Copyright © 1999 David Stafford. All rights reserved.
Men of Secrets
Outside CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia, stands anotherbronze, life-size statue, this time of Nathan Hale, his handsbound and a noose around his neck. A graduate of Yale, he is celebratedas America's first `patriot spy'. He was a 21-year-oldcaptain in George Washington's Continental Army when he volunteeredto spy behind British lines. Captured in New York City,he was hanged in September 1776. As he mounted the scaffold, heis reputed to have said, `I only regret that I have but one life tolose for my country.'
Four years later Major André, spymaster to the British commanderSir Henry Clinton, suffered the same fate as Hale fornegotiating with Benedict Arnold, the commander of West Point,to betray its secrets to the British. Caught when the plot wasfoiled, he was hanged by the Americans in October 1780.
Both spies have become legendary in the annals of Anglo-Americanintelligence. Yet behind each stood a spymaster usuallyinvisible or unnoticed. American mythology long held that theNew World had cast off the evil habits of the Old, not least themurky world of espionage, counter-espionage, codebreaking,deception and domestic surveillance. Yet the nation's firstPresident, George Washington, regarded intelligence as one of histop priorities. `The necessity of procuring good intelligence,' hetold one of his secret agents, `is apparent and need not be furtherurged. All that remains for me to add is that you keep the wholematter as secret as possible. For upon secrecy, successdepends ...' Most of his successors took the same view. WhenWilliam Casey, Director of Central Intelligence under PresidentRonald Reagan, declared that his first predecessor was none otherthan George Washington, he was uttering an awkward but undeniabletruth about the traditions of the White House.
As for the British, its leaders have always relied on secret servicesto obtain intelligence about foreign powers and keep tabs ondissidents at home. The Victorian years of peace and prosperitymade this less important. But for both America and Britain the endof the nineteenth century was a turning-point. The defeat of theSpanish Empire in the war of 1898 meant that the United Stateswas now a world power, while the rise of the Kaiser's Germanyposed a threat to a Britain already under pressure from Irishnationalism and domestic radicalism. The Americans created anOffice of Naval Intelligence, and in 1909 the British, in totalsecrecy, established the Secret Service Bureau for both espionageand counter-espionage.
Roosevelt and Churchill, then both young and aspiring politicians,absorbed the spirit of these years. The intensity of theirpartnership during the Second World War often obscures the factthat in many respects they were an ill-assorted pair. Paradoxically,each defied his national stereotype. Churchill, the nostalgicVictorian wedded to the glories of Empire, was emotional, directand transparent, with a lifelong predilection for the company ofself-made men. Roosevelt, the New World Democrat, had themanners of an English gentleman, and behind the surface bonhomiewas impenetrable, enigmatic, secretive and machiavellian.Churchill carefully wrote down his thoughts and instructions.Roosevelt was deliberately informal, often giving inconsistentverbal orders. Churchill described him as `a charming countrygentleman whose business methods are almost non-existent'.
Yet they had much in common. Each was an ambitious high-flyerwho lived and breathed politics, and each courageouslyovercame severe handicaps: Roosevelt a crippling attack of polio,Churchill a debilitating childhood stammer and lifelong bouts ofdepression. Both leaned heavily on their wives. Eleanor became herhusband's political eyes and ears, Clementine provided the emotionalrock on which Churchill stood. Each, too, was accused ofbeing a turncoat and evoked bitter political enmity. The patricianRoosevelt who brought in the New Deal was loathed byRepublicans, while many British Tories never forgave Churchill'searly radicalism or his maverick behaviour after he returned to theConservative fold. Echoes of these controversies still have potencyon both sides of the Atlantic.
They shared another thing in common. From their knowledgeof the world and experience of politics they knew what intelligencecould deliver. Neither lacked courage to use the levers of office,and intelligence was a useful source of power and influence.Combined with their personal vision and imagination, it deliveredimportant rewards. Roosevelt has been described as a `genius of theunexpected, maestro of the improvisational, [and] artist of thedramatic [whose] mind danced across the scene where his legswould not carry him'. Churchill was similarly agile `his mindonce seized of an idea works with enormous velocity around it',noted the British journalist A. G. Gardiner, a rare and earlyadmirer, on the eve of the First World War, `[it] intensifies it,enlarges it, makes it shadow the whole sky'.
