Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Intelligence Disclosure in the Interwar Period: "The Room 40 Compromise"

The National Security Agency (NSA) revealed a remarkable bit of intelligence history last year, in The Room 40 Compromise.  The implications foreshadow long-term effects of the Edward Snowden case.

Written by the Agency in 1960 and declassified in 2012, the document highlights unexpected results when a large cache of sensitive documents is revealed.

Source: The Enemy Within, Henry Landau, 1937
"Amos J. Peaslee, Legal Ferret"
Similar to Snowden, American Attorney Amos Peaslee used trickery and guile to gain access to the documents. The comparison ends there, though, as Peaslee used the information for the benefit of the U.S. Government to seek restitution from Germany.  Just the same, Peaslee used dubious means to access decrypted German messages from Britain's code-breakers produced by "Room 40" of the Old Building at Whitehall.  Peaslee did not defect, but published the sensitive documents outright as evidence before the court.  While some legal restitution came as a result of Peaslee's lawsuit, the author of  NSA's Room 40 Compromise asserts the leaks spurred German innovation in cryptology.

Amos Peaslee, 1925
Edward Snowden, 2013
Well-connected New York attorney, former Army Officer, Ambassador to  Australia
NSA contractor, computer systems analyst
What Was Leaked
Decrypted German diplomatic cables from “Room 40”, Britain’s Naval Code-breaking Centre
Collection program details ; other TBD
Provided To
Stated Purpose
Prosecute “Black Tom” legal case vs. WWI German saboteurs
Reveal sources; ideological challenge to government
Damage cited
Highlighted German encryption flaws; contributed to urgency for Germany to improve their encryption methods

Typical one-time-pad
The 45-page history, published in NSA's Cryptologic Heritage archive, highlights the unintended consequences from disclosure of encoded national security information.  From the Abstract:

"In 1925 a file of over 10,000 sensitive highly secret decrypts from World War I Room 40 cryptanalysis were compromised in London to an American lawyer. He took several hundred of the decrypts out of Britain and in 1927 turned them over to the German government, in a lawsuit.  Within weeks the German Army and German Foreign Office embarked on intensive and urgent programs to improve their cryptography. The steckered Enigma, and greatly increased production and use of [the] one-time pad were the direct results of these programs.  The decrypts contained extremely derogatory information about German biowar and covert operations in neutral countries during World War I.  The decrypts and associated lawsuit were widely publicized, and occupied the highest levels of the German government including Hitler and Goering, and the affair was cause célèbre for over 12 years --- all because their cipher failures were exposed.  This had a sinister effect on German cryptography before and during World War II."
 The American attorney,  Amos Peaslee, no doubt felt a right to support his clients and gain restitution for German espionage agents' attack on Jersey City's "Black Tom" pier.  "The Enemy Within" tells the entire story, with detail and intrigue:

Who would not feel the same rush as did Peaslee, upon discovering explicit evidence of German saboteurs in the United States? ... enough justification in his mind, it seems, to override British government strictures about revealing sources and methods, to prosecute his case.

However, counter to NSA's claim in The Room 40 Compromise, it is equally likely German improvements to the Enigma machine were inevitable, based on other leaks such as the Zimmerman Telegram

Looking forward to 2014 and beyond, it is likely that judicial and legislative changes to electronic collection programs will occur.  Still, with many thousands of sensitive documents yet to be revealed by Snowden, the future impact is difficult to describe.  So, looking to lessons of the past, what can be learned from this observation in the Room 40 Compromise?
"The central point of the story is simple but unpleasant: disclosing decrypts or other cryptologic secrets is immensely damaging to future intelligence and warfighting capability." 

Books related to the Room 40 Decrypts

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

"There Is Nothing More Necessary Than Good Intelligence...

...to frustrate a designing enemy, and nothing that requires greater pains to obtain."

  December 1777.  Winter has set in at Valley Forge.  General George Washington's ragtag militia needs all the help they can get.  This week's post provides insight into one small part of  General George Washington's experience with military intelligence. Three important themes emerge from the historical record:
  • Leaders must have a strategy for both collecting, and using intelligence
  • Dedicated men and women - a network - are required, and they must be developed and recognized
  • Leaders need innovation and imagination to overcome natural and man-made obstacles to success

Washington is frequently cited as an expert practitioner of the intelligence craft; with his tactics, operations and strategy extolled across numerous books and essays.  Washington understood the value of intelligence at an early age, quoted here, from a letter to the Governor of Pennsylvania, over 20 years before the American Revolution: 
"There is nothing more necessary than good intelligence to frustrate a designing enemy, and nothing that requires greater pains to obtain.  I shall, therefore, cheerfully come into any measures you can propose to settle a correspondence for this salutary end; and you may depend upon receiving (when the provinces are threatened) the earliest and best intelligence that I can procure." [Source]
Source: Library of Congress
Letter from Col George Washington to Robert H. Morris, Governor of Pennsylvania

But, as author Michael Schellhammer points out in George Washington and the Final British Campaign for the Hudson River, "...it was a commonly held position that military spying was an illicit pursuit" considered below the level of gentlemen and suitable only for "unsavory characters."

