TRAPPING ENEMY SPIES (Dec, 1936)
TRAPPING ENEMY SPIES
by THOMAS M. JOHNSON
Author of “Our Secret War” and “Without Censor”
“A SPY simply must communicate with his master,” the foremost American hunter of spies told me. Then he added, fervently; “Thank God!”
For the very act of sending his precious stolen information to the country he serves, places the war time spy in deadly danger. The “spy wireless” by which he sends it, is his strength only if it be safely hidden; once discovered, it is his weakness, betraying him to death at dawn before a firing squad. Through that fatal weakness, American spy hunters recently have detected an astounding number of spies for foreign countries, here among us, stealing our defense secrets.
Late this summer, the famous G-men of the Department of Justice startled a nation that usually thinks spies a good joke, by announcing that prowlers from overseas were so active they must be rounded up. Other government departments are taking precautions unprecedented in peace time. Nevertheless, Navy safes and confidential papers have been tampered with by eavesdroppers seeking information about our new billion dollar defense program, and they have stolen so much valuable information that Admiral W. H. Standley admits the Navy may change its fleet tactics.
It is not sensational but true that today there is more spying the world over, including our unsuspecting country, than in any period of so-called peace in history. In Europe alone spies great and small number hundreds of thousands, and the number arrested has trebled this past year. The world is preparing for war, arming; its powers sizing one another up, trying to steal war plans and inventions such as Yankee ingenuity has produced in such numbers. Foreign agents haunt Washington, seeking patent papers. But there is more.
For selling secrets to Japan, a former American navy petty officer was sentenced recently, to 15 years imprisonment, and a former lieutenant commander awaits trial as this is written. There have been other recent amazing spy cases. In each, has appeared the “spy wireless,” unknown to science, yet sometimes, scientific, whereby the spy smuggles the papers containing vital information purloined from a government office, a battleship, even a locked safe, to the master spy who is not infrequently an official of a madly ambitious foreign power. Actually, “spy wireless” may be a hidden radio, an encoded telegram or a letter in secret ink, a carrier pigeon, a double-bottomed trunk, a book binding, the hollow barrel of a key—anything to conceal a tiny roll of tissue paper with its microscopic writing. In international secret service, the art of safe communication has been refined into a fascinating black art.
Arrested last July was Lieutenant Commander John S. Farnsworth, called “Dodo” at Annapolis, where he was graduated with honors. In naval aviation he went high, but crashed; his family says the accident left him “queer.” Soon afterward, in 1927, he was dishonorably discharged from the navy. Needing money, he was charged with selling out as a spy to the Japanese, who in four years were alleged to have paid him $23,000, and using friendships with navy officers and wives to gather and give the Japanese “inside stuff” heard over bar and bridge table or, sometimes, lifted from desk drawers. Once it is said he boarded a destroyer, pretended to be a commander, and tricked an awed ensign into lending him maneuver data which he hurriedly photostated, then returned. But a new Japanese attache cut his pay. Desperate, Farnsworth is said to have offered his confessions to an American newspaper for $20,000, and a 72-hour start for Europe aboard the Zeppelin Hindenburg. But Farnsworth confessed none of this; only to newspaper men he said that he sold the Japanese two “harmless monographs” for $1,000.
The “thirty pieces of silver” for which Harry T. Thompson betrayed his country, were $700. Yet his stealthy attack weakened the great United States Fleet, riding majestically at anchor in the Pacific, guns pointed toward the rising sun. A former navy yeoman, Thompson donned his old uniform, visited naval vessels, asked questions and brought back papers describing Pacific Fleet training. He camouflaged these as harmless brown-paper packages and delivered them to his master, also a Japanese naval officer. Their correspondence, also camouflaged, was read in court. But a letter can be opened, without leaving a trace, by slipping beneath the envelope flap, a stick with a slot in which the letter is caught and drawn out by gently winding the stick, read, and returned. On July 3 Thompson was convicted. In Los Angeles jail, common felons scorned the traitor spy.
In nearby San Pedro, two weeks later, came a visitor to the U.S.S. Saratoga. Aircraft carrier secrets are closely guarded since a foreign power obtained movies of one of them. When the stranger began asking questions and taking hurried notes, a dozen gobs sprang upon him.
“Why, these notes are in code!” they cried, angrily.
The code-writer went behind bars; final disposition of his case is shrouded in mystery.
So is the whole necromancy of codes and ciphers, the side of secret service that to the average reader, seems most occult of all. He little dreams that in these days of “peace,” just as in war, the hidden struggle goes on between spy and spy-hunter, between code-writer, or cryptographer, and code-reader, or cryptanalyst.
“The spy hunter may tap his suspect’s telephone, watch his mail and telegrams (which is almost universal in many foreign countries) —but that is only a beginning. You must watch everything—even his laundry! How can a dirty shirt hide a secret message? Well, suppose the shirt has 26 pleats, and spots scattered over the pleats—yes, in a pattern spelling words. Ridiculous? It’s been done! And once you know the spy’s laundry is his post office, the laundryman a confederate, then through that laundry you may send falsified reports to the master spy behind the scenes, and perhaps ultimately, unravel a whole spy network . .. thanks to spy wireless.