By nature, Roosevelt liked secrets. An only child with a powerfulmother, he needed them. A lifelong reader of spy novels, as a studentat Harvard he constructed his own secret cipher for recordingspecial confidences in his personal diary. One such entry translatedinto `E. is an angel'. It referred to his cousin Eleanor, the favouriteniece of President Teddy Roosevelt, and he married her soonafter. But his first encounter with the official world of intelligencecame as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson.Here he found himself responsible for overseeing the Office ofNaval Intelligence. It had been a small and sleepy outfit until theFirst World War catapulted it into the wider and rougher world ofinternational intrigue.
Roosevelt's enthusiastic embrace of its work marked an importantmoment in American intelligence. He spent much of 1916organising the Naval Reserve Force, where he cast aside thepretence that Americans were innocents and recruited like-mindedIvy League friends for secret work. Like him, they regarded it asboth glamorous and legitimate. Those destined to run Americanintelligence in the future would no longer be regarded as socialoutcasts or political lepers, but could include the best and thebrightest. He even recruited an espionage network of undercoveragents in Latin America behind the back of an exasperatedDirector of Naval Intelligence.
In July 1916, in the so-called `Black Tom' incident, Germansaboteurs set off an explosion that destroyed the most importantloading terminal in New York harbour for munitions to Britain. Itconvinced Roosevelt that there was an extensive `Fifth Column' ofGermanAmericans conspiring to sabotage the war effort. After theUnited States finally entered the war in 1917, he bombarded thenew Director of Naval Intelligence, Captain Roger Welles, withrequests for information about alleged German-American plots,sent him alarmist reports from his own sources, and even fantasisedlater that he had carried a revolver in a shoulder-holster afterbecoming a target for assassination by German secret agents.
Welles proved a congenial soulmate and soon the ONI wasstuffed with Wall Street lawyers, financiers and stockbrokers.Roosevelt also learned about the significant co-operation that haddeveloped with British naval intelligence in the United Statesthrough their naval attaché, Captain Sir Guy Gaunt. A colourfulAustralian-born bon vivant, Gaunt had taken to the murky worldof counter-espionage like a duck to water and ran a network ofagents penetrating German-American organisations and othersconsidered subversive by the British. When not running his agentsfrom the Biltmore Hotel in New York City, he was carefully cultivatingColonel House, President Wilson's confidant andtrouble-shooter. `[Gaunt] tells me,' confided House to his diary,`the British intelligence is marvellously good.' Thanks to Gaunt,ONI files soon bulged with the names of Irish rebels, Hindu plottersand Bolshevik terrorists.
Gaunt's superior in London was the legendary Director ofBritish Naval Intelligence, Admiral Sir `Blinker' Hall, who ranBritish naval codebreaking (known as Room 40) as well as a multitudeof secret agents engaged in covert operations around theglobe. Admiral Sims, the American naval representative inLondon who had his own intelligence operations in Europe, toldWelles that Hall and the British had broken `practically everycipher' that they had been put up against. The Zimmermantelegram affair dramatically illustrated the point.
In January 1917 the German Foreign Minister, ArthurZimmerman, sent a cipher telegram to the German ambassador inMexico announcing his country's decision to begin unrestrictedsubmarine warfare the following month. If the Americans enteredthe war, Zimmerman wrote, he would suggest that Germany andMexico `make war together, make peace together', with Mexicobeing rewarded with territory from Texas, New Mexico andArizona. Audaciously, Zimmerman sent the telegram via CountBernstorff, his ambassador in Washington, using the Americantransatlantic cable recently placed at Berlin's disposal by PresidentWilson to facilitate peace feelers. What neither Wilson norZimmerman knew was that British codebreakers were regularlytapping the cable to read American diplomatic ciphers. Theyquickly intercepted Zimmerman's message, broke its cipher, and byearly February its plaintext was lying on `Blinker' Hall's desk.
How the British naval intelligence chief resolved the dilemma ofrevealing Zimmerman's plan to the Americans while disguising itssource is the stuff of spy fiction and has often been told. Simplyput, it involved a British agent in Mexico City stealing a copy ofZimmerman's telegram and claiming it had been intercepted inNorth America. Thunderstruck at this German duplicity, Wilsonabandoned hopes of remaining neutral and publication of thetelegram in the press paved the way for Congress to approve hisdeclaration of war in April. German espionage both within theUnited States and `at our very doors', as an outraged Wilsondeclared, proved that Berlin was neither peaceful nor trustworthy.
