Covert Navy Tactics and Strategies: Naval Intelligence
The history of naval espionage runs as complicated as the conflicts that sparked the very need for it. As world powers began to develop highly specialized naval forces, these navies began to play a crucial role in the collection of intelligence and covert actions that took place both during wars and during times of peace. In lieu of German and Japanese naval threats, British and American naval forces began to work in the intelligence fields, eventually establishing naval intelligence agencies that were crucial in collecting and acting on information during World War II, the Cold War, and beyond.
Navies were not always associated with intelligence gathering and covert strategy. The move into intelligence was a long one. Early on in the United States’ Navy’s history, there was a development of covert tactics in order to maneuver around stronger naval forces. “The United States Navy could deal effectively with a superior naval force [â€¦] by avoiding battle on the open sea, fighting instead in bays, sounds, and interior waterways,” but also through the use of covert tactics as well.[footnoteRef:0] Such thinking eventually led to the official formation of an intelligence unit under the control of the U.S. Navy. In 1882, the Navy “issued General Order No. 292, which established an office of intelligence within the Bureau of Navigation.”[footnoteRef:1] This was an official creation of a purely naval intelligence unit, aiming to use the Navy’s resources for intelligence gathering purposes. This unit remained active for over sixty years, well into World War II until it was later replaced by the Office of Naval Intelligence. During this time period, “Strategic and technical information on foreign navies was collected by from either open sources like newspapers, magazines, and public radio broadcasts or from the intelligence reports made by naval attaches, confidential agents, and the occasional account of American travelers.”[footnoteRef:2] Early strategies were often much less innovative than what is being used today, but were still quite cutting edge for the time period. Such intelligence gathering kept the American Navy informed about other countries’ naval activities. [0: G.J.A. O’Toole. Honorable Treachery: A History of U.S. Intelligence, Espionage, and Covert Action from the American Revolution to the CIA. Grove / Atlantic. 2014. P 78] [1: Delta Green. A History of the Office of Naval Intelligence, 1882-1942. Delta Green Partnership. 1999. Web. http://odh.trevizo.org/oni.html] [2: Delta Green 1]
Yet, the United States was not the only nation developing intelligence units within the context of the Navy’s power. In fact, Germany is also notorious for its Navy’s intelligence and espionage activities that spanned from the beginning of the twentieth century into World War II. German espionage took a center role in World War I and World War II with the German Navy’s use of covert submarine warfare tactics. Germany had a long history of well developed naval strategies that dates back to the nineteenth century. In fact, German naval technology had far outweighed American technology for years in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Under the leadership of Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the once small Prussian Navy became the Imperial Navy, which dominated the Atlantic from the 1870s to the end of World War I in 1919.[footnoteRef:3] During this time, the German Navy developed highly sophisticated naval vessels, including the notorious u-boats, submarines that would dominate the Atlantic during World War I. German naval officers often focused on “strategic studies [that] traditionally considered hypothetical wars with Britain,” but by 1897, “the emerging naval power of the United States prompted German naval staff officers to shift their focus to contingency planning for an American War.”[footnoteRef:4] Not long after, Germany would have its chance to test the strategies crafted against both the British and American navies. German naval intelligence was highly sophisticated and included a vast network of spies around the time of World War I.[footnoteRef:5] Their efforts targeted the British Navy in an attempt to evaluate the threat level but also to sabotage British and American naval opposition to German interests in the Atlantic. In fact, a total of 31 German naval spies were arrested in Great Britain during the context of World War I.[footnoteRef:6] [3: Gordon Williamson. U-Boats of the Kaiser’s Navy. Osprey Publishing 2012 P. 23] [4: O’Toole Honorable Treachery P. 135] [5: Jeffrey Verhey. “Review of Boghardt, Thomas, Spies of the Kaiser: German Covert Operations in Great Britain during the First World War Era.” H-German, H-Net Reviews. September, 2006. P 1] [6: Verhy “Spies of the Kaiser” P. 2]