In Washington, in an inconspicuous wing of an unimpressive building, is a remarkable room. Its double-doors lead to a real “black chamber” with walls covered by blackboards, which in turn are covered by numbers and letters. Those cabalistic symbols are used by the piercing-eyed genuises of this secret cabinet, to break the messages of spies in our midst; messages on which may hinge life and death, safety and danger, peace and war. To read them, the patient cryptanalyst’s greatest aid is his frequency tables, showing which letters and words are most commonly written in English.
The usual order of letters in “American” is: ETAONISHRUDLCFMPWGYBVKXQJZ.
Exhaustive studies have shown, too, that in any message, about 15 per cent of the letters will be E, only 2 per cent K, X, Q, J and Z together. Also the TH, HE and ER are combinations often found, that U is seldom found doubled, and other quaint but practical bits of information. Those are charms of the crytographer’s Black Art. Yet even with their aid, to break a long code message of hundreds, perhaps thousands of words and phrases arranged numerically and alphabetically, is a wearing task of days, weeks, perhaps even months. But, once that message is solved, every other message in the same code will be solved . .. if it is known to be a code message.
But such messages are not labeled “via spy-wireless.” How guess about that dirty shirt; or about the string, with knots spaced to fit a ruler with twenty-six notches, one for each letter; or about the pencil “bought” openly on the street from a “peddler,” its twenty-six bands bearing pin-pricks? Then there is the stencil, with holes at fixed intervals. Place it above the innocent-looking letter, and in the holes appear the key words cleverly interspersed in that letter by a writer with a duplicate of the stencil. And the book-code, in which words are written as strings of numbers; page, line and word of a book, perhaps a dictionary, previously agreed upon by the correspondents. How could any one know which book, of millions? Well, no one need know, to solve the message! William F. Friedman, the leading American cryptographer, has solved book-code messages, without knowing what book had been used! Largely by tables showing the frequency of use of words and letters, he broke up a Hindu plot to start a revolution in India.
And now that the colleges are open again, many night students of a New England institution pass the dimly lighted windows of the chemistry laboratory, “Prof’s working late,” they remark. “Making new stinks.”
There would be bad odors indeed, if some of the Professor’s secret alchemies were made public. So he keeps but one lamp burning. It silhouettes his figure, bending over a drawing-board. On the drawing-board is tacked a sheet of paper, but upon its fair white surface appears no mark. Slowly, across the paper the Professor draws a toothpick, around which is wrapped a spill of cotton, stained brown. It leaves a trail of rich sepia.
Suddenly, startlingly etched upon that brown background appear white letters, words. But, with a chill of horror, the Professor sees them begin to fade. Hastily he copies them, thrilled at their import. Somewhere in New York, is a woman spy, on a dangerous mission. So the Professor reports to Washington, whence Uncle Sam sends him not infrequently, a call for help when he has a secret ink message to solve.
Most such messages can be developed by the iodine treatment, either brush or vapor, which shows up the tiny paper fibres ever so slightly disarranged by the pen in writing. So some spies use a ball-pointed pen—but that is a giveaway when they are caught. To destroy such damning evidence, one spy swallowed his pen and nearly killed himself! Spies usually write secret messages in their invisible ink, between the lines of a harmless letter written in ordinary ink. To prevent being caught possessing invisible ink, spies may soak a black sock with silver preparation, and when they want ink, soak it again in water and write with the solution. Or they may use ferrocyanide of potassium, cobalt, dilute sulphuric acid, copper oxide, acetic acid, solution of chloride of nickel.
If spies use such chemicals, to conceal thought, spy-hunters use other chemicals, to reveal that thought. Secret services have laboratories, compounding new secrets or solving the secrets of others. Mussolini’s secret service, the Ovra, suspects travelers carrying aspirin, “a substance for making secret ink.”
An alert American postal clerk opened an undelivered dead letter. Eyes popping, with trembling fingers he withdrew diagrams and plans of the Panama Canal. Who could be sending them, to whom? Down in the Canal Zone, prison bars clanged behind a Brooklyn youth, a tall young man with dark, intelligent face, a Regular Army corporal, but a Reserve Lieutenant. Stationed near the Canal, he had access to secrets that foreign powers could use to destroy our water-link between Atlantic and Pacific. At a court-martial, the prosecution tried to prove that those secrets were reaching Communists. Col. E.A. Buchanan accused the corporal of corresponding with Reds under false names, and accepting money. He admitted Communist sympathies.
“Twenty years at hard labor!” the court decreed.
President Roosevelt ordered a new trial, and the corporal was acquitted. Over a year ago he left the service, having proved two startling facts; The Army was letting its secrets lie around rather loose, perhaps because its regulations protecting them lacked teeth. Then the Navy too, was jarred by the case of Commander Matsuda, Japanese naval officer caught photographing our cruisers. Both services made anti-spy rules of which the latest, just before the Thompson and Farnsworth cases, forbade discussing or revealing to outsiders, especially foreigners, information about planning or producing of special equipment. Also, whoever gives away or sells “any writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, blueprint, map, model, etc.,” about such a project may get twenty years—in peace time. In war, he may be shot. Farnsworth was charged with violating this regulation.