Roosevelt was entranced by the whole affair, especially as,behind the scenes, one of his oldest Harvard friends had played apart in the coup. This was Edward Bell (`Ned' to Roosevelt) whounder cover as Second Secretary of the American Embassy inLondon was liaison officer with Hall and other British intelligenceagencies. It was to Bell that Hall had handed the text ofZimmerman's message once it was sanitised for American eyes.Roosevelt had done favours for Bell, and soon Bell was able toreciprocate.
In July 1918 Roosevelt arrived in Britain on official navy business.Welcomed at Portsmouth by Admiral Sims, he was whiskedoff in a Rolls-Royce to the Ritz Hotel in London. Here the Britishlaid out the red carpet. The First Lord of the Admiralty organisedan inspection tour of British and American bases, he had a friendlytalk with Prime Minister David Lloyd George, he drove out to seeNancy Astor at Cliveden, and he met Arthur Balfour, the ForeignSecretary. He also had a forty-five-minute audience with KingGeorge V, proudly writing to his mother that the monarch wasshorter than he expected but `delightfully easy to talk to'.
But the highlight of his visit was a personal call to the Admiraltyand Bell's good friend, `Blinker' Hall. Roosevelt never forgot theencounter. In the midst of their talk Hall suddenly said, `I amgoing to ask that youngster at the other end of the room to comeover here ... I want you to ask him where he was exactly twenty-fourhours ago.' Roosevelt did as he asked. `I was in Kiel, sir,'replied the young man. That he was talking to a secret agent supposedlyreturned from behind enemy lines so impressed Rooseveltthat twenty years later he could recount the episode in detail toHall's successor, Admiral John Godfrey, in the White House.What he probably failed to realise was that it was all a charadedesigned to divert attention from Room 40's codebreaking work.Roosevelt came away convinced that British intelligence was thebest in the world, blissfully unaware that it was also breakingAmerican ciphers and would continue to target them well into the1920s. It was also on this London visit that he had the encounterwith Churchill he later described to Joseph Kennedy.
Back in the United States, Roosevelt's passion for secret agentsalmost sabotaged his political career. A homosexual scandal hadengulfed the Newport naval base. Disregarding advice that theaffair was irrelevant to naval intelligence, he set up a special investigativeunit. Paid out of a special fund, its work culminated in thearrest and trial of several Newport civilians, including the base'snaval chaplain. But the scandal escalated dangerously when itemerged that sexual entrapment had been used and that enlistedmen had gone well beyond the bounds of duty in their pursuit ofthe guilty. The chaplain was acquitted, and a naval court ofenquiry severely criticised Roosevelt for his role in the affair. Bythis time he had resigned as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to rununsuccessfully as Democratic vice-presidential candidate in the1920 election. The Republican-dominated Senate Naval Sub-Committeestrongly condemned his actions, and while Rooseveltclaimed he was innocent of the details of the Newport investigationsand was the victim of partisan politics, it was clear he haddeliberately kept many of his instructions verbal rather thancommit them to paper. Already he had learned the skills of plausibledeniability.
After he entered the White House in 1933 he quickly resumedhis interest in intelligence. Four years before, Henry Stimson, theSecretary of State, had abolished the `Black Chamber', the nation'sfirst peacetime codebreaking agency, famously declaring that `gentlemendo not read each other's mail'. Later, in the shadow ofPearl Harbor, critics would claim that this had neutered Americancodebreaking during the 1930s. In reality, it merely redirected itinto more secret channels in order to conceal it from an isolationistnation and Congress. The army set up its Signals IntelligenceService under the codebreaking genius, William Friedman, and bythe mid-1930s it was regularly cracking Japanese diplomaticciphers. By the end of the decade these were being discreetly circulatedin Washington under the codename `Magic'.
