Ultra, Enigma, Secrets and Squealing October 12, 2011Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback
Regular readers of this blog will know that Beach is extremely suspicious of conspiracy theories and those who write about them. However, one partial exception is Robin Ramsay, joint founder of Lobster Magazine, a Fortean Times columnist and a general conspiracy guru. RR certainly has a thorough understanding of conspiracy theorists: ‘[w]hat is wrong with most conspiracy theorists is not what they think but the way they think’. And he begins his own musing on conspiracies – musings that are above all political – with the sad fact that democratic states have often lied to their own citizens. Whether you put on your night vision goggles and follow him into the conspiracy bunker is another question: but there is no getting away from that basic truth.
Beachcombing recently came across the following assertion in RR’s writing that outraged Beach’s historical instincts, but that also got his curiosity racing. A common point of those who mock conspiracy theorists is that the ambitious world-wide conspiracies posited need tens if not hundreds of people to carry them out. Therefore, it goes without saying that it would have been impossible to, say, fake the moonlandings or shoot Kennedy because one of the sixty or seventy people in the know would, sooner or later, have squealed. Beachcombing with his poor estimation of human nature would certainly go along with this. But RR has his doubts: one of the pleasant things, indeed, about reading RR is that he never takes anything on trust. And here RR makes a fascinating comparison with Bletchley Park.
Bletchley Park in Bucks was the centre of an immense effort on the part of the British to break German codes in World War Two. Men like Alan Turing worked there, often to exhaustion, to provide Ultra, the precious decrypts of German military and security messages sent by Enigma and other coded machines. RR gives this as an example that demonstrates that the lid can be kept on big secrets: ‘Most obvious is the Ultra secret, the British breaking of the German Enigma machine, an enormous secret, which was kept by hundreds and perhaps thousands of people between 1941 and J.C. Masterman’s book which revealed it in 1972 [Double Cross System].’
So does the comparison stand up?
The lack of German penetration, given the poor German efforts at intelligence collection in the UK in the war, is perhaps not a surprise. The only time, indeed, when the Germans smelt a rat was when the Allies took too obvious advantage of the information that they gathered. Churchill, it will be remembered, called the Bletchley cryptographers ‘the geese who laid the golden eggs but never cackled’.
However, it is remarkable that the Soviet Union never got any wind of the British and later American achievement at breaking Enigma. It has even been suggested that the Lucy spy-ring in Switzerland was, at base, a British rouse to get Enigma decrypts to the Politburo in such a way that the information received would be trusted.
It is also extraordinary that no information leaked out from 1945 and the end of hostilities till the late 1960s when the first hints at allied code-breaking began to appear in books.
The motive for continued security was, incidentally, a simple one: many states, particularly in the third world, continued to use Enigma into the 1970s and this suited the Allies purposes admirably!
It would be interesting to establish just how many people were involved in the Ultra decrypts and whether the secret-keeping was as tight as RR and many other historians suggests. It is one thing for a London publisher to refuse to breach the Official Secrets Acts: but was this perhaps common knowledge in the London gentleman’s clubs by, say, 1965? Beach would also be interested in other documented secrets where hundreds or thousands kept mum. drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
14 Oct 2011: First up Erik A writes: ‘For further evidence of our national capacity for the longterm maintenance of secrets one need look no further than the fabled Area 51. Literally hundreds, perhaps over a thousand, workers commute to that ‘secret’ base on a daily basis and have been doing so for about 50 years. We all know it exists, the frequent commuter flights out of McCarran and elsewhere are plainly visible, yet nothing ever leaks. EVER. How can this be? It is really quite extraordinary when you think about it. Clearly our government can keep secretes when sufficiently motivated.’ ABritishColumbian wants to give context: ‘Thinking of the wikileaks case or Scarlet Johannsson’s nude shots secrets are harder to keep in the internet age because it is just too difficult to keep on top of knowledge sharing. My guess is that if you had Ultra from 1990 to 2030, it would have leaked out before 2000 and on one would have been able to stop it’. Thanks Erik and ABritishColumbian!
