The Magazine

Hoover at War

How the G-man beat the Germans at their own game

Aug 4, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 44 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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Ever since the death of J. Edgar Hoover in 1972, journalists and disparate authors have pored over his life in order to dissect its mysteries. There have been books about his (alleged) gay activities and darker allegations that he used his powers as director of the FBI for manipulative political purposes. Most Americans, however, recall Hoover as the federal tough guy who went toe-to-toe with organized crime and warned about the Communist threat to American freedoms during the Cold War. 

J. Edgar Hoover (1940)

J. Edgar Hoover (1940)

While these images of Hoover contain strong elements of truth, a side of his career that has not received much attention is his espionage and counter-espionage duel with the Axis powers during World War II. Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies attempts to remedy that lacuna in our knowledge of J. Edgar Hoover. 

Even before the war, the FBI was tasked with counter-espionage rather than foreign intelligence-gathering. As Raymond J. Batvinis shows, however, the FBI became an effective element not only in counter-espionage but in operating a massive and successful disinformation campaign intended to deceive the Germans on the strategic goals of the Allies.

Despite America’s experience with subversion in the aftermath of World War I—and an awareness of challenges to national security thanks to Soviet agents of influence in the 1930s—it wasn’t until 1940 that Hoover set up, as an intelligence-gathering branch of the FBI, something called the Special Intelligence Service. Initially, agents posing as diplomatic couriers darted between Latin American capitals gathering intelligence and keeping an eye out for potential threats to the United States. Once we were fully involved in World War II, however, it became obvious that the country had to get up to speed on both intelligence-gathering and counter-intelligence against Axis agents.  

The British had a head start in turning German agents for the Abwehr (German military intelligence) into double agents. German agents who were fortunate enough to set foot on British soil without being arrested or shot on arrival were soon rounded up and faced with a choice: Cooperate as double agents or get executed as spies. This was known as “the double-cross” system.  

Hoover was well aware of British success in turning German agents as well as the arcane arts of intercepting mail (e.g., reading documents in diplomatic pouches and then putting them back without any sign that they had been opened). But an early source of friction between British intelligence and Hoover’s FBI was caused by the overambitious, and in some ways deceitful, activities of the British Security Co-ord-i-na-tion (BSC). Set up in London without very careful forethought, and led by an ambitious Canadian millionaire named William Stephenson, the BSC irritated Hoover and others by eavesdropping on the telephone conversations of American politicians and dissembling about key intelligence information picked up in America. 

Hoover was furious, refused to have anything more to do with the BSC—and then had to start largely from scratch to rebuild trust with MI5 and MI6 officials in London. The rift, however, was healed when Hoover dispatched a cordial and diplomatic personal representative to London called Arthur Thurston and by diligent British efforts to repair the damage to the Anglo-American relationship caused by Stephenson’s men. 

Before long, Hoover, through his able counter-intelligence deputies in the United States and abroad, was busily recruiting Abwehr spies as double agents. The technique was more complicated than the British approach of “deal or get shot,” and it benefited from the fact that many Abwehr agents had considerable animosity towards the Nazis and would offer their services to the FBI at the earliest opportunity. The resultant cache of Abwehr double agents proved invaluable in deceiving the Germans about Allied intelligence objectives and in learning what the Germans wanted to know about the United States. (One nugget of pure gold was the FBI’s learning, early in the war, that the Germans wanted to know as much as possible about the American atomic program.) 

One of the FBI double agents involved in this particular operation was code-named “the Peasant.” Indeed, the agents had a string of exotic code names—“the Count from New York” and so on—often derived from their Abwehr code names. Part of the FBI deception involved sending radio messages to an electronic address in Hamburg that both simulated the actual Morse Code rhythms of the Abwehr agent and answered questions posed by the agent’s control officer in Germany.