Likewise, the navy's cryptanalytic branch, Op-20-G, made significantheadway against Tokyo's ciphers, although it wasconstantly racing against ever more complex machine systems.Then, shortly after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war, inDecember 1937, the gunboat USS Panay the American navy'smost successful spy ship of its time, crammed with intelligencematerial (and the first American warship destroyed by enemyaction in the twentieth century) was sunk in the Yangtse river byJapanese warplanes while observing Japanese operations outsideNanking. Behind the scenes Roosevelt was already contemplatingthe intelligence alliance he was to forge with Churchill. Four dayslater the British ambassador in Washington, Sir Robert Lindsay,was a guest of honour at a White House reception. Afterwards,Roosevelt asked him to stay behind for a private conversation.Here he reminisced warmly about Sir Guy Gaunt and Anglo-Americanintelligence co-operation during the First World War,hinting strongly that he had been deeply involved. Surely it wastime to again inaugurate a systematic exchange of secret information?
Lindsay thought Roosevelt was in one of his worst inspirationalmoods and that his ideas sounded like `the utterances of a harebrainedstatesman or amateur strategist'. Nonetheless, he saidthey were worth exploring. Over the next twelve months Rooseveltdiscreetly supported highly secret talks between the BritishAdmiralty and the US Navy which led to limited intelligenceexchanges the following year. After Hitler's occupation of Praguein March 1939 killed off hopes of European peace and intensifieddemands for naval talks with the British, Roosevelt repeated hispraise for Gaunt. Simultaneously an old friend, Admiral WilliamLeahy, the commander of naval operations (and later his wartimeWhite House chief of staff) oversaw an expansion of the Office ofNaval Intelligence and its strengthening in the naval hierarchy.Roosevelt also initiated exchanges of military information betweenthe American and British armies.
But Roosevelt was never content with official channels alone. Healso developed personal contacts as alternative sources of information.One of the most prolific was the syndicated Washingtonjournalist John Franklin Carter, whose appeal to Roosevelt lay inhis easy access to the NBC shortwave radio network and the factthat he could come and go at the White House without attractingsuspicion. Roosevelt used him for private investigative work andpaid him generously from his Presidential Emergency Fund. Apartfrom producing over six hundred reports on a huge variety oftopics before Roosevelt died, he also investigated the performanceand loyalty of unhappy members of the Roosevelt team.
Another personal source was the wealthy and gregariousPhiladelphian William C. Bullitt, an influential fundraiser for his1932 election whom he sent on a private fact-finding mission toEurope and later appointed ambassador in Moscow and Paris.There was also the celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh, whoseisolationist views and admiration for Hitler opened doors thatwere closed to others. After three inspection tours of Hitler'sLuftwaffe, Lindbergh passed on highly exaggerated estimates ofNazi strength to the White House.
Roosevelt's most prominent informant, however, was VincentAstor, his wealthy Hudson Valley neighbour and distant cousin inwhose heated indoor pool at Rhinebeck, just north of the Rooseveltestate at Hyde Park in upstate New York, Roosevelt had exercisedhis polio-damaged legs in the 1920s. In 1927 Astor formed a secretsociety he called `The Room', a group of about twenty close andinfluential friends from the world of business that met regularly inNew York to discuss financial and international topics. Foundedwith Astor and Theodore and Kermit Roosevelt, sons of theformer President, it included the banker Winthrop Aldrich, thejournalist and world traveller Marshall Field III, the publisherNelson Doubleday, Judge Frank Kernochan, and David Bruce, aforeign service officer and future wartime head of the OSS inLondon and ambassador to London and Peking. Nearly all hadsome background in intelligence and one, Sir William Wiseman, apartner in the Wall Street investment bankers Kuhn-Loeb, hadheaded Britain's intelligence service in New York during the FirstWorld War.
Roosevelt highly valued the intelligence they provided, and in1938 he secretly approved a Pacific cruise by Astor in his luxuryyacht, the Nourmahal, to spy on Japanese military, naval, air forceand radio installations in the Marshall Islands. `The information-gatheringside of our cruise has proved interesting, instructive, andI hope, will be helpful,' cabled Astor enthusiastically to Rooseveltfrom Honolulu.
But in the long run the most important of FDR's intelligencesources was the wealthy New York lawyer William `Wild Bill'Donovan. Variously described as America's last hero and its firstdirector of central intelligence, the silver-haired Donovan was aman of indefatigable energy and enthusiasm whose thirst for actionand adventure was to leave an indelible mark on America's intelligencecommunity for the next quarter of a century.
