- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 28, 2004

Given that Sir John Keegan is generally regarded as the world’s preeminent living military historian, one hesitates to challenge the bold assertion in his latest book, “Intelligence in War” (reviewed in these pages in November), that intelligence is really irrelevant to winning battles. “War is ultimately about doing, not thinking,” Sir John declares.

I respectfully refer Sir John to a strong contrary argument made by Robert W. Stephan in Stalin’s Secret War: Soviet Counterintelligence Against the Nazis 1941-1945 (University Press of Kansas, $34.95, 400 pages, illus.). Mr. Stephan, a Soviet military expert for the Central Intelligence Agency for more than 20 years, contends that Soviet deception operations “contributed enormously” to defeat of the Germans on the Eastern Front. And he surely convinces me.

The arcane art of “counterintelligence,” or “CI,” as opposed to the information-gathering espionage of conventional intelligence, is often discussed but all too rarely comprehended save by those persons of truly devious minds who do not care if a bit of blood is spilled in the name of victory. In essence, CI is the means used to deny an enemy the capability to gather accurate information, and to mislead him as to what is actually happening.

As for the first component, two decades as a police state gave the Soviets expertise in dealing with Germans who attempted covert penetration of their lines. Informants, rear-area security, terror and deportation discouraged any cooperation with would-be German spies.

Concerning disinformation, the Soviets made heavy use of “notional” organizations and radio broadcasts to deceive the Germans. In the “fog of war” that is an unavoidable element of combat, a commander is under constant stress to be confident that he is making the right decisions, based on accurate information.

Mr. Stephan details numerous disinformation schemes. One of the more devilish — and also more clever — involved the creation of an ostensibly pro-German organization within the USSR code-named Thorne. The story illustrates why many persons do not have the stomach for CI. Mr. Stephan notes, “Thorne’s mission was to seek contacts with the German High Command and to offer its support.” In return, the Germans would give Thorne’s leaders “lucrative positions” in any puppet Russian government when the war ended.

Now this is where things got nasty. To burnish Thorne’s credibility, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin permitted the notional network to warn Berlin of a planned USSR offensive to the north of Stalingrad, near Rzhef, in July 1942. To protect the deception, Stalin did not alert his commander, Marshal Georgi Zukhov, that the Germans knew he was about to attack. Zukhov’s forces lost 193,000 casualties in a single month.

Thereafter the Germans swallowed a steady flow of bogus information passed along by Thorne, whose warnings systematically lured enemy divisions away from Stalingrad. Thorne also convinced Berlin that Stalin had decided against any major ground operations after Nov. 15, 1942. As Mr. Stephan writes, “On November 19, 1942, the Soviets launched a 1.5-million-man offensive [from Stalingrad] that resulted in the destruction of the German Sixth Army. Stalingrad terminated Germany’s bid for world power.”

Thus the value of counterintelligence on the battlefield. Sir John, do take note.

In his preface, Mr. Stephan writes that he used no “current U. S. classified information.” His 97 pages of notes and sources draw heavily upon German archives. That a serving CIA officer would devote such energy to a book suggests that the agency anticipated that the Soviets would have employed the same CI tactics had it ever gone to war with the United States. That possibility, thankfully, is now moot, but as such does not detract from the value of “Stalin’s Secret War.”

• • •

By a chronological coincidence in my reading schedule, one of the leading German figures in Mr. Stephan’s book takes center stage in James H. Critchfield’s Partners at the Creation: The Men Behind Postwar Germany’s Defense and Intelligence Establishments (Naval Institute Press, $32.95, 272 pages, illus.). The story is of how Critchfield and other U.S. officers used Gen. Reinhard Gehlen, Hitler’s former chief of intelligence on the Eastern Front, as the nucleus for a reborn West German intelligence service.

The Gehlen story, of course, has been often told, although in various forms. To summarize briefly, when Gehlen realized that Allied victory was nigh, he had subordinates bury trunks of German intelligence files, with special attention given to those concerning the Soviets. He recognized that a Western-Soviet conflict was inevitable, and he correctly assumed that the files would guarantee him a prominent future. And such proved accurate. “The Gehlen Organization” became a major partner of the CIA and the British MI6 in postwar Germany.

But my mind kept flicking back to what Mr. Stephan wrote about Gehlen’s blunders as Hitler’s intelligence chief. “Gehlen’s most serious intelligence failure of the war,” Mr. Stephan writes, was his failure to anticipate the Soviet offensive of June 1944 that “ripped a 250-mile-wide gap in the German front … [and] obliterated more than thirty German divisions (450,000 men).” Gehlen would later claim in his memoir that he predicted all Soviet offensives in his sector, a statement that historian David Thomas called “proof that the greatest deception senior intelligence officers suffer is from their own opinions.”

In fairness to Gehlen, Hitler and his subordinates regularly denigrated Soviet military capabilities and ignored even good intelligence. And, in due course, Mr. Stephan concludes, Gehlen’s “organization produced the best results of any German intelligence organization during the war.”

In any event, U.S. intelligence regarded Gehlen’s recruitment as a coup. He ultimately became the responsibility of Jim Critchfield, first as a young Army colonel, then as an early officer of the CIA. (Critchfield served the CIA for more than 20 years as an operations officer; he died in April 2003.)

Critchfield aptly describes West Germany as an “intelligence jungle” in the late 1940s and 1950s, with Western agencies competing against one another with almost as much energy as was directed against the Soviets. Early on he recognized Gehlen’s value, and he spent considerable time fending off bureaucratic rivals.

The CIA contingent and families settled into the Gehlen organization’s compound in the village of Pullach and avoided contact with outsiders. Critchfield worked under the name “Kent James Marshall,” and he writes that daughter Ann “many years later … humorously observed that until she was fourteen years old she thought all children had two names.” Critchfield carried out another mission perhaps even more important than caring for Gehlen — the shaping of the intelligence and military structure of a democratic federal republic that took its place in NATO.

That a CIA officer played such a seminal diplomatic role has escaped the attention of historians. Indeed, I skimmed the indexes of several biographies of Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, without finding mention of the CIA, much less “Kent James Marshall.” Critchfield at once tells a good intelligence story and gives insight into how “diplomacy” functioned during the Cold War.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is [email protected]aol.com.

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