Book Review: Raymond Batvinis, Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies: FBI Counterespionage During World War II (University Press of Kansas, 2014)

In 2010, US counterintelligence and counterespionage efforts resulted in the take down of 10 Russian “sleeper agents” from the “S” Department of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). As Raymond Batvinis discusses in Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies, the foundation of present US counterintelligence capabilities was laid 70 years before.

Outstanding spy novels tell exciting tales of spy rings, secret and double agents, surveillance, codes and ciphers, wiretaps, microdots, deception, disinformation, and even use of invisible ink!  That is what a reader would expect from the works of John le Carré, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum, or Tom Clancy.  In Hoover’s Secret War Against the Axis: FBI Counterespionage During World War II (University Press of Kansas, 2014), Raymond Batvinis recounts equally thrilling stories of international intrigue as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), working alongside other US government elements and allies, sought to overcome Germany’s efforts to disrupt and defeat its war effort in the US before and during the war.  They will transfix the reader to the book’s pages much as the writings of the great spy novelists.  However, unlike the novelists’ works, Batvinis’ accounts are not amusements, but discussions of real cases of a struggle between adversaries filled with lessons on counter-intelligence (spycatching) as well as counterespionage (turning enemy agents against their spymasters).  The stories present the thought provoking, sometimes absurd, and often horrifying realities of spycatching and turning spies into double-agents. The history is not presented as nostalgia, but as a text on a unique aspect of the intelligence war against Germany, and to a lesser extent, Japan, from which valuable lessons can be drawn.  It is not by chance Batvinis’ book would be presented in this fashion.  The work is a product of painstaking, detail oriented research, and the benefit of his experience as a former FBI special agent.

Indeed, during his 25 years as an FBI special agent, Batvinis focused on counterintelligence and counterespionage cases.  His assignments included work out of the Washington Field Office and the FBI Intelligence Division’s Training Unit at FBI Headquaters.  As a Supervisory Special Agent, in the Baltimore Division, Batvinis managed the espionage investigations of Ronald Pelton (a spy for the Soviet Union), John Walker and Michael Walker (spies for the Soviet Union), Thomas Dolce (a spy for South Africa), and Daniel Richardson (caught attempting to spy for the Soviet Union).  After the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, Batvinis came out of retirement and returned to the FBI for three years in order to manage a team of former FBI special agents and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) case officers who taught the Basic Counterintelligence Course at the FBI Academy.  With a continued desire to contribute to US national security efforts, Batvinis went on to teach a “Lessons Learned” course for counterintelligence personnel at FBI field offices throughout the US for two years.  Exploiting his doctoral studies in American History, Batvinis has lectured at George Washington University and has written several articles on counterintelligence.  Prior to writing Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies, he published The Origins of FBI Counterintelligence (University Press of Kansas, 2007).

Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies was designed to pick up where The Origins of FBI Counterintelligence finished.  Origins was an in-depth look at the FBI’s development in the 1930s from a small law enforcement organization to a counterespionage service.  The need for change was made stark in 1938 with the bungled handling of the long-running investigation of the Guenther Rumrich espionage ring.  A series of missteps allowed dozens of German agents from Abwehr (German military intelligence) to step out of the US and reach Europe safely.  The Interdepartmental Information Conference in 1939 brought all elements of the burgeoning US intelligence community together for the first time, to discuss creating a structure to handle the espionage threat to the US.  Rather than fight like a sack of wildcats, new linkages were created between the FBI and the US military, and partnerships were established with foreign services such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as well as Mexican and British intelligence officials.  The FBI’s General Intelligence Division was established to manage foreign counterintelligence and other intelligence investigations.  In 1940, US President Franklin Roosevelt signed a Presidential order allowing FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, to begin wiretapping embassies and consulates.  The Rumrich failure, the new initiatives, and FBI’s education in managing the intricate details of counterespionage matters resulted in the surprise arrest of 33 German agents in 1941, effectively breaking the back of German military intelligence in the US.

Although the Special Intelligence Service (SIS) of the FBI (whose evolution and expansion into Europe, Latin America and Africa Batvinis discusses), was already engaged in foreign intelligence in the prewar years, in 1941 Roosevelt created a new foreign intelligence office under a Coordinator of Information (COI).  By the end of the year, COI’s director, William Donovan, managed 600 personnel.  Hoover and Donovan had a mutual dislike of each other that was over nearly 20 years old.  Hoover sensed the COI as an effort by Donovan to supplant SIS, and as both viewed the Oval Office as their turf.  Their poor relationship hampered coordination between their services. In 1942, the COI transformed from a civilian agency to a military intelligence service known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency

In extending his discussion beyond The Origins of FBI Counterintelligence , Batvinis relates the story of how William Stephenson of British Security Coordination (BSC), the center of MI6 (British Secret Intelligence Service) operations in the US, ran afoul of Hoover. Hoover railed on Stephenson for what he viewed as BSC’s rumor mongering and mischief.  Without spoiling this amazing segment of the book, it is enough to say MI6 personnel and MI5 (British Security Service) personnel also had a shaky relationship. Hoover skillfully managed to bypass MI6 and its BSC in the US to reach MI5 in London.  As result, the FBI gained access to Ultra, the British code name for its capability to intercept and decipher encoded German communications from the Enigma system.

