HOOVER'S SECRET WAR AGAINST AXIS SPIES: FBI COUNTERESPIONAGE DURING WORLD WAR II
By Raymond J. Batvinis
University Press of Kansas, $34.95, 334 pages
HOOVER'S FBI AND THE FOURTH ESTATE: THE CAMPAIGN TO CONTROL THE PRESS AND THE BUREAU'S IMAGE
By Matthew Cecil
University Press of Kansas, $34.95, 355 pages
An oft-told story in the annals of intelligence is that of the rivalry of the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover with William Donovan of the Office of Strategic Services over which agency should have wartime primacy in the fight against the Axis powers. However, an overlooked principal in the fight was none other than MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service.
As retired FBI executive Raymond Batvinis relates in engrossing detail, the Brits chose to align themselves with Donovan, realizing that he had considerably more clout with President Roosevelt than did Hoover. Indeed, in the pre-war years, the British were bold enough to set up their own shadow intelligence service in the United States, British Security Coordination, whose functions paralleled those of the FBI in many respects. To the British, the FBI was a police agency, interested in imprisoning spies rather than using them to feed disinformation back to Berlin, as did MI6.
In due course, peace was made. The OSS emerged with prime responsibility for foreign intelligence, but the FBI had an overseas presence through agents posted to American embassies as "legal attaches."
Drawing upon previously classified documents, Mr. Batvinis describes how the FBI joined with MI6 in the so-called "Double Cross" operation to funnel false information back to the enemy through agents who were caught and "turned." The bureau's target audience was Japan, which was fed a flood of bogus "information" on subjects ranging from the growth of U.S. military prowess to intended invasion targets. I had not encountered a full description of the bureau's work on "Double Cross" until Mr. Batvinis' book.
Another FBI coup, according to Mr. Batvinis, was the "chilling revelation," detected in December 1941, about German eagerness for information concerning American atomic research. FBI intelligence led to Roosevelt's decision to fund the development of nuclear weaponry.
The FBI managed to con the Germans into sending vast sums to agents who had been doubled into working for the Allies. (The agents would claim that they could not spy and hold a job at the same time.) One of them alone received $46,875 over a two-year period — more than $612,000 in 2012 dollars.
Another deception swallowed by the Germans was the creation of bogus subagents who supposedly had access to information sought by Berlin. These notional sources were essential to convincing Berlin that the prime agent had access to multiple sources — including a War Department employee and workers in such places at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Republic Aviation Co.
For communications, the FBI set up a transmitter in a rambling farmhouse in a remote area on the north shore of Long Island. A "large snarling dog" discouraged visits from curious locals.
Mr. Batvinis' book is a splendid account of the FBI's contribution to victory in World War II. Five cloaks, five daggers.
From the same publisher, but not nearly so impressive, is Matthew Cecil's book on Hoover and the media. Put directly, it is an ill-disguised hatchet job that reveals the author to be either ill-informed or duplicitous. Many of his uniformly harsh criticisms stem from an article by a New York newspaperman named Fred Cook that filled an entire issue of the leftist magazine The Nation in 1958.
The provenance of the attack is best explained by another Cook article in The Nation a year earlier titled "The Unfinished Story of Alger Hiss," which blamed FBI misconduct for the conviction of the former State Department officer on perjury charges. Mr. Cecil is strangely inept at connecting dots. Anyone even vaguely conversant with journalism history is aware of The Nation's maniacal belief in Hiss' innocence well into the 21st century. By discrediting Hoover, Cook — and The Nation — hoped to exonerate Hiss. Of course, the ever-predictable claque of leftists accepted his charges as the gospel truth.
Given that he teaches journalism, I find it curious that Mr. Cecil is capable — well, let me be charitable — of bobtailing the truth when discussing the Hoover-hating journalist I.F. Stone. Mr. Cecil writes that Stone attracted the FBI's attention when a coded Soviet telegram related that a KGB operative and TASS news agency correspondent "had sought to make contact with Stone, who avoided him."
Such does not begin to tell the entire story. The Venona intercepts of Soviet intelligence cables in the 1940s, plus now-declassified Soviet archives and the testimony of a one-time KGB general, Oleg Kalugin, reveal that Stone worked for the Soviets from 1936 to 1939. A 1936 KGB cable related that "Pancake," as Stone was known, had entered "the channel of normal operational work." For whatever reason, he broke relations.
When the Soviets approached him again in 1944, Stone rebuffed them, saying he "did not want to attract the attention of the FBI." However, he did tell the KGB man that "he would not be averse to having a supplementary income."
Mr. Cecil is quick to smear those who differ from his view of Hoover as a tyrant. One peculiar target of his wrath is Morris Ernst, a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union and frequent defender of the FBI. Mr. Cecil writes that in supporting Hoover, Ernst was "almost fanatical in his willingness to put his own credibility and that of the ACLU on the line." He called Ernst "a useful prop." Don Whitehead of The Associated Press won two Pulitzer Prizes for wartime reporting. Because he wrote a book favorable to Hoover, Mr. Cecil charges that he "sold out his own journalistic credibility ."
Whew. And this man teaches journalism.
Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.