BOOKS: War and linguistics, Vatican spies
DECIPHERING THE RISING SUN
By Roger Dingman
Naval Institute Press, $29.95, 340 pages, illus.
SPIES IN THE VATICAN
By John O. Koehler
Pegasus Books, $26.95, 296 pages, illus.
Since Sept. 11, those who supposedly run our government have spluttered with frustration over the lack of linguistic abilities among the agencies tasked with combating terrorism. Typical of the pained noises was a July report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence decrying the intelligence community’s foreign language capabilities as “abysmal.” It fumed, “The cadre of intelligence professionals capable of speaking, reading, or understanding critical regional languages such as Pashto, Dari or Urdu remains essentially nonexistent.”
I suggest that these worry-warts silence themselves for a few days and read Roger Dingman’s fascinating account of how the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps trained some 1,200 Americans — most of them not of Japanese ancestry — as Japanese language officers during World War II. He focuses on the Navy program, one of 14 offered by the military. And although he describes Japanese as “one of the world’s most difficult languages,” what happened is a good example of how an intelligence agency can address a problem, and find a solution.
As far back as the 1920s, the Office of Naval Intelligence sensed the possibility, even the likelihood, of hostilities with Japan. So in the 30 years prior to Pearl Harbor, the Navy sequentially dispatched 65 men to Japan for language studies. But retirements and lack of ONI billets meant that the number of language-competent officers was “tiny.” In ONI’s Far Eastern Section, “only an 80-year-old civilian and his wife, who volunteered to work on occasion, could translate technical data or handwritten material forwarded from Tokyo.”
Beginning in 1940, prescient officers mined academia for ideas, but found that most universities considered language instruction “a tool for gaining historical and cultural insights” — not what the Navy needed in wartime. Eventually the Navy created its own program at the University of California, Berkeley, only to have it uprooted to the University of Colorado in Boulder when citizens of Japanese origin were expelled from the West Coast. Neither the military hierarchy nor the Justice Department would grant waivers to instructors of Japanese descent.
Mr. Dingman, himself a Navy Japanese linguist in the 1960s, then an academician, details the intensity of the immersion courses in the program, and their subsequent assignments with battlefield units in the Pacific and to various code-breaking stations. Combat troops scooped up code books and messages revealing enemy troop dispositions. Considerable persuasion was sometimes required to make mariners surrender “souvenirs.”
One recurrent problem was a shortage of interrogation subjects. The Japanese to-the-death doctrine meant few surrendered — 2 percent on Peleliu, 4 percent on Iwo Jima, for instance. Further, Japanese atrocities against captured Americans — you do not want to read Mr. Dingman’s descriptions — meant that many Marines butchered captives for revenge. Nonetheless, Mr. Dingman cites with justifiable pride the number of Japanese civilians and soldiers talked into surrendering. He asserts that hundreds of thousands of lives were saved.
Given their immersion in Japanese culture, many of the linguists served in the Japanese occupation, which, by all accounts, was a postwar success. Others flocked to new intelligence agencies — “at least” 20 to CIA, others to NSA and the State Department. Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but Mr. Dingman demonstrates that an application of energy and talent could resolve our current linguist shortages.
One of the more vicious substruggles of the Cold War was the Soviet Union’s attempt to obliterate the Catholic Church, intensified when Pope John Paul II pushed for freedom for his native Poland. The KGB coopted Vatican officials of many levels, employing blackmail and agents who became priests for the sole purpose of getting high church assignments.
The KGB relied heavily upon “bugs” planted in key Vatican offices. One especially audacious (and odious) stunt was for a housekeeper couple to present a 10-inch ceramic statute of the Virgin Mary to Cardinal Agostino Caseroli. The husband was Cardinal Caseroli’s uncle. Mr. Koehler writes, “What a betrayal by his own nephew! Inside the revered religious icon was a ‘bug,’ a tiny but powerful transmitter which was monitored from outside the building by the couples’ handler from the Soviet embassy in Rome.” Another transmitter was secreted in an armoire in the cardinal’s dining room. Mr. Koehler reproduces pages of these transcripts that he acquired from Stasi files after the collapse of East Germany.
One report recounted a 1970 meeting between Pope Paul VI and President Nixon at which Vietnam and the Middle East were discussed. Another summarized a talk between the pontiff and Secretary of State William Rogers. The East German security service, Stasi, and Bulgarian and Polish agents did much of the spying scut work. But their “take” was quickly shared with the KGB.
Mr. Koehler identifies by name a staggering number of priests who spied on their own masters, either because of blackmail or ideological weaknesses. The Soviet spy rings were vast and effective.
But there were Vatican successes as well. The KGB scoured schools in the Ukraine for young men who were schooled in spycraft, then steered into the priesthood. But within months, many were detected and dispatched home by Father Robert A. Graham, originally from San Francisco, a Jesuit counterintelligence expert who had learned his trade fighting Nazi infiltration of the Vatican.
In Poland, the communist services recruited an estimated 10 percent to 14 percent of the serving priests to spy on the church. Inquiries are ferreting out and humiliating these persons with regularity.
Mr. Koehler accepts contentions that ultimate responsibility for the attempted murder of Pope John Paul II lies with the Soviets, acting through Bulgarian surrogates. The myriad theories swirling around Europe — a cottage industry rivaling in scope the JFK assassination — are beyond the scope of a 500-word commentary.
Mr. Koehler, a former Army counterintelligence officer, reported for the Associated Press for 40 years, chiefly from Europe. A must-read that ranks with his earlier book on the Stasi.
• Joseph Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is JosephG894@aol.com.