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Archive for '- Spies and Espionage'

Confederate dirty laundry: spies and slaves

The Civil War was a spy’s dream come true. With a porous border between the Union and the Confederacy, and little way to distinguish between friend and foe, spies were everywhere. Both sides used ciphers. Both tapped telegraph wires. Stories of aristocratic schmoozing abound so much that James Bond would be jealous of all the cocktail cloak and dagger that occurred in the Civil War. But for all the espionage that happened in Richmond, the Union quickly learned that one of the best places to hide their spies wasn’t in a veil of aristocracy, but beneath the Confederate’s own prejudices. Thinking African Americans uneducated and illiterate, Confederate officers would speak of military maneuvers in front of their slaves and servants without a second thought.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of a man named Dabney and his wife. The two had crossed over into Union lines in 1863, and Dabney took up work as a cook and body servant at General Joseph Hooker’s Falmouth encampment along the Rappahonnock River. Dabney’s intimate knowledge of the terrain across the river made him an intelligence asset, and soon he was leading troops into battle as a scout—in one instance he allegedly led Union troops directly against his old master.

It wasn’t until his wife crossed back across the river and took up the job of … [ Read all ]

The OSS and the Dalai Lama

In the summer of 1942, the Allies’ war against Japan was in dire straits. China was constantly battling the occupying Japanese forces in its homeland, supplied by India via the Burma Road. Then Japan severed that supply artery. Planes were flown over the Himalayan mountains, but their payloads were too little, and too many pilots crashed in the desolate landscape to continue the flights.

The Allies were desperate to find a land route that would reconnect China and India. The task fell to two OSS men—Ilia Tolstoy, the grandson of Leo Tolstoy, and explorer Capt. Brooke Dolan. To complete the land route would require traversing Tibet, and to traverse the hidden country required the permission of a seven-year-old boy, the Dalai Lama.

When the two men arrived in Lhasa, the remote capital of Tibet, these spies were received as ambassadors. A military brass band played, and they were treated as guests of honor in a city that only a few decades earlier had forbidden Westerners to enter.

They came carrying a message from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. On December 20, at 9:20 in the morning, they were granted an audience with His Holiness. As a further sign of his respect for these two emissaries, the men were allowed to ride horses up the Potala to the quarters of the Dalai Lama. After a brief wait, they … [ Read all ]

The CIA’s catalog of covert conundrums

In 1992, George Washington University’s “National Security Archive” submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), soliciting information from the Central Intelligence Agency. Their request was inspired by a 1973 memorandum issued from then-CIA Director James R. Schlesinger, who requested that all CIA employees, past or present, “report to me immediately on any activities now going on, or that have gone on in the past, which might be construed to be outside the legislative charter of this Agency.”

The reason for Schlesinger’s request? The 1972 break-in at the Watergate by veteran CIA officers who had alleged cooperation from within the Agency.

What resulted from the request was something else altogether: over 700 pages of illegal CIA activities ranging from the 1950s to the 1970s. Former CIA Director William Colby called the report the “skeletons” in the CIA’s closet.

In 2007, the CIA delivered the report, dubbed the “Family Jewels” to the National Security Archive. It detailed assassination plots, illegal surveillance of journalists, drug testing, warrantless wiretapping, break-ins, and a litany of other illegal operations (sadly there was nothing on the CIA’s “Tunnel of Love”).

The full report is available on the CIA’s CREST database at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland and on the CIA’s FOIA Electronic Reading Room. Below are just a few of the highlights of the lengthy report:

  1. Watergate burglar
  2. [ Read all ]

Censorship and the C*** W**

Censorship has always been a delicate subject in American history. From John Adam’s Alien and Sedition Acts to the publication of the “Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture” during World War II, national security and the freedom of speech have always had a tenuous existence, especially in wartime. The Civil War was no exception.

During the Civil War, President Lincoln famously suspended habeas corpus to make it easier to deal with people “guilty of any disloyal practice.” There was also a congressional investigation over whether the government was censoring the telegraph in 1861. And then there was the case of Clement Vallandigham.

In the early years of the war, Ohio and much of the Midwest was outspokenly against the war. Fighting for states’ rights and a peaceful solution to a war that seemed to have no end, the Copperheads made their home here. Also known as peace Democrats, Copperheads wanted to reconcile with the South and pretend this whole Civil War thing never happened. Lincoln was famously terrified of “the fire in the rear”—dissension, that is, to his war policies, especially from the Copperheads.

In an effort to tamp out dissenting voices, Gen. Ambrose Burnside issued General Order No. 38 in April 1863. It declared martial law and forbade the “habit of declaring sympathies for the enemy.” It didn’t take long for people to … [ Read all ]