During this time, the German Navy was conducting covert missions in the Atlantic with the use of submarines. German U-boats were a huge danger to British supply lines, as well as boat traffic in the Atlantic. Due to the aggressive tactics of the German Navy, “under extreme political pressure, Germany was forced to offer guarantees that U-boats would not endanger neutral shipping and would not attack passenger liners, even if they flew the flag of a belligerent nation.”[footnoteRef:7] However, despite such guarantees, aggressive u-boat activity continued to plague ships in the Atlantic. German naval activity was so strong at the time; it posed enough of a threat to lure the United States into the European conflict. In fact, it was the bombing of the RMS Lusitania in May of 1915 that really angered American forces and prompted public opinion towards joining the war in Europe to fight against Germany.[footnoteRef:8] [7: Williamson U-Boats of the Kaiser’s Navy P. 38] [8: Williamson U-Boats of the Kaiser’s Navy P. 39]
The Germans continued to use their naval resources for intelligence and covert operations well into World War II. The German Navy was heavily reduced after World War I, almost entirely dismantled by war treaties that required Germany to reduce its standing army dramatically. Still, the country began silently rebuilding its once-great navy during the 1920s as officers “secretly purchased new naval vessels and weaponry” from Spain, Japan, and Sweden.[footnoteRef:9] As Hitler and the Nazi Party seized power, there was again a renewed vigor to increase the power of the German Navy. By the outbreak of World War II, the German Navy was again a strong threat to allied forces. Part of this threat was the highly sophisticated naval intelligence unit, headed by Lieutenant Martin Braune. The unit had over 500 officers and 24 posts engaging in gathering communications intelligence throughout the Atlantic.[footnoteRef:10] Additionally, “there were also intelligence officers aboard every German warship,” that helped expand Germany’s naval intelligence capabilities dramatically.[footnoteRef:11] [9: Christer Jorgensen. Hitler’s Espionage Machine: The True Story Behind One of the World’s Most Ruthless Spy Networks. Globe Pequot. 2004. P 26] [10: Jorgensen Hitler’s Espionage Machine P. 23] [11: Jorgensen Hitler’s Espionage Machine P. 23]
Still, there were developments that allowed for European and American powers to combat the powerful and secretive German Navy. One major breakthrough just before the outbreak of World War II was the British acquisition of Enigma codes. According to the research, “the British anti-shipping campaign against the Herman naval operations could not have been a success without the employment of five types of intelligence: photographic, agents, diplomatic, ordinary SIGINT, and Enigma.”[footnoteRef:12] The Enigma was a coding machine used by the Germans in order to encode crucial and strategic messages. British intelligence officers acquired an Enigma machine from Polish cryptologists working with the Polish Cypher Bureau in 1939.[footnoteRef:13] Ultimately, this helped the British and American navies fight back against the incredibly powerful and cunning German Navy during World War II. [12: James D. Calder. Intelligence, Espionage, and Relate Topics: An Annotated Bibliography of Serial, Journal, and Magazine Scholarship, 1844-1998. Greenwood Publishing Group. 1999. P. 84] [13: Gordon Welchman. The Hut Six Story: Breaking the Enigma Codes. M&M Baldwin. 1997. P 289.]
During World War II, the American Navy was busy at work conducting covert actions in the Pacific, as well as the Atlantic. The Office of Naval Communications actually began operations spying on Japanese communications as early as 1920.[footnoteRef:14] Actually, the breakthroughs in understanding Japanese codes during this time was ultimately one of the catalysts of the Navy entering into espionage and covert intelligence, which it solidified during the next coming decades. In fact in 1920, navy intelligence officers had acquired what is now known as the Red Book, a codebook that was revolutionary in breaking Japanese codes. According to the research, this would not only help break Japanese codes for the coming years, but also start “a slow chain of events that gradually moved the navy into the communications-intelligence business, a field in which it had very little experience.”[footnoteRef:15] Even with the codebook, understanding Japanese messages was a very complicated task because messages were enciphered after they were encoded. This again prompted the Navy to invest resources and manpower into developing communications-intelligence that was capable of uncovering highly complex coded messages in Japanese communications systems. [14: O’Toole Honorable Treachery P. 156] [15: O’Toole Honorable Treachery P. 171]
