The Open-Source Spies of World War II
U.S. intelligence analysts helped shape modern spycraft
The ubiquity of cell phones, cameras and the Internet has unleashed a bounty of open-source material for spies to understand the world. Today, American spies patrol web forums for shots of China’s latest jet fighters or information about jihadis in the Middle East.
Though the technology to hemorrhage data about yourself has made the job easier, it’s by no means a new practice. For as long as we’ve had open sources, we’ve had open-source spies.
And that was especially true during World War II, when the job of open-source intelligence analysis fell principally to the men and women of the Research and Analysis branch of the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency.
OSS chief William “Wild Bill” Donovan believed in collecting secret intelligence by covert means. But he also saw value in hoovering up as much information from open sources as possible, and charged the R&A branch with analyzing it.
The fascist bent of the Axis powers didn’t lend itself to a freewheeling media climate, but Donovan believed that, properly analyzed, publicly-available foreign material could yield valuable insights.
“Even a regimented press will again and again betray the national interest to a painstaking observer,” Donovan wrote after the war.
That painstaking observation fell to R&A specialists drawn from a myriad of social science disciplines. In Donovan’s words, they were “highly implausible operators,” tweedy specialists whose bookish, bespectacled pedigrees earned them the nickname “the bad eyes brigade.”
Foreign publications rarely served up intelligence on a platter. Occasionally, a local newspaper slipped up and identified the location of a German unit that OSS had been hunting. But more often, R&A analysts had to apply specialized analytical skills to foreign sources—to extract insights that even the source’s original authors were unaware of.
German obituary notices published in local newspapers proved a goldmine for R&A economists. Little did the editors of Germany’s small town newspapers know that they were betraying Nazi manpower secrets.
R&A analysts collected as many obituaries for deceased German troops as possible, according to a declassified OSS history, which the agency used to create a representative sampling of German casualties based on newspaper circulation rates.
By applying the ratio of officer-to-enlisted casualties among German troops during World War I, and the ratio of captured to killed and wounded, R&A managed to reconstruct German military personnel losses.
No piece of information, however seemingly innocuous, was too obscure for R&A analysts. OSS sent R&A economists to Europe to survey the vehicle wreckage the Germans left behind on the battlefield.
The Germans, notoriously meticulous record-keepers, had dutifully stamped their tanks with serial numbers. When properly assembled and analyzed, the serial numbers yielded estimates of total Germany’s total tank production.
When information gaps existed in the government’s existing intelligence, R&A looked to the sources right under their noses to fill in the blanks. In 1942, Donovan created the Enemy Objectives Unit, a collection of R&A economists tasked with helping the U.S. Eighth Air Force select German industrial targets that would cause maximum chaos if destroyed.
Neither the military nor the OSS had the intelligence necessary to understand fully how German factories operated and, by extension, how their losses could affect military production.
So EOU economists simply sought out British factories which closely resembled their German counterparts. The tours and interviews gave them the information necessary to select the most devastating targets for Allied bombers.
R&A’s work earned the respect of the military. Shortly before the American invasion of North Africa, R&A analyst Sherman Kent, a post-war legend in the CIA for his pioneering analytical skills, crunched on a last minute study of railways and communications lines, drawn largely from open sources and materials available in the Library of Congress.
The open-source intelligence analysts of World War II had a huge advantage unavailable to their predecessors in previous wars thanks to the changing media landscape of the 1930s and ’40s.
Back then, shortwave radio occupied a role similar to the Internet today. As radio became a popular news and entertainment medium, countries increasingly used it for broadcasting propaganda.
Shortwave broadcasts could reach audiences further away, providing a global megaphone for any country that wanted to persuade and intimidate abroad.
American news outlets like the International Herald Tribune, NBC and CBS set up listening stations to stay on top of the boiling tensions in Europe—and academia followed suit.
Princeton University established the first organizational effort in the United States to analyze the glut of foreign propaganda broadcasts in 1939. Harold Graves, head of the Princeton’s Listening Center, was quick to see the intelligence value of such broadcasts.
He published a book on the subject, War On The Short Wave, which heralded broadcasting as a “fourth front” in war, next to politics and economics.
Graves walked readers through the bounty of official programming coming from countries like Germany, France and the Soviet Union, illustrating how broadcasts from the “wordiest war in history” yielded subtle clues about intentions and circumstances abroad.
But the U.S. government lagged behind the private sector in recognizing and exploiting the media. The BBC’s Monitoring Service had been supplying the U.S. and U.K. with foreign broadcasts since 1939.
When the federal government finally developed an interest in collecting and analyzing foreign broadcasts on its own, it was mostly out of anxiety for their subversive potential rather than foreign intelligence value.
In February 1941, the U.S. government created the Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service—the predecessor of the Cold War-era Foreign Broadcast Information Service and today’s Open Source Center—to collect, translate and distribute foreign broadcast media across the government. Graves became its first administrator.
While antennas could soak up radio waves at a convenient distance, print media wasn’t so simply acquired.
For the OSS, getting its hands on foreign newspapers and magazines demanded a specialized collection effort. The agency thus created the Interdepartmental Committee for the Acquisition of Foreign Periodicals, and charged it with obtaining any seemingly useful foreign printed media from countries of interest.
R&A’s application of rigorous, academic disciplines to intelligence yielded important insights. But it’s important place their use of open-source material in the larger context of Allied intelligence efforts during the war.
Secret information, in the form of decrypted German and Japanese communications traffic, was—and is—the holy grail of military intelligence.
Donovan bragged that his open-source spies had gotten the first confirmation of new German submarine oil tankers, which could resupply the U-boats attacking the Allies’ Atlantic supply lines.
Handy as the confirmation may have been, it was intercepted and decrypted German naval communications traffic that allowed the U.S. to destroy the resupply links and maintain lines of communication with Britain.
Still, R&A’s analytical work later formed the basis of the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence. Their integration of academic experts and application of social science to intelligence analysis constituted the bedrock of Cold War analytical tradecraft on covertly-collected information.
Today, as the U.S. government increasingly tries to stay on top of Twitter and other kinds of social media, America’s intelligence analysts still have much in common with their R&A predecessors—who once labored in the dusty halls of the Library of Congress.