Donovan, said movie director John Ford, who worked for himduring the war, was `the sort of guy who thought nothing of parachutinginto France, blowing up a bridge, pissing into Luftwaffegas tanks, then dancing on the roof of the St Regis hotel with aGerman spy'. Hollywood hype aside, this neatly captures theswashbuckling spirit of Donovan that Roosevelt admired. He wasas adept at waging guerrilla war at home as he was abroad, and leftin his wake a trail of wounded bureaucrats and interdepartmentaljungle fires.
A former classmate of the President at Columbia Law School,he was a self-made man. Born in Buffalo of a poor Irish immigrantfamily, he won the name `Wild Bill' while fighting against PanchoVilla with Pershing's expedition to Mexico in 1916, and hereturned from the Western Front in France as the most decoratedsoldier in the American army; serving with New York's `FightingIrish' regiment, he won the Congressional Medal of Honor, theDSC and the Croix de Guerre. Over the next decade he held bothstate and federal office for the Republicans, then moved to NewYork to establish a highly successful and lucrative business specialisingin international law. Here he made contact with TheRoom, where his foreign contacts and travel soon recommendedhim to Roosevelt. In 1935 the President sent him on an unofficialmission to report on Italy's military performance in Abyssinia, andin 1938 he attended German army manoeuvres and investigatedthe Spanish Civil War from General Franco's side. By the timewar broke out in Europe he was an ardent anti-isolationist andknew more than most Americans about European military affairs.
While Donovan, Astor and others gathered foreign intelligencefor him, others worked on counter-espionage. Hitler had launchedan intelligence war against the United States, and with vivid memoriesof the `Black Tom' explosion Roosevelt was soon obsessedagain about German spies in America. In 1934 he summoned J.Edgar Hoover, the Director of the FBI, to the White House andtold him to investigate fascist and Nazi groups, later extending theorder to Communists. In 1938 Hoover's men exposed a massivespy ring operating in Manhattan headed by Gunther Rumrich, aUS Army deserter of German background. The trial that followedspawned sensational headlines, deepened Roosevelt's fears ofinternal conspiracy, and jolted him into seeking increased appropriationsfor counter-espionage. He also ordered Hoover toco-ordinate his efforts with army and naval intelligence and theState Department. Two years later Hoover reassured him that allpotential enemy espionage was under control. Under Roosevelt, theFBI enjoyed an enormous expansion of its powers, including anintensive programme of secret domestic surveillance.
Typically, Roosevelt also liked to be sure himself. Naval intelligencehad always dabbled extensively in domestic affairs, and inthe 1930s it considerably expanded its domestic surveillance, targetingpolitical and labour radicals and such organisations as theAmerican Civil Liberties Union. To discuss its reports, Rooseveltfrequently met as often as three times a week with the Director ofNaval Intelligence. To prevent liberal protests he kept such contactssecret. His efforts to centralise and strengthen intelligenceeven further met with bureaucratic and media resistance. `No glorified"OGPU" [Soviet secret police] is needed or wanted here,'declared the New York Times.
Ironically, Soviet espionage was already at work in America. ButRoosevelt, like most others, misunderstood the threat. This wasseen in the case of Whitaker Chambers.
A journalist, Chambers was a courier and contact in Washingtonfor Soviet intelligence. In 1938 he recanted his allegiance toMoscow, and after hiding for several months to escape Stalin'sassassins re-emerged as a writer for Time magazine. Shocked by thebrutal cynicism of Stalin's pact with Hitler in August 1939, he toldhis story to Adolf Berle, Roosevelt's international security adviserin the State Department, and also pointed the finger at more thanthirty Communist agents at work in the federal government,including the senior State Department official Alger Hiss. Berletold neither his department nor the FBI, but did, according to onesource, pass the intelligence on to Roosevelt. But the Presidentmerely `scoffed at the charge'. He was incredulous that therecould be a Soviet espionage ring in his administration; to himCommunists were blue-collar trade union militants, not suave representativesof the east coast establishment. Gentlemen like Hisscould simply not be traitors. As a result, no counter-intelligenceprogramme for identifying Communist agents in the federal governmentwas put in place.
Six weeks after the Munich crisis Roosevelt chaired a specialconference at the White House to decide on US air power requirements.A full-scale review of national strategy and war plans wasalready under way, and he was deeply alarmed by intelligencereporting that the Germans were making thousands of military aircraft.Lindbergh estimated annual German production at some9,000 military aircraft, a figure backed up by the American militaryattaché in Berlin. Bullitt, now ambassador in Paris, had alreadypassed on similar figures. To Roosevelt, the conclusion was obvious.This huge air capacity had fatally encouraged Hitler andintimidated the allies. To defend the western hemisphere, heannounced, America required some 10,000 planes. Thus beganthe shaping of US rearmament.