19 Oct 2011: Open Sesame writes in: ‘But surely this is not just about how many keep something secret but also about what is kept secret. When it came out in the early 1970s that Britain had broken enigma there was interest and a new insight into how the UK had survived 2WW, but no one’s world view was changed. If it came out in 2030, say, that the Chinese were responsible for 9/11 then there would be a change in world view and ‘implications’. I suspect that the more ‘violent’ and shocking the revelation, the more likely it is to leak out. Of course, conspiracy brethren would then say – and for all I know they may be right – that the more violent and shocking a secret the better a government’s efforts at hiding said secret and disinformation would be’. Thanks Open Sesame
31 Dec 2011: Invisible sends this in about discretion in the WWII generation from NPR, Breaking the Code is now available. ‘AUDIE CORNISH, host: On Murray Fisher’s 81st birthday, he gave his daughter, Karen Fisher-Alaniz, a gift of sorts. More than 400 pages of letters he had written to his parents while serving in World War II. Karen spent nearly a decade sifting through the letters and uncovering her father’ past. And she learned something she never knew about him. Murray Fisher was part of a secret intelligence group in the Navy, trained to break Japanese codes transmitted in Katakana during the war. Karen’s discovery, her father’s memories, and the lingering trauma of his war-time experiences, are the basis for her new book “Breaking the Code: A Father’s Secret, A Daughter’s Journey, and the Question That Changed Everything.” I spoke with Karen Fisher-Alaniz, and her father, Murray Fisher from Walla Walla, Washington this past week. I asked Murray if he had a reason for holding onto his secret for so long. MURRAY FISHER: Well, not especially. Of course, I was brainwashed from right at the start to not reveal any of this information, ever. So I think my brain just said don’t talk, so I didn’t. KAREN FISHER-ALANIZ: I think it also got tied up in he experienced a great loss of one of his friends during the war, and he just wasn’t able to talk about it. CORNISH: Murray, was there a time when you wanted Karen to stop looking into these letters, especially like when nightmares returned and things like that? I mean, did you feel as though it was dredging up too much? FISHER: No. I didn’t feel that way. I didn’t feel good about it, but I didn’t feel bad either. It’s kind of hard to describe. I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t want her to forget the whole thing. FISHER-ALANIZ: But he would shut down. I mean, he’d reveal so much and you got a feeling there was more, but then, you know, should I ask more about this, should I tell him what I found in the letters, I mean, different things like that. During this whole time, he would not read the letters, even when we were transcribing them, we would do them in bits and pieces… CORNISH: One thing I found interesting, Karen, is that there is a generational difference in terms of I think people in our generation tend to think that sharing and talking things out is the way to heal, and I wonder what that was like for you and your dad to adjust between that different point of view of not talking about something versus really wanting to talk about every bit of it. FISHER-ALANIZ: Well, at first it was very awkward. I mean, at first I wanted to just say tell me about the war. Tell me how you’re feeling about this. Like you’re saying. But that’s not something that this generation did. I mean, when he came home from the war he hung up his uniform and that was it. They went back to their normal everyday lives. So that whole story would’ve remained untold. CORNISH: Murray, how did you feel about that? FISHER: Well, I mean, it was just all right with me. I had nothing to talk about especially except I was in the Navy and I came out and I was OK and we were sworn to secrecy about everything I did. And one of the meetings we went to a sergeant in there laid a sidearm down on the desk and I heard the clunk. And he said if any of you talk about this to any of your friends and word gets out that you did this, you’ll be put in solitary confinement for the duration of the war and hard labor. If you say anything that reveals top secret information of advantage to the enemy, he said, you’ll be shot. You’ll be shot and there’ll be no trial. We’ll allow you to go on liberty but if you go out in the tavern, trying to have any beer, you’re up at the bar and somebody’s sitting beside you there, you can be assured that he’s one of our operators. He was so emphatic about it that it scared the daylights out of us and we – I don’t think any of us ever said a word. A couple of years after I got out of the service a couple of men came up to the door. They had black suits on and shiny black shoes and I thought they were going to preach me a sermon or something, but it turned out they said you’re now released from secrecy for this one thing but the other, what you were doing, you can’t – that’s never been released so far. As far as I know, someone might come up in this room and shoot me because I’ve been talking about it.’ Thanks Invisible!