- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 11, 2008

As any serious student of the subject realizes, “intelligence” is a term that goes far beyond espionage and the cloak-and-dagger shenanigans so beloved by the writers of spy thrillers. This has been true since Biblical times, when Moses, acting on command of the Lord, sent scouts “to spy out the land” — which meant reconnaissance. (Numbers 13) And indeed, some of more valuable achievements of the intelligence community during the Cold War fell far outside the parameters of what the laymen might call “spying.”

Such was surely the case in 1970, when the nuclear submarine USS Queenfish (SSN-651) slipped under the Arctic ice pack and found its way 3,100 miles through uncharted waters to explore the continental shelf off the Siberian coast, site of many Soviet testing grounds and sensitive nuclear sites. The story — and it is a truly astounding one — is told by the Queenfish’s captain, Alfred S. McLaren, in Unknown Waters (University of Alabama Press, $29.95, 243 pages, illus.) Capt. McLaren is a graduate of the US Naval Academy, class of 1955.

Queenfish truly went into harm’s way. The Soviet military, understandably, considered the area that it traversed to be highly secret. Thus Queenfish “sailed black,” its identifying numbers stripped away. (When it surfaced briefly near the North Pole so that crewmen could be photographed on the ice to record their historic mission, paper numbers were temporarily taped on the bridge. Moscow claimed a 230-mile territorial limit, which encompassed most of the continental shelf. The United States recognized a 12-mile limit (as did international law, in the main), so Capt. McLaren had to take care to remain in those bounds.

What the United States feared was that Soviet nuclear subs would lurk under the ice pack, to emerge and fire missiles at our mainland in time of war. Capt. McLaren’s mission was to determine whether American “killer subs” could find safe passages to follow in tracking down putative enemy subs.

Queenfish left Pearl Harbor on Aug. 10, 1970, and during the next two months, it traveled more than 14,000 nautical miles, almost all of it submerged. It carried a full complement of torpedoes and missiles.

There were moments of sheer terror. Sonar, radar and other electronic guidance equipment sometimes gave misleading signals. Thus Capt. McLaren found Queenfish trapped in a narrow dead-end “ice garage,” with no exit save the rear. Backing up a submarine is considerably more complex than putting an auto into reverse, but he managed the maneuver

There were also moments of levity. Off the New Silerian islands, Capt. McLaren raised the periscope to see a polar bear striding along the ice. The curious bear plopped into the water and swam directly towards the periscope, Capt. McLaren watching through the cross-hairs. “Its great white head loomed larger and larger and soon filled the entire field of view … the idle thought entered my head, ‘How on earth are we going to explain teeth marks on our periscope when we return to port?’” The bear then veered away, and two “bright-eyed cubs” were seen in her wake.

Capt. McLaren is lavish in his praise of fellow officers and his crewmen, for in the best Navy tradition, he realizes the team effort required to carry out such an intricate and dangerous missions. Thanks be that the route he plotted was never used in wartime. But in retrospect, it is comforting to know that it existed.


A legendary figure in the annals of guerrilla warfare is the British intelligence officer T. E. Lawrence — “Lawrence of Arabia” — whose desert Arab irregulars bedeviled the Germans and their Turkish allies in the Middle East during World War II. Lawrence became famous because of his memoir “Revolt in the Desert” and the somewhat overblown accounts of his exploits written by the journalist Lowell Thomas.

As some of us elders come to realize, memory and reality do not always coincide, and especially when a man of considerable ego is writing his own story, as Lawrence did. Now we have a cold-eyed (and favorable, I quickly add) appraisal what happened in James Barr’s Setting the Desert on Fire: T. E. Lawrence and Britain’s Secret War in Arabia, 1916-1918 (Norton, $27.95, 382 pages, illus.). Mr. Barr is an Oxford-trained historian who has worked for British publications. Hisdiligent research took him to the remote desert sites where Lawrence fought.

The British dilemma in 1916 was to keep German troops pinned down in the Middle East so that they could not be deployed to the main front in France, without diminishing their own forces in the process. Lawrence, an archeologist by training, had worked in the area for years and knew both the people and the land. So he was recruited into the Arab Bureau of British intelligence and tasked with persuading Arab tribes to revolt against the Ottoman Turks, undermining their influence and also that of the French, who shared Britain’s colonial aspirations.

Lawrence succeeded beyond all expectations. He cajoled often-feuding tribes into uniting for raids to destroy, by dynamite and mines, rail lines that linked far-flung enemy forts and supply dumps. He shied away from fixed battle, for as he wrote, “Our duty was to attain our end with the greatest economy of life, since life was more precious to us than money or time.” Given the awful carnage of trench warfare, such an attitude appealed to the public, and Lawrence was “the perfect British hero: an eccentric amateur whose unorthodox methods brought victory with an economy and fluidity that had been absent from the western front.”

Lawrence’s success, writes Mr. Barr, “caused a complete change in the perception of guerrilla warfare, which up until that point … tended to be seen as the desperate resort of an enemy too weak or disorganized to risk an open confrontation.” Trains and trucks might enable a “mobile army … to advance faster, but its supply lines were longer, and so more vulnerable to the deadly hit-and-run Lawrence had popularized.”

Alas, the downside was that in the interest of luring Arab support, his political overseers had Lawrence make promises of independence that they had no intention of keeping. Once peace came, these assurances were tossed aside, the British did as they wished, and the decades long mess in the Middle East is a lineal descent of that betrayal.

Always a troubled man, sexually and otherwise, Lawrence felt shamed by the scam in which he played a role, albeit an unwitting one. He left the intelligence service, wrote his books, and then enlisted in the air corps under an assumed name. After retirement he died in a motorcycle crash in 1935.

A good read which does much to explain the events you are reading about elsewhere in the paper today. As Mr. Barr accurately comments, “to the Arabs today, the British role behind their uprising 90 years ago remains unforgotten and unforgiven.”

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is JosephG894@aol.com.

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