As naval intelligence kept tracking Japanese activities, it played a crucial role in combating the encroaching Japanese invasion in World War II. Due to the nature of the war in the Pacific, the navy was crucial to gathering intelligence against the Japanese and planning strategic covert moves in ocean battles. The Japanese had been working to expand their territory over thousands of miles of islands around the South Pacific.[footnoteRef:16] This made traditional intelligence gathering quite difficult, and required the Navy to embark on new strategies for finding and documenting Japanese communication lines in this vast ocean space. Yet, clearly, the Navy had a lot to learn about true intelligence gathering, as the entire nation was stunned on the morning of December 7, 1941. [16: Delta Green 1]
The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor signaled a failure in naval intelligence that resulted in serious damage and loss of human life. As the Navy began to remodel its intelligence units, there were periods where there were gaps of major activity. 1941 was unfortunately a year where the naval intelligence units simply did not have as much capabilities as they needed. Here, research suggests that “on the eve of Pearl Harbor, the naval intelligence office in Hawaii consisted of two officers, one yeoman, and a translator, and their duties were concentrated on surveillance over the large Japanese-American community,” rather than the Japanese enemy lurking in the Pacific.[footnoteRef:17] The unit had little resources to expand their intelligence monitoring to Japanese activity east of the islands. As a result of such limited resources, the Japanese were able to compile a massive strike unknown to American intelligence. After the attack, it was clear that the Navy needed more resources to properly address the threat in the Pacific. This is part of what prompted the reorganization of Navy intelligence into more specialized units in 1942. [17: Delta Green 1]
Still, there was a lot of progress the Navy did make in regards to gathering intelligence on the Japanese. In June of 1941, a naval combat intelligence unit nicknamed Hypo supplied crucial information of the location of Japanese naval fleets, helping naval forces plan for invasion locations. At this time in the war, “the unit was then primarily concerned with tracking Japanese Imperial Navy through radio traffic analysis and direction finding; its principal cryptanalytic activity consisted of attempting to break the Japanese flag officers’ code.”[footnoteRef:18] The unit was successful in tracking Japanese Naval forces; yet, it failed to predict the tragic strike at Pearl Harbor in December of that same year. Afterwards, the Navy put pressure to increase the covert tactics used in tracking Japanese intelligence so that American forces would not be caught in the dark again like they were at Pearl Harbor. All of the unit’s energy was then centered on breaking the code of the JN25b cryptosystem. Lieutenant Commander Thomas H. Dyer was crucial in the early stages of breaking the JN25b codes in early of 1942. By April of that same year, “many of the partially decrypted messages were found to refer to a geographic location designated by the code MO, and some of the references seemed to imply that MO was to be the objective of a major Japanese naval operation.”[footnoteRef:19] This location turned out to be Port Moresby, near the southeastern coast of New Guinea. The intelligence gathered by Navy code breakers had come on to a huge discovery, and action was immediately taken by the Navy to intervene. The U.S.S. Lexington and the U.S.S. Yorktown were both commissioned to the area and engaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Unfortunately, “The Battle of the Coral Seas was not an American naval victory, but it ended the Japanese expedition against Port Moresby and was thus the first check encountered by the Japanese in their march into eastern Asia.”[footnoteRef:20] Without the naval intelligence, the Japanese would have likely taken the area and established a stronghold that could have potentially prolonged the war. [18: O’Toole Honorable Treachery P. 172] [19: O’Toole Honorable Treachery P. 172] [20: O’Toole Honorable Treachery P. 172]
The need for the Navy’s communication intelligence was heightened during the intense years of the Cold War. During this period, the United States Navy conducted a number of highly secret missions to gather intelligence from the Communist Russian superpower to the east. Russia had a powerful navy itself, and the U.S. Navy played a crucial role in working to combat Soviet attempts to gain critical information regarding American activities and strategies.