The decision throws revealing light on Roosevelt's approach tointelligence. For one thing the figures for German aircraft productionwere hopelessly exaggerated the true number was closerto 3,000 per annum. Second, the intelligence came from a mix ofunofficial and official sources, with Roosevelt giving as muchweight to the former as to the latter. And third, he even came upwith numbers of his own 12,000 from no identifiable sourceexcept his own imagination.
Army Secretary Henry Stimson later complained that Rooseveltrarely followed a consecutive chain of thought, but was full of storiesand incidents and hopped around in discussion fromsuggestion to suggestion. It was all, he despaired, `like chasing avagrant beam of sunshine around a vacant room'. This was theRoosevelt method. Unimpressed by professional bureaucracies, hemost trusted his own contacts both inside and outside the government and combined these with his own instincts andpreferences to reach a policy decision. It was a haphazard way ofdealing with intelligence. Yet his belief that the European powershad been thoroughly intimidated into appeasement by fears ofHitler's Luftwaffe was correct, and his natural optimism provideda necessary counterweight to the inevitable worst-case scenariosproduced by professional naval and military advisers.
Churchill also had a passionate appreciation for intelligence andsecret agents, sometimes to the point of being carried away by theromantic character of cloak-and-dagger exploits. He had evenbeen a spy of sorts himself during the war that catapultedRoosevelt's cousin Theodore into the American public eye. In1895, when the Cubans revolted against Spain's colonial rule, thetwenty-year-old Churchill, then a junior officer in the Britisharmy, crossed the Atlantic to observe the war from the Spanishside. Before he left London, Britain's Director of MilitaryIntelligence, Colonel Edward Chapman, briefed him on the backgroundand asked him to find out details about Spanish weaponry,thus placing Churchill firmly in the tradition of the `amateur'gentleman spy typical of the Victorian age. He was fascinated bythe ability of the Cuban guerrillas to outwit the Spaniards. `Whattheir own spies fail to find out,' he noted, `their friends in everyvillage let them know.'
His exploits during the British army's imperial skirmishes inIndia, Sudan and South Africa drove home the lesson of how localintelligence could yield valuable dividends and how its lack couldsow disaster. On the Indian North-West Frontier he travelledwith an army intelligence officer meeting informants. In Sudan,advancing with Kitchener to Omdurman, he was generouslybriefed and hosted by army intelligence and, in a burst of embarrassingzeal, detained a British agent on suspicion of being anenemy spy. The Boer War, above all, convinced him that goodintelligence was a vital weapon of war. What else could explain thesuccess of the Boers a small, ill-armed bunch of farmers inhumiliating the imperial might of Britain? Its lack, moreover,explained many of Britain's failures. `The whole intelligence service,'he complained bitterly after he returned home, `is starved forwant of both money and brains.' The Boer War also made hima convert to guerrilla war and covert action. The drama of his ownescape from a prisoner-of-war camp, and his dangerous journeyhome, burnished his fascination with heroic exploits behind enemylines.
After he entered Parliament in 1900, some of his strongest criticismsof the British army were reserved for its poor intelligence,and he demanded the creation of a powerful IntelligenceDepartment. Events went his way. As the Kaiser constructed apowerful German navy to challenge British maritime supremacy,anxieties over national security sparked a series of spy scares. Tokeep an eye on German spies in Britain, as well as to improveintelligence about the German navy, in 1909 Britain's Committeeof Imperial Defence created the Secret Service Bureau, the forerunnerof the two agencies later to become known as MI5 (theSecurity Service) and MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service).
Churchill, who by this time was in the Cabinet, was one of thefew ministers to take an interest in the new Bureau's work. Drivinghis enthusiasm was the firm belief that a powerful German FifthColumn in Britain was poised to carry out sabotage and subversionto assist a German invasion; in truth, no such plan existed,although German spies were certainly at work trying to uncoverintelligence about Britain's navy. As Home Secretary (1910-11)Churchill happily gave MI5 extensive powers to carry out secretsurveillance on suspected spies, and as First Lord of the Admiralty(1911-15) he kept in close touch with MI5's Director, CaptainVernon Kell. It was Churchill who, on the eve of war in July 1914,gave the order to Kell to round up all suspected German spies inBritain.
