HOOVER’S SECRET WAR AGAINST AXIS SPIES
FBI Counterespionage during World War II
By Raymond J. Batvinis. 312 pp. Kansas, 2014. $34.95.
The First Hero of World War II and How the FBI Outwitted and Destroyed a Nazi Spy Ring
By Peter Duffy. 338 pp. Scribner, 2014. $28.
Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies is a monumental book, breaking new ground in the field of secret intelligence. In it, Raymond J. Batvinis, a 25-year FBI veteran with a PhD in American history, chronicles the Bureau’s struggle to become America’s leading intelligence service from Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima and beyond. Batvinis runs the J. Edgar Hoover Foundation, but is no cheerleader for the FBI. He is a sharp-eyed chronicler who doesn’t shy away from honestly depicting the organization he works to promote.
Hoover’s principal enemies in this period were ostensibly his allies. The British foreign intelligence service, MI6, dispatched William Stephenson to New York in 1940 with orders to draw America into the war in Europe. He was a boon companion to William Donovan, chief advocate for an American spy program. British intelligence entranced Donovan; the Americans had never run a foreign intelligence service worthy of the name, and needed guidance. Under British tutelage, Donovan founded the U.S. Office of Strategic Services.
When in July 1941 Donovan won FDR’s blessing to become national intelligence coordinator, Stephenson cabled MI6: “…how relieved I am…that our man is in a position of such importance.”
Hoover was furious: he wanted to run a worldwide intelligence service himself. Hoover distrusted Stephenson and despised Donovan, not without reason. MI6 officers in Washington occasionally behaved reprehensibly. One, seemingly only for mischief, sent word to the Abwehr, Hitler’s military intelligence service, that the House foreign affairs committee chairman had been recruited as a German agent of influence.
British intelligence officer Guy Liddell, later deputy director of MI5, created détente between Washington and London by instituting cooperation. Hoover sent a liaison officer to London and gained access to Ultra, the British program that decrypted German military communications. The British also schooled the FBI in their Double-Cross System, an exemplar of the use of double agents in strategic deception.
This education led to the FBI snookering the Germans through five Abwehr defectors, a sideshow unknown until Batvinis discovered it. In 1941, one of the Germans showed the FBI his instructions to obtain intelligence on the “shattering of atoms” and the military uses of uranium. Two others confirmed that the Germans were trying to build an atom bomb. This persuaded American scientists—and the President—to proceed with the Manhattan Project: a rare instance of intelligence rerouting history.
The FBI used a classic double-cross to determine what the German high command was thinking. When the Abwehr sent urgent requests for intelligence on American aircraft production, deliveries of warplanes to Britain, chemical-warfare manuals, and vessels’ movements—information which would have gone to agents working undercover at American factories and aboard ship—the queries instead went directly to the FBI, where agents replying in Morse code mimicked their German cohort’s individually distinct keying techniques.
The key to that operation was William Sebold, who defected from the Abwehr to the FBI in New York in 1940. Sebold is the hero of Double Agent, by the talented Peter Duffy. Though Sebold’s story is in part a twice-told tale, Double Agent is excellent entertainment.
Sebold convinced the FBI of his bona fides when he took off his wristwatch, opened the back, and withdrew five tiny images, including one demanding information about the Norden bombsight, then one of the war’s most closely guarded secrets. At the time microphotography was unknown in the United States. Aided immeasurably by the Abwehr’s lack of skill, the FBI used Sebold and the short wave communiqués to roll up a ring of 33 German spies. The Bureau was able to dupe the Abwehr until D-Day, a triumph of deception, and testimony to Abwehr incompetence. Successes in counterintelligence were rarely so smashing in 20th-century espionage.
Counterintelligence opened Hoover’s eyes to a new world. Thanks to Ray Batvinis, we now know what Hoover saw. I strongly suspect Batvinis will write a third book, covering the early years of the Cold War. When complete, that body of work should stand alongside Rick Atkinson’s Liberation trilogy as an essential source for anyone interested in America’s soldiers and spies.
—Tim Weiner, a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize recipient, has written exten sively about American intelligence. He is the author of Enemies: A History of the FBI.
Originally published in the December 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.