I started to title this post “hypocrisy” but then decided that might be a bit harsh – largely because I’m no longer sure if a good deal of the current events commentary I read is really based in any significant historical context.  Perhaps its just that people writing much of today’s current events articles or issuing public political comments find history books a bit of a bore.

In this particular regard my comments have to do with all the public outrage about American intelligence collection, even to the extent of using advanced technology in that effort.    Now I’m not going to get into a dialog about current practices here, perhaps in yet another book down the road, but the degree of shock and surprise over such things is somewhat humorous since virtually any and every nation has engaged in such tactics to the extent to which is is capable.  Of course its pretty obvious that potential commercial or even military rivals have always collected information on each other – and not just military information. That’s a constant even in ancient history.

In the early decades of the 20th Century such work was most often done by the various diplomatic embassies exchanged between nations. A good number of such missions had military attaches assigned to monitor both hostile and friendly forces and capabilities. However even the diplomatic core personnel were tasked with picking up information – and sharing it with allies on occasion. As an example, American State Department attaches in 1920’s and 1930’s Japan, both diplomatic and military, were quite involved in collecting information, in particular on the Japanese Navy – beginning following WWI and long before the Japanese Navy or Japan moved into being perceived as a strategic threat in the Pacific.  Of course the Japanese were not naive about such things and John Prados writes about the entertaining episode of a large 1920’s Japanese automobile left parked continuously across from the American embassy for some two years – so long its tires went flat .  The Japanese monitored traffic into and out of the American embassy as well as movements of embassy personnel, occasionally expelling staff who did too much traveling and asked too many questions.  The car contained sensitive cameras and Prados relates the incident in which a reporter was encouraged to approach the car – resulting in several Japanese police jumped out to prevent picture taking of the car with flat tires. The most amusing thing was that it had been so hot in the car that they were all in their underwear at the time.

Of course just being active and sharing information with other embassies produced intelligence – as an example, as early as January, 1941 a Peruvian diplomatic staff member passed word to the U.S. that the Japanese had begun planning a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.  The information was promptly shared with American Naval Intelligence who evaluated it as improbable.  Similar foreign contacts provided early warning of the German attack on Russia, which President Roosevelt arranged to have shared with Stalin via third party contacts – and Stalin chose to ignore it.

For those who have read deeply about spy games in Mexico City circa 1963 the Japanese photo car story may recall the horror from the FBI and CIA  about releasing any photos that might have shown Lee Oswald – or anyone else – entering or leaving the Soviet or Cuban embassies there. A number of memos suggest they were terribly distressed that it might expose the fact that the U.S. was monitoring other nation’s facilities – just as every nation’s staff in Mexico City was doing to the other and the Mexican security personnel were doing to them all. After all, that same year the CIA and FBI had busted an American offering information to the Cubans – using photo, electronic intel and even human intel from inside the Cuban embassy to do so – and the FBI has major 24 hour surveillance running on Soviet attaches known to be working assets performing intelligence work inside the U.S.  There is no doubt that neither the Cubans or Soviets were unaware of American intelligence activities targeting their diplomatic facilities.

But certainly such intelligence efforts at  “situational awareness” went far beyond basic monitoring and diplomatic courtesies.  Sometimes even your international friends won’t tell you what they have heard or are investigating, just as  you have your own secrets.  Which leads to expanded intelligence efforts of all sorts – ranging from simply making arrangements to obtain telegrams from cooperative international carriers, to opening mail, to cracking diplomatic and military codes – the diplomatic codes  were often easier and changed less routinely.  Even monitoring changes in commercial arrangements or other day to day activities can provide strategic intelligence.  So – code breaking is a standard precipice  as are efforts to buy, swipe or otherwise obtain other nation’s code books.  As early as 1921, Americans had mastered certain key Japanese diplomatic codes, which proved very useful in the mufti-nation battleship force negotiations of the time.

The question is, did that sort of thing ever stop or even moderate, perhaps after the Allied victories of WWII?  Would anyone have suspected it would during the Cold War, or perhaps during the emergence of state sponsored and then non-state terrorist networks?  I’d say any commentator or any national politician figure who thought it had – or would – would be pretty naive.  Again, I’m not debating points of escalation or abuse but rather the reality of a demand of intentional situational awareness as far as intelligence collection goes. In that regard we can fast forward a bit to certain incidents of 1963, covered in appendix F, Another Rumor of Someone Would Have Talked.  In that chapter I describe the electronic intercepts being conducted against international communications across Europe, performed by US Air Force staff under direction of the NSA.  Separate stations handled military intercepts targeting the Soviets but Kirknewton was a commercial and diplomatic collection station.  How did I know that, simply because American defectors had disclosed the secrets of the NSAEchelon operations, across Europe and even in the Middle East. Some of those defectors had even gone to Moscow and held news conferences – quite some time ago and long before contemporary events.

Bottom line, such practices have and no doubt will occur, its headline news on occasion and then it fades away until the next time.  It seems it would almost be better that it were openly stated and made a subject of continuing, realistic oversight, to ensure that there are some constraints over the collection of and use of personal information – at least domestically.  However I would ask anyone who had seriously read about the operation of global terror networks, and their quite sophisticated methods of not only communication and financial transactions, if it is reasonable not to pursue some level of global intelligence collection. Certainly it has been proven that the terrorists are quite keen at embedding themselves in both neutral and friendly nations and that a good number of even supposedly allied nations (Saudi Arabia comes to mind) have been woefully  uncooperative in operational intelligence activities. If you don’t believe me on that one, read Against All Enemies, mentioned in my last post.

– no doubt its a challenging subject, but its certainly not a new one,   Larry






About Larry Hancock

Larry Hancock is a leading historian-researcher in the JFK assassination. Co-author with Connie Kritzberg of November Patriots and author of the 2003 research analysis publication titled also Someone Would Have Talked. In addition, Hancock has published several document collections addressing the 112th Army Intelligence Group, John Martino, and Richard Case Nagell. In 2000, Hancock received the prestigious Mary Ferrell New Frontier Award for the contribution of new evidence in the Kennedy assassination case. In 2001, he was also awarded the Mary Ferrell Legacy Award for his contributions of documents released under the JFK Act.

2 responses »

  1. James Stubbs says:

    The lack of knowledge in re history is amazing, and sad. The problem with all such intelligence operations conducted domestically, albeit in support of foreign intelligence operations is that they always, without exception, get abused at some point. The corrective measures tend to be left in place too long, and that creates another problem down the line (firewalls, i.e.). People scream about what’s going on now. I remember the late 60’s-early 70’s. That was true abuse.

    • Jim, the abuse and corrective measures are something that Stu Wexler and I discuss frequently. My most pragmatic view of things as it stands is the the FISA Court system should be either moved under the Supreme Court or legislated as an independent body reporting to Congress with its own Inspector Generals staff with access to domestic surveillance activities of all national security agencies and the possibly the military as well. Political realities and the lack of “institutional memory” simply dictate that neither Congressional committees nor Presidents can conduct oversight effectively. Such a body would have to be staffed with former intelligence professionals with sufficient knowledge to knowledge to actually deal with agency obfuscation and manipulation – which Congressional committees and staff are rarely prepared to do. Reports from such a new body might well need to be provided to both the Supreme Court and the Attorney General for classified review and advice.

      However, when you bore down on the subject, surveillance itself is nothing like the real nastiness that can emerge in using data not just for intelligence but preemptive action – it can hardly get worse than what Hoover was doing in relation to the various ContelPro programs and what Angleton was doing totally off the books in conjunction with Chaos. That sort of stuff makes issues of metadata pale by comparison.

      — Larry

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