Batvinis is at his best in Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies in his discussion of the Double Cross System.  Although known historically as a British success during the war, Batvinis explains that achievements through Double Cross were the result of joint Allied efforts.  That includes the handling of the double-agent, Spanish pacifist Juan Pujol—codenamed “Garbo”—who deceived the Germans into believing the Normandy invasion would not occur, and then convinced them that the June 6, 1944 D-Day landings were a mere diversion for a larger invasion soon to come.  Double Cross began to make use of US based turned German agents after the British, with some difficulty, convinced the US there was great value in counterespionage work.  The very persuasive Ewen Montagu, from Bletchley Park, home of the Ultra secret, was brought into the fray to bring Hoover. Hoover and the FBI hoped through counterespionage, further control could be gained over German intelligence activities.

Among the several Double Cross counterespionage cases Batvinis discusses are that of: a flamboyant playboy who was also a central figure in the dispute between Hoover and Stephenson; a world renown French flyer, who had orders to infiltrate the US aircraft industry; and a lecherous Dutchman, who was deemed useless as an agent and whose activities in the US were fabricated for his spymasters while he remained bottled up in London.  Batvinis takes the reader to school, brilliantly teaching about the fundamental nature and “nuts and bolts” of counterintelligence and counterespionage in a manner understandable for both the intelligence and law enforcement professional and the laity right in the midst of his exhilarating storytelling.  To help readers understand the type of enemy the FBI faced, Batvinis explains how Germany acquired the often involuntary service from German expatriates as agents and their very capable and somewhat ingenious handling of them.  In Chapter 11 entitled “The Count from New York,” Batvinis discusses the case of Wilhelm Rautter, a scion of German aristocracy, who was recruited into the German military intelligence without choice, and tacit threat to his well-being and that of his family and property.  As Batvinis magnificently recounts, Rautter, searching for employment, was invited to interview at Remy and Company, by its owner Hans Blum. After a month at the company, during which he established a very cordial relationship with the owner, Rautter was abruptly interrupted in the midst of perfunctory business chatter when Blum said, “German military intelligence had investigated him, found him acceptable, and wished to use him for collecting information in the United States.”  Blum downplayed the request in a friendly, soft-spoken and reassuring, but subtly betraying a sinister, threatening tone indicating that he would not accept “no” for an answer.

Almost immediately, Rautter began training at Blum’s company’s in secret writing, radio construction, transmitting, receiving, coding, and decoding cabled messages using a standard work of fiction.  He was directed to recruit an experienced operator to handle transmissions once he reached New York City.  Rautter was given the address of a mail drop on Manhattan’s Upper Westside, and rented an apartment in Brooklyn near the famous Brooklyn Navy Yard. He was provided a contact, Heinrich Stuhl, whose home, also in Brooklyn, offered easy observation of Brooklyn and Manhattan piers where merchant ships routinely lined up to load cargo bound for Great Britain.  Rautter was given a catalogue of requirements to monitor shipping bound for Europe by riding the Brooklyn-Staten Island ferry.  He would use Blum’s business contacts to travel throughout the East coast of the US, to observe factory facilities of US Steel, Remington Arms Corporation, and twelve leading aircraft companies such as the Douglas and Boeing companies.  He also was directed to pick up intelligence in local bars and restaurants about troop strength, unit designations, military equipment, and specifics on armament production.  To evade capture, Rautter would vary the means of communication with Germany.  The unexpected collapse of the FBI’s capability to intercept radio transmissions also managed to temporarily thwart its counterintelligence effort.  Nevertheless, in 1944, Rautter was identified and waylaid by the US government as the outcome of some incredible investigative work by the FBI, along with the US Customs Service, comparing German handwriting samples with tens of thousands of baggage declarations of travelers going to Europe and British censors on Bermuda, sifting through mail to Europe.