One of the most successful of these cover missions was called Operation Ivy Bells. Working with the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA), the Navy helped tap into a crucial Russian communications pipeline in the Sea of Okhostk. Sometime in the 1960s, the Russians had built an underwater communications cable in the region near the Southeast portion of Russia, just north of Japan.[footnoteRef:21] During the time period, the United States was looking for any information that would give an idea of Russia’s nuclear capabilities and potential striking abilities. In 1971, the Navy participated in a joint effort to tap into the communications cable. The U.S.S. Halibut was commissioned deep into Communist waters to install a device that wrapped around the 400-foot communications cable and monitored communications passing through it.[footnoteRef:22] The mission was highly secretive, with many of the sailors participating in it unaware of exactly what it was they were doing. Actually, the cover story of the U.S.S. Halibut being sent to recover pieces of the Russian SS-N-12 Sandbox, an anti-ship missile, was true, as the Navy did gather debris of the missile and bring it back for further investigation. Thus, the mission itself was multi-faceted not only in its purpose, but also in its inherent secrecy. It proved enormously successful and opened up lines of communication between Russian Communist forces. The device planted on the cable was nuclear powered and could store incredible amounts of data, but was replaced often by similar missions conducted by other submarines like the U.S.S. Parche and the U.S.S. Seawolf. The communications breach lasted almost an entire decade and was not discovered by the Soviets until 1981, when the Russians were tipped off by a former NSA worker, Ronald Pelton about its existence.[footnoteRef:23] Still, those ten years of communications tapping led to substantial data and the Navy’s role in maintaining the project was crucial in a covert effort to supply rich communications intelligence during the volatile period of the Cold War. [21: David Hoffman, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy. Knopf Doubleday Publishing. 2010. P 200] [22: Hoffman The Dead Hand P. 205] [23: Hoffman The Dead Hand P. 206]
Another successful covert operation the U.S. Navy participated was Operation Lemon-Aid. This was not gathering intelligence, but rather confusing the intelligence gathering of the Soviets here in the United States in the late 1970s. The Soviets had begun recruiting NSA, CIA, and Navy officers and staff to work as secret agents, selling U.S. secrets for cold, hard cash. A number of top Navy officers and officials fell into the scheme, as many felt their Navy pays was unreasonably low. One of the most notorious cases of a top Navy officer turning on the United States was the case of John Walker. In 1976, Walker retired after over twenty years of service in the Navy. He was then lured by Soviet cash to begin selling U.S. secrets as well as to recruit other active Navy Officers into a spy ring that would damage the Navy’s reputation.[footnoteRef:24] For nearly a decade, Walker had worked against the very country he served in, until his ex-wife signaled naval authorities. It was clear there were major security compromises. [24: John Prados. “The John Walker Spy Ring and the U.S. Navy’s Biggest Betrayal.” U.S. Naval History Magazine. 2010. Web. http://news.usni.org/2014/09/02/john-walker-spy-ring-u-s-navys-biggest-betrayal]
Thus, the United States decided to use this very strategy against the Soviets by recruiting double agents that would feed the Communists false information. In 1977, the Naval Investigative Service teamed up with the FBI to purposely feed false information to Soviets working in the United States, using the Embassy in New York as a front.[footnoteRef:25] One of the most infamous cases was that of U.S. Navy Officer Art Lindberg, who was recruited after he was approached by Soviet spies to sell U.S. secrets. Communications between Lindberg and the Soviet spies also provided crucial information regarding how the spy network worked here in the United States. Apparently, “the Soviets repeatedly passed messages and money to Lindberg in the most ordinary, everyday items” magnetic key holders placed in phone booths, cigarette packs, soda cans, orange juice cartons, even a rubber hose from an appliance.”[footnoteRef:26] For several months, Lindberg fed these Soviet spy networks false information, until May of 1978, when he was actually given classified information to pass to his Soviet connections, “so the Soviets would be caught red-handed.”[footnoteRef:27] Three individuals were taken into custody, two covert KGB officers who were later convicted for espionage and an individual who held diplomatic immunity and was thus promptly deported. Ultimately, the Navy helped confuse Soviet intelligence during Operation Lemonade, but also gather important information regarding how Soviet spy networks were recruiting U.S. officers and their operations within the United States. [25: Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Orange Juice Cartoons and Rubber Hoses: A Spy Story.” A Byte Out of History. 2006. Web. http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2006/may/lemonaid_bye051906 P. 1] [26: FBI “Orange Juice Cartoons” P. 1] [27: FBI “Orange Juice Cartoons” P. 1]