Since the Navy began shadowing him, a year ago, it has closely guarded confidential papers, and one officer has been disciplined for relaxing vigilance. The Navy has also invoked the aid of civilian Reserve Officers to hunt spies about Pacific naval bases, while the Army covertly watches Hawaii’s large Asiatic population. The last congress passed a law forbidding photographing in 24 strategic areas; military, naval, aviation.
To protect the unequaled products of American “air-brains,” strict guard is kept at fields like that at Dayton, O. Nevertheless, a German was caught recently trying to smuggle aboard an ocean liner drawings of a flexible aircraft machine-gun.
He got off, for our weak laws poorly protect the products of our own inventive brains, against thieving foreign spies. No wonder part of Japan’s $12,000,000 secret service budget is spent to buy our Navy’s secrets; yet Japan morbidly fears spies within her gates, and arrests American tourists for snapshotting scenery. The Japanese are not the only ones. Two French girls were caught recently tempting American officers ashore at Marseilles, to reveal inner workings of the cruiser Pittsburgh. The celebrated Soviet Ogpu recruited here Switz, Jacobson and other Americans for international rings spying upon France and Finland.
These cosmopolitan groups of men and women in Soviet pay included other Americans and Canadians, Frenchmen, Russians, bribed chemists, technicians, code experts in French government laboratories. Most of the 32 were convicted in March, 1935. The Switzes won release by confessing, that the spy-wireless was their room? in the American Student Union in Paris, whereby the gang communicated with one another and with Moscow. Arvid Jacobson of Detroit, Soviet spy in Finland, was released only recently. A Soviet spy ring of a hundred was recently rooted out of Rumania.
The largest international spy case of the summer was the great Trotsky conspiracy to kill Stalin, seize power in Russia, and lead a Red world revolution. It ended bloodily in August with the execution of 16 men including high Soviet officials. The plotters communicated by a code giving page and line in the Arabian Nights.
The Gestapo should have done better if, as was charged, it aided the plotters. Hitler’s secret police looms today as among the world’s most formidable secret services. Its ruthlessness appeared recently in the sensational case of two German noblewomen, the Baroness Von Berg and Frau Von Natzmer who for $100 a month sold stolen German military secrets to a dashing Polish cavalry captain, Yurek Sosnowski. At midnight of February 17, 1935, the beautiful women’s heads were chopped off; for 14 months, Sosnowski was kept in a dark cell, his food lowered through a trapdoor. Released last May, wrecked in health, he thinks only of the face of the woman he loved, the Baroness Von Berg, and of her despairing cry: “Yurek, help me!”
Nazi Germany sends into other countries, especially France, spies to steal their secrets. One of them, La Belle Sophie Drotz, ran a cabaret frequented by soldiers and workmen on France’s new underground frontier fortification. Other German women spies in France the past year have have been Mile. De Versi, a snake dancer who lured Foreign Legionnaires, and Lillian Oswald, whose prey were young naval officers on new war vessels. And Germany claimed an American girl, Isobel Lillian Steele, was a Soviet spy, and held her four months. A movie depicting her adventures appeared recently.
Many women have flickered across the screen of international intrigue these last two years; Marie-Louise who tempted the Highlander Captain Bailie-Stewart to betray British secrets; Frau Littke, Polish dancer who spied for two countries and ensnared Regent Horthy’s bodyguard in Budapest; the mysterious Mile. D. who stole Mussolini’s secret codebook; Cecilia Tokuda, Japanese woman spy and flyer, and many others.
What has been their reward? If successful, usually a pittance; if unsuccessful, prison or a firing-squad, such as ended the career of Mata Hari, the dancer. Their employers usually disown spies. Peace time spying has no public reward. Some war time spies have received decorations, but few. France gave the Legion of Honor to Mme. Georges Herlieg, who ran a wireless behind the German lines; to Marthe Richard and to Marie-Leonie Vanhoutte, whose gallant companion, Louise de Bettignies, received its white cross after her death in a German prison. A monument has been erected to her, also to Lody, the brave German spy shot in the Tower of London.
We have our monument to Nathan Hale in New York, but generally, we do not reward our secret agents publicly. An American I know accomplished daring feats, including going to Berlin in disguise, was recommended for the Distinguished Service Medal, but never got it. Another American spy got a British decoration but not an American. Yet their superiors, intelligence officers, sometimes received the D. S. M. So it goes in that perverse game of secret service.
Our small Military Intelligence budget permits “employing agents” but these and the Navy’s few operatives spy not on foreign powers, but on the spies foreign powers send to our peaceful shores. For they do send them. Europe alone is spending this year some $50,000,000 on secret service. Every power is trying to find some means of communication that is absolutely secret; perhaps infra-red rays, perhaps a really inviolable, practical enciphering machine. Experts say one may be invented any day—and then will begin a new and even more startling era of spying, intrigue, and war.