Despite Continental notion, Washington developed his network early, with the roots of his Long Island spy ring established while growing up in Setauket, New York. This insightful Spy Museum lecture, from historian Elizabeth Kahn Kaplan, tells the story. 

There is no greater example of the dedication between a leader and his intelligence network, than correspondence between General Washington and Major John Clark.  This series of over 60 letters exchanged from1777 to 1778, provides insight into the human challenge, the uncertainty of the day, and the mutual respect.  Washington works carefully with Major Clark, guides him, and ultimately helps him transition from service. In one letter dated 4 Dec 1777, Washington embarks upon plot to both deceive the British, and collect critical enemy information.  This short National Geographic video describes the disinformation campaign waged with Major Clark's assistance:

Over 230 years later, nations across the globe face threats no less challenging.  Some are embroiled in outright civil war while; others, like the United States, are able to address security challenges before outbreak of war with the help of diplomacy and intelligence...guided by our interests stated in the President's National Security Strategy (PDF)...and our history.  What do we expect of senior leaders today in terms of an intelligence strategy to support our national interests....and how should it change compared with the past?  Do we have the right people and innovation in place, to mitigate the risks of a changing world? Do we still need to "frustrate a designing enemy," with an intelligence system that pressures our Constitutional values, our relations with allies, and ourselves?  Epictetus said in The Discourses, "make the best use of what is in your power, and use the rest according to their nature."  So, decide -  are we making the best use?

Saturday, December 7, 2013

"This Is Not A Drill": Intelligence Lessons From the Pearl Harbor Attack


It is not difficult to be stunned, even today, at the rapid course of events that unfolded on December 7, 1941.  Steeljaw Scribe captures the enormity in his blog post, "Air Raid Pearl Harbor. This Is Not A Drill"

Listen to President Roosevelt's address to be taken back and remember the true sense of national shock. Over 3400 casualties. 18 capital ships sunk, capsized or damaged.  188 planes lost.

"Attack A Surprise"  Recriminations were not in short supply, with many official and unofficial reports on bureaucratic, military and intelligence failures.  It was not until 1946, however, that the Congress published the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack.  The Report's Conclusions and Recommendations for national intelligence include issues that remain relevant today, as we observe threats both foreign and domestic:
"That effective steps be taken to insure that statutory or other restrictions do not operate to the benefit of an enemy or other forces inimical to the Nation's security and to the handicap of our own intelligence agencies.  With this in mind, the Congress should give serious study to, among other things, the Communications Act of 1934; to suspension in proper instances of the statute of limitations during war (it was impossible during the war to prosecute violations relating to the ''Magic" without giving the secret to the enemy); to legislation designed to prevent unauthorized sketching, photographing, and mapping of military and naval reservations in peacetime; and to legislation fully protecting the security of classified matter."

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Crack in the Stoic's Armor - Secrets and Morality

  Why another blog on national security? Put simply, the age of secrecy, as we know it, is fast coming to a close.  Attitudes about the state, demands for privacy, and technology each conspire to make the business of managing secrets increasingly difficult.  But as Sissela Bok describes in her 1989 book Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation, some measure of control over secrecy and privacy is legitimate...but within that control lies danger, and moral examination is warranted.

   Professionals with access to institutional secrets carry a great burden, bankers and doctors, for example.  In national security, holding secrets carries an even more sobering weight.  Details on impending or ongoing civil war, genocide, nuclear weapons, or future risks: Important to keep secret in many cases, but worse yet are those details that invite shame, fear, or nightmarish memories.  A Crack in the Stoic's Armor describes how a stoic attitude can magnify that burden. Author Nancy Sherman quoting Epictetus: “Our thoughts are up to us, and our impulses, desires, and aversions — in short, whatever is our doing … Of things that are outside your control, say they are nothing to you.”

What are the limits? What should we expect of intelligence professionals, those who are in the business of collecting, managing and analyzing our most important national secrets? Join the discussion.


       Yale Professor Tamar Gendler discusses Vice Admiral Stockdale's experience