an intelligence organization (the KGB is extremely adept at such practices). After being secretly photographed, these hapless and unenthusiastic agents (the poorest kind of spies) provide intelligence to the enemy until their sources dry up and they are invariably exposed to their own side. Since the late 1920s British intelligence has been particularly plagued by a staggering number of traitors and double agents whose homosexuality seemed to serve as a collective impetus, coupled to radically leftist political convictions, in serving foreign powers, chiefly the Soviet Union.

British intelligence has long drawn its recruits from the elite of the intellectual community, especially in the 1930s from Trinity College at Cambridge, which was home to such homosexual Communists as Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, and Kim Philby. These and others came from prestigious, mostly wealthy families They condescendingly sided with downtrodden workers they saw only as symbols of capitalist oppression (never having personally experienced the economic suffering of these workers). They secretly condemned the upper-class society which spawned and supported their political whims They banded together in secret Communist cells and cemented those cells with their deeper secret. MI6 and MI5 were rent with these distracted dilettantes for forty years or more, all because the British concept of gentlemen spies demanded recruitment from "the elite" of British society. (FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover scorned British intelligence, stating with characteristic lack of irony that it had carelessly "nurtured a nest of perverts" and therefore deserved to be victimized.)

These recruits to espionage were posturing academics from the "Old Boys" club and, as such, it was unthinkable that their backgrounds and lifestyles be too closely scrutinzed. Such investigations were restricted to the lower classes whose desperate clawing for economic survival made them suspect in the eyes of elitist British spymasters. Close examination of gentlemen was intrusive and offensive. These gentlemen possessed what the lower classes could never understand — a word of honor which stood for everything. Of course, that word of honor among the British Communist/homosexual spy network stood for nothing as it was given to a capitalist, heterosexual society in which none of the traitors believed.

A pure love of adventure has made a few spies colossal in the eyes of their peers and a public that has come to know them only through legend. One such was the inventive, dashing Sidney Reilly, one of the greatest of England's heroic agents. He thrilled to what Kipling termed the "Great Game," and always sought to accomplish what others could not. He was clever, cunning and extremely talented.

Reilly never abandoned his childhood belief in accomplishing the impossible. He often did. A superb actor, he impersonated a dockworker to obtain information on the Russian fleet before its destruction by the Japanese Navy in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. He worked in a German munitions factory so he could steal secret rearmament plans before World War I. He impersonated a German general staff officer and attended a conference over which the Kaiser himself presided, or so Reilly claimed. And he almost engineered a counterrevolution in Russia that might have destroyed the Bolsheviks, not to mention his involvement in the attempted assassination of Lenin. Reilly's own end, his entrapment in an insidious Soviet plot, was brought about by the master spy's belief in his own infallibility.

Another British agent, F. F. E. Yeo-Thomas, proved himself as heroic as Reilly. As a member of SOE (Special Operations Executive) in World War II, Yeo-Thomas parachuted three times into Nazi- occupied France, only to be captured and tortured in unspeakable ways, which produced not a single word of information for his German tormentors. Yeo-Thomas, like his counterpart Jean Moulin in French intelligence, proved that willpower could sometimes overcome all odds. But the cost was high: permanent physical injury, which finally brought about Yeo-Thomas' death after the war, or death, the price the courageous Moulin paid silently.

Men held no exclusive right to such heroism. SOE spies Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo both served as agents in France and were captured by the Gestapo. Both were sent to German concentration camps and Szabo died there under torture. A generation before them, British nurse Edith Cavell faced a German firing squad for espionage and saving the lives of hundreds of Allied prisoners-of-war.

Although there were female spies on both sides of the American Revolution, women agents came into great prominence during the American Civil War. By far and away the most effective and deadly female spy of this era was Confederate agent Rose Greenhow, a stunning beauty who wrested top secrets from high-placed Union officials and officers and whose information regarding the battle orders of General Irwin McDowell certainly won for the Confederacy its first great battle, First Bull Run (or First Manassas). Audacious and steel-willed, Mrs. Greenhow could not be broken or forced to confess and, while imprisoned, she managed to keep on spying and obtaining secrets for the South.

Greenhow's daring was matched by the valiant Belle Boyd whose legendary espionage feats for the Confederacy were later enacted on the stage (and some of her exploits, such as shooting a Yankee deserter intruding into her home, were dramatized in the pages of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, for she was certainly the model for Scarlett O'Hara). The Union, too, had its espionage heroines—Pauline Cushman, the courageous actress known as the Spy of the Cumberland, and the indefatigable Elizabeth Van Lew, who lived inside the heart of Dixie, spied for the Union and aided hundreds of Yankee prisoners to escape to northern lines while convincing her Richmond neighbors that she was certifiably insane.

When these female spies were caught, they were usually treated with special consideration since the nineteenth century was still the age of chivalry, which demanded honorable conduct toward women. All that changed at the beginning of the twentieth century when espionage became a grim business. The spymasters of that day, like the enigmatic German espionage chief and teacher Elsbeth Schragmflller (Fraulein Docktor) of World War I, counseled survival above all else, advocating the most ruthless behavior. Kill or be killed is the inherent truth of modern espionage — sacrifice all, including fellow agents, for the sake of accomplishing the mission.