Like Roosevelt, he was also `hands-on' in his approach. Heliked to read `raw' intelligence reports himself, relished what theyhad to tell him, and even employed an agent to report back to himpersonally. This was `Captain' Edward Tupper, a burly firebrandin the seamen's union, who was eager to sniff out German spies atwork in British ports. During the First World War Churchill wasto find him useful in countering strikes and militancy amongBritish seamen.
But the most important early milestone in Churchill's long connectionwith British intelligence came only weeks after war brokeout in 1914. As the airwaves hummed with radio messages betweenthe fleets and ships at sea and their home commands, top-secretcoded intercepts began to flood the Admiralty. Quickly alerted totheir value for intelligence, Churchill created a special sectionknown as `Room 40' in the old Admiralty building in Whitehall.With hard work and lucky breaks, it soon broke all significantGerman codes, and from then until the end of the war Britaincould follow the movements of the German High Seas Fleet, tracethe departure of U-boats from their home ports, and read most ofGermany's diplomatic messages with the results that Rooseveltand other Americans so vividly learned during the Zimmermantelegram affair. Again, Churchill insisted on seeing Room 40's rawreports with his own eyes. So convinced was he of its significancethat he personally wrote out in longhand its early `charter'.
In May 1915 Churchill became the principal scapegoat for thedisaster of the Dardanelles Expedition a futile bloodletting thatattempted to break the stalemate on the Western Front by openingup a southern front in the Balkans. The crisis would have beenterminal for most politicians, and it badly damaged Churchill. Buthe quickly bounced back, and by 1919 was Minister for War andAir. By this time Lenin and the Bolsheviks had replaced theKaiser's Germany as national bogeyman, and British codebreakerswere busily cracking Moscow's codes. Churchill read these withthe same enthusiasm he had brought to German codes, using theirevidence of Communist subversion in Britain to urge the expulsionof Moscow's representatives from London. He also lent his energiesto the efforts of secret agents plotting to overthrow theBolsheviks. In the chaotic conditions of civil war and famine, amotley collection of passionate anti-Communists and dubiousadventurers, including the ex-nihilist assassin Boris Savinkov andthe legendary `ace of spies' Sidney Reilly, courted British intelligencewith extravagant plots to topple the Bolsheviks. Churchillgave them all the support he could, and although their plots failedhe remained mesmerised by the potential of covert action behindenemy lines to cause mischief and mayhem.
The lessons were reinforced by events in Ireland. In 1922 theBritish were forced to recognise the Irish Free State after a bloodyguerrilla struggle in which Michael Collins' IRA also won a ruthlessand protracted intelligence war. Churchill's role is largelyremembered because of his support for the `Black and Tans', aforce of British ex-servicemen notorious for its indiscriminate violence.But he also pressed hard for enhanced intelligence. WhenSir Henry Wilson, the army's chief of staff, demanded the shootingof hostages in reprisal for Sinn Féin terrorist attacks, Churchilldisagreed. `It is no use ... saying I should shoot without mercy.The question immediately arises: "Whom would you shoot?" Andshortly after that: "Where are they?"' In short, what was neededwas an intensified intelligence war.
Out of power after 1929, Churchill created what was almost analternative private intelligence service at his home in Chartwell inKent. With a vast range of contacts and sources inside and outsideof government, he battered the governments of Baldwin andChamberlain with a barrage of facts and figures in his campaignagainst the appeasement of Hitler. One of his most importantsources was Major Desmond Morton, an officer he had befriendedon the Western Front. Morton was a senior officer in the SecretIntelligence Service who in the 1930s ran the IndustrialIntelligence Centre. He was also a neighbour in Kent, and wouldfrequently stroll over to Chartwell carrying top-secret files toprime Churchill on statistics about German and British rearmament.Churchill also had sources and allies in the armed forces andthe Foreign Office who kept him up to date. If Roosevelt was a`sponge' who soaked up information, Churchill was a vacuum-cleanerwho sucked the last particle of intelligence from everycorner and crevice he could. When war came in September 1939,he was by far and away the best-informed and experienced ministerto mobilise British intelligence for the tasks ahead.