Yet, there has been a continued history of internal threats from within the Navy supplementing foreign espionage efforts. Even as late as 2011, top U.S. naval officers were caught supplying critical and secret information to Russia. Robert Hoffman was “a sailor with top secret clearance, a sensitive job on a submarine, and 20 years service in the Navy.”[footnoteRef:28] Still, in 2011, he began arousing suspicions that led an investigation into his potential dealings with the current Russian regime. The FBI and NCIS, spearheaded by the Navy, began surveillance on Hoffman after he retired in 2011. After being set up by a female agent posing as a Russian operative, Hoffman began offering to answer top secret questions. He was eventually arrested and found guilty of espionage, sentenced to thirty years in prison.[footnoteRef:29] Clearly, there are still threats to naval intelligence security that resemble the struggles faced in the Cold War. [28: Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Stopping a Dangerous Insider Threat.” Naval Espionage. 2014. Web. http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2014/march/naval-espionage-stopping-a-dangerous-insider-threat/naval-espionage-stopping-a-dangerous-insider-threat] [29: FBI Naval Espionage P. 1]
Even as the Cold War ended, the U.S. Navy has continued to play a large role in the gathering of intelligence and execution of covert actions. After World War II, the Intelligence unit within the Bureau of Navigation was transformed into a much more modern and highly sophisticated intelligence organization. In 1942, the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) was established and “would broaden the definition of intelligence to include any information that might involve the security of the naval establishment and the nation at large.”[footnoteRef:30] Today, this new agency faces much different threats than in previous generations. The War on Terror has become one of the major concerns of modern naval intelligence. In fact, during the attack on 9/11, the Naval Command Center, center of the intelligence effort of the Navy, was targeted and destroyed. In response, the Navy was quick to regroup and begin intense intelligence gathering on extremists that now pose the biggest threat to American safety. Today, over 3,500 active officers are involved in gathering intelligence.[footnoteRef:31] Yet, this is only 1% of the personnel on active duty in the larger force of the general Navy. These officers now work with naval vessels to “provide direct support to multiple warfare commanders, supporting strike group decision makers with indications and warnings and adding significantly to the battlespace awareness of tactical commanders.”[footnoteRef:32] Additionally, today more than ever before, naval intelligence is focused on naval aviation. A large part of recent efforts is focused on protecting aviation resources and planning for critical air strikes from U.S. Navy vessels. As the technology and innovation behind intelligence gathering becomes increasingly complex, the U.S. Navy has been adapting to meet these new challenges. [30: Delta Green P. 1] [31: Richard Porterfield. . “Naval Intelligence: Transforming to Meet the Threat.” The Naval Institute: Proceedings. 2005. Web. http://www.military.com/NewContent/0,13190,NI_0905_Naval-P1,00.html] [32: Porterfield “Transforming to Meet the Threat” P. 1]
Navies have long played a critical role in gathering intelligence and executing covert strategic objectives. These organizations became increasingly complex and bent on intelligence during the end of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century. Intelligence units in navies have helped shape the courses of World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. As intelligence gathering methods continue to evolve, the Navy will ultimately still be a major influential factor.
Calder, James D. Intelligence, Espionage, and Relate Topics: An Annotated Bibliography of Serial, Journal, and Magazine Scholarship, 1844-1998. Greenwood Publishing Group. 1999.
Delta Green. A History of the Office of Naval Intelligence, 1882-1942. Delta Green Partnership. 1999. Web. http://odh.trevizo.org/oni.html
Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Orange Juice Cartoons and Rubber Hoses: A Spy Story.” A Byte Out of History. 2006. Web. http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2006/may/lemonaid_bye051906
Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Stopping a Dangerous Insider Threat.” Naval Espionage. 2014. Web. http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2014/march/naval-espionage-stopping-a-dangerous-insider-threat/naval-espionage-stopping-a-dangerous-insider-threat
Hoffman, David. The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy. Knopf Doubleday Publishing. 2010.
Jorgenson, Christer. Hitler’s Espionage Machine: The True Story Behind One of the World’s Most Ruthless Spy Networks. Globe Pequot. 2004.
Porterfield, Richard B. “Naval Intelligence: Transforming to Meet the Threat.” The Naval Institute: Proceedings. 2005. Web. http://www.military.com/NewContent/0,13190,NI_0905_Naval-P1,00.html
Prados, John. “The John Walker Spy Ring and the U.S. Navy’s Biggest Betrayal.” U.S. Naval History Magazine. 2010. Web. http://news.usni.org/2014/09/02/john-walker-spy-ring-u-s-navys-biggest-betrayal
O’Toole, G.J.A. Honorable Treachery: A History of U.S. Intelligence, Espionage, and Covert Action from the American Revolution to the CIA. Grove / Atlantic. 2014.
Welchman, Gordon. The Hut Six Story: Breaking the Enigma Codes. M&M Baldwin. 1997.
Williamson, Gordon. U-Boats of the Kaiser’s Navy. Osprey Publishing. 2012.
Verhey, Jeffrey. “Review of Boghardt, Thomas, Spies of the Kaiser: German Covert Operations in Great Britain during the First World War Era.” H-German, H-Net Reviews. September, 2006.