Newspaper article International New York Times

Tales of Spies, Luck, Pluck and Doom

Newspaper article International New York Times

Tales of Spies, Luck, Pluck and Doom

Article excerpt

Intelligence gathering shed its early stigma and became a growth industry only with the start of World War II.

The Secret War. Spies, Cyphers and Guerrillas 1939-1945. By Max Hastings. Illustrated. 610 pages. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $35.

Spying is the second-oldest profession, at least according to the Bible. In the Book of Numbers, Moses sends off a dozen sleuths to case out Canaan: "See what the land is like and whether the people there are strong or weak, few or many. Do their cities have walls around them?" Yet for the next 3,500 years or so, the intel business did not grow much. Indeed, as the fabled Henry Stimson story has it, spycraft was both worthless and infra dig. So Stimson, as secretary of state, closed down the department's Cipher Bureau, the "black chamber," in 1929, recalling in his memoirs that "gentlemen do not read each other's mail." Until 1939, the government stuck to a 1934 law barring interception of messages between the United States and foreign countries.

In his monumental new work, "The Secret War," the British author Max Hastings reminds us that intelligence did not become a "growth industry" until World War II. Above all, Britain and the United States "elevated intelligence, hitherto a little-respected branch of staff work, to an unprecedented importance." Today, the United States has 16 intelligence outfits. Has it been worth it?

"Intelligence gathering is inherently wasteful," Mr. Hastings replies. "Perhaps one-thousandth of 1 percent of material garnered from secret sources by all the belligerents in World War II contributed to changing battlefield outcomes." Add two more problems. One is the familiar "signal-to-noise ratio": How to unearth that shiny nugget in a mountain of rubbish? Two, even if spies find it, leaders must act on the information.

Examples of failure abound. One day before Egypt launched the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Israelis had learned about the imminent attack from a high-placed Egyptian source. Yet Golda Meir, the prime minister, refused to strike pre-emptively for fear of losing American support. Before Pearl Harbor, American intelligence had plenty of advance warning, but Washington remained "supine," Mr. Hastings says. Stalin was worse. Even after Hitler's army had thrust eastward in the summer of 1941, Stalin could not believe that his good Nazi allies would do such a treacherous thing. In the run-up to Operation Barbarossa, he had dismissed the flood of Western intelligence as capitalist dezinformatsiya.

On the other hand, take the naval battle of Midway, with America's Pacific commander, Chester Nimitz, making the right bet on the right tip-off. While his colleagues were expecting a Japanese assault on the Marshall Islands or a second go at Pearl Harbor, Nimitz put his money on American and British decrypts identifying Midway as the next target. That's where he set the trap, wiping out four Japanese carriers and tilting the "balance of the war in the Pacific" in favor of the United States. Make that the beginning of the end for Japan just six months after the day of infamy.

But such tales of luck, pluck and doom are not the best reason for plowing through the 600 pages of "The Secret War." To begin, the book embodies a herculean research effort down to the minutest detail. Fear not. Despite its heft, this tome is a real page turner. Screenwriters might cull a few thrillers from the text -- and populate them with real-life heroes, fools and traitors. Finally, Mr. Hastings provides a welcome reality check for those who draw their spy lore from TV shows or movies like "The Imitation Game."

Hollywood invariably sacrifices accuracy to the demands of the box office -- so the movie "U-571," for instance, depicts American sailors lifting an Enigma coding machine from a captured German U- boat when the real heroes were the British (who justly fumed). …

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