The spymasters of all countries and in all eras had always advocated such brutal tactics but had, in earlier days, shrouded such baseness with the notion that espionage was the adventurous pursuit of gentlemen, a game played by sensitive, educated souls, such as the British gentleman spy, Robert Baden- Powell, but, indeed, the British were exclusive in clinging to the ideals of honor among spies, long after other countries had abandoned such old-fashioned notions.

America was the most naive of all nations when it came to espionage. It had little or no effective intelligence operations until World War II. While other nations were preparing for the World Wars, spending vast fortunes on intelligence, the U.S. had only a handful of intelligence professionals. The best of these was the brilliant cryptologist Herbert O. Yardley, who headed America's unofficial "Black Chamber." In 1929, when the newly-appointed Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson learned of Yardley's operations, he closed it down with the terse and unrealistic comment: "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail."

Not until William Donovan created the OSS in World War II did the U.S. learn the significant value of intelligence. One of Donovan's top aides, Allen Dulles, would develop the CIA into the most powerful spy agency in the world. Dulles himself was most likely the finest spymaster of the twentieth century. Unlike many other spymasters trained by the military and thereby inhibited by the regimen of the ranks, Dulles came from the private sector. He was analytical, introspective, devious to the core of his being. He understood espionage from its roots and effectively used the information gathered by its branches.

After Dulles, admirals, generals, and politicians have run the CIA like a governmental bureau or an arm of the military, supervising a vast espionage organization as one would a sprawling garden. They were and are mere caretakers. Most were strutting egotists reveling in the authority of their positions as spymasters, but possessing little real understanding of their jobs. They were ineffective bureaucrats who drowned in self-importance, spent untold billions on lunatic schemes, and worst of all, turned the CIA into a vast, stumbling bureaucracy.

This is also the case with MI6 and, to a lesser degree, MI5, in England, where espionage is still conducted by upper-class gentlemen from the better schools. This has not changed since the days of Francis Walsingham, England's first great spymaster under Elizabeth I. Much has been made of the code-breaking genius displayed by British cryptologists in Room 40 at the Admiralty Offices in World War I and the brilliant deciphering done at Bletchley in World War II, where the Nazi Enigma code machine was unraveled, as well as its American counterparts at U.S. Signals Intelligence and naval intelligence who broke down the Japanese Purple Machine. Through these considerable intellectual efforts the top German and Japanese diplomatic and military codes were broken early in both wars, enabling the democracies to more quickly win the conflicts.

Yet, in spite of the great effort on the part of these cryptologists, none of their efforts would have been productive had it not been for the spies in the field who first secured the enemy codebooks and enciphering machines. In World War I, a Dutch spy, Alexander Szek, copied the German military code and passed it on to British agents at the cost of his life (which the British took to prevent him from being identified as the code thief). Moreover, in 1915, the British were actually made a gift of the top German Code Book when a copy of this invaluable document was left behind by the German consul to Persia, Wilhelm Wassmuss, while escaping British troops.

The same holds true in World War II. Polish and French underground resistance fighters obtained copies of the German Enigma machine and sent these to London where they were copied at Bletchley. The "unbreakable" codes and ciphers Enigma produced were subsequently broken, but only because the codebreakers had the actual German machines. The British, in return for the aid America provided England in 1940 (the so-called Lend-Lease program), shared the Enigma information with the U.S. and, by the time America entered the war a year later, it was able to break the Japanese Purple Machine, which had been duplicated from the German Enigma Machine.

Thus, the Ultra operations of the British and the Magic operations of the U.S. appeared to have god-like abilities in deciphering and decoding unbreakable codes and ciphers. The truth was that had not heroic field agents stolen the Enigma Machine, the Allied cryptologists might have been scratching their heads helplessly while the Axis won the war of the codes. (Ironically in the same sense, one of England's most vaunted spymasters, William Stephenson, built a pre-World War II multi-million dollar fortune on patenting a unique German can opener he stole from a concentration camp before his escape in World War I.)

Valuable intelligence information is almost always second and third hand before it reaches a destination where it can be acted upon. By then someone at the top of an intelligence agency hierarchy takes the bow for obtaining that information when the credit invariably belongs with the daring agent in the field who recognized the importance of the information and acquired it at the risk of his or her life.

The function of the lone agent, however, has been replaced in the 1990s for the most part by sophisticated listening and viewing satellites that have extraordinary electronic capabilities, pinpointing espionage targets from space thousands of miles distant. (This is the top secret Spy-in-the-Sky intelligence satellites of the U.S. which, more than any other factor, provided the Gulf War victory, and has made U.S. intelligence supreme.) Information from well-placed agents, citizens of foreign countries willing to spy on their native lands is now, for the most part, bought with enormous sums of money. The country with the most money triumphs. That is why America won all the great espionage battles of the Cold War. It paid more money, billions.

There are all manner of spies representing all types of personalities and character. The best of these are single-minded individuals, early resolved to their destiny, accepting a lifestyle most would find intolerable. Their secret work cannot be shared. They have few friends, no social ambitions. They are not public figures but keep to themselves and to their work. Their passion is for obscurity; their joy is silence; their love is for the dark.

Jay Robert Nash. Spies: A Narrative Encyclopedia of Dirty Tricks and Double Dealing from Biblical Times to Today. M. Evans and Company, Inc., New York. 1997.


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