To understand how the FBI handlers engaged in counterespionage operations against Germany, Batvinis illustrated how they concerned themselves with things that the average person might very well assume was minutiae or too esoteric, to matter.  Among the tactics, techniques, and procedures used, the FBI would first closely watch a German agent to determine his susceptibility for neutralization and recruitment before intercepting him.  Particular attention would be placed on his movements and behavior patterns.  The target’s mail and cable traffic would be copied and read, his contacts were identified, and his accommodations would be searched.  Once the turned agent was activated by the FBI, his reports to Germany were designed to match his trained capabilities and the degree of the agent’s access to information.  For example, if stationed in New York City, an agent from the marine branch of German intelligence would be expected to easily identify all types of Allied ships from specific combat vessels to cargo ships and tankers entering and departing the port.  Allowing a turned agent to remain positioned near a port or shipyard might require the FBI to sacrifice too much vital information about US activities, to legitimize his efforts, in exchange for a tentative counterintelligence reward. Moreover, the US Navy would never clear information on the departure of such convoys, and it would be difficult for a double-agent to explain the failure to collect such information to his intelligence principals in Germany.  The counterespionage agent would need to be placed in a plausible new post, such as Washington, which would allow for a mixture of valuable information, rumors, and other pieces of information picked up from soldiers and sailors in local bars and from senior military and military officials on the Washington cocktail party circuit.  A persona had to be established for counterespionage agents that would typically present them as being fiercely loyal and well-placed, making the most of access to important military secrets, but greatly concerned about being discovered by the FBI.  In one case, a counterespionage agent’s persona was spiced up with emphasis on his struggle with communications equipment and transmission problems, coupled with encoding and decoding errors.  When transmitting messages for a turned German agent, a painstaking effort would be put into mimicking his distinctive transmission style through the study of recordings.

In Chapter 13, entitled, “Peasant,” Batvinis explains that one case, to copy the style of a very inexperienced radio operator, his FBI substitute filled his messages with errors common to amateurs.  Further, by using his left hand, with the radio key placed on the edge of a table so that the hand and arm had no support, the technician found that he could easily produce scores of unintentional and intentional errors.  The FBI categorized messages from counterespionage agents to Germany as “A” or “B.” “A” messages held a blend of accurate and fabricated information, created by Joint Security Control (JSC) of the Military Intelligence Division, established in 1941.  JSC had a central deception staff to its portfolio of both the Army and the Navy to plan measures for disguising or concealing an operation against the enemy that would encourage enemy action on a belief that something true was actually false. “B” messages, developed by FBI special agents of the Washington Field Office from open sources were sent in the form of suggested messages with the actual source of information actually identified.  All “A” and “B” messages were first discussed with translators of the FBI’s Cryptanalytic Section, which helped assure that German intelligence service radio operators made no mistake in deciphering the information.  The reader will find many more comparable lessons in Batvinis’ book.

There is some discussion of FBI efforts against Japan.  One segment concerns German efforts to gather and transmit important information on B-29 bomber manufacturing, other war production relevant to the Pacific Theater of Operations, the increase in conscription in the US in 1945, and war plans.  The extent to which the FBI tried put Double Cross measures in play against the Japanese is discussed in Chapter 12 entitled “Japs, Aspirin, and Pep.”  Although Batvinis relays how the FBI had little success in positioning double agents among Japanese targets, he also uses this aspect of the history of US counterintelligence and counterespionage in World War II to explain how best to manage an effort when “That dog don’t hunt.”

Organizing the US counterintelligence effort was not based on a vain desire by the FBI to take on a new capability on top of its well-known criminal investigation work.  There was no other service fully engaged in counterintelligence work, and as the war drew close to the US, it became an absolute necessity.  There was no guarantee of success. The German intelligence service, and the various departments of German military intelligence were up and running full speed with well-trained and very capable agents spreading out worldwide.  Nevertheless, it was anticipated that through the right organization, appropriate preparation, and diligent work, as well as engagement with allies, the effort would be effective and possibilities for success would increase.  The FBI learned quickly that the fight against Germany was not taking place in some “war over yonder” but already underway in US.  Despite the difficulties the FBI had with the OSS, and its counterparts in Britain, those obstacles were overcome, and it was able to protect the US public and US interests from harm.

There is a breath-taking amount of amazing information on counterintelligence and counterespionage to learn from Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies.  There is also much to that can be learned from the history it provides on US relations with Great Britain and other nations on national security issues. Batvinis’ book is also a real page turner, and one that will be difficult to pull away from.  Without reservations, greatcharlie.com provides its highest recommendation to Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies to its readers. They are guaranteed to read at it over and over again.  Given the timeless value of its information, for some practicioners, it may even serve as a reference.  It is a book everyone will appreciate.

By Mark Edmond Clark

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