Saturday, December 06, 2008

Warning Signs

On the 67th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, The New York Times is revisiting one of the key controversies surrounding that debacle. For years, urban legends--and a few historians --have claimed that U.S. intelligence intercepted a prearranged diplomatic message, providing a final warning of the pending strike.

The so-called "winds execute" message was a coded weather report, notifying Japanese diplomats around the world of a pending conflict with the United States, Great Britain or the Soviet Union. Upon receipt of the message, Tokyo's envoys were supposed to initiate the destruction of classified material and equipment, in preparation for war.

"East wind rain" was the signal for a looming conflict with the U.S. But was the signal actually transmitted, and did it provide a significant clue for American political leaders in Washington, and military commanders around the globe? According to a newly-published work, written by historians for the National Security Agency (NSA), the answer to the transmission question is a tentative yes, but it did not provide an unambiguous attack warning, as some have insisted.

In the history, “West Wind Clear,” published by the agency’s Center for Cryptologic History, the authors, Robert J. Hanyok and the late David Mowry, attribute accounts of the message being broadcast to the flawed or fabricated memory of some witnesses, perhaps to deflect culpability from other officials for the United States’ insufficient readiness for war. A Congressional committee grappled with competing accounts of the “winds execute” message in 1946, by which time the question of whether it had been broadcast had blown into a controversy. The New York Times described it as a “bitter microcosm” of the investigation into American preparedness.


In an interview, Mr. Hanyok said there were several lessons from the controversy that reverberate today. He said that some adherents of the theory that the message was sent and seen were motivated by an unshakable faith in the efficacy of radio intelligence, and that when a copy of the message could not be found they blamed a cover-up — a reminder that no intelligence-gathering is completely foolproof.

Washington also missed potential warning signs because intelligence resources had been diverted to the Atlantic theater, he said, and the Japanese deftly practiced deception to mislead Americans about the whereabouts of Tokyo’s naval strike force.

“The problem with the conspiracy theory,” Mr. Hanyok said, “is that it diverted attention from the real substantive problems, the major issue being the intelligence system was so bureaucratized.”

Hanyok's claims are certainly valid--but only up to a point. For starters, serious students of our intelligence puzzle at the time of Pearl Harbor have long dismissed the significance of the "winds" message. Certainly the Japanese established such a system; it was outlined in a diplomatic message transmitted on 19 November 1941. But did Tokyo insert the message into a radio newscast in the days before Pearl Harbor? Evidence suggests that the Japanese made such a broadcast, but only after the attack was concluded:

“In the end, the winds code never was the intelligence indicator or warning that it first appeared to the Americans, as well as to the British and Dutch,” they wrote. “In the political realm, it added nothing to then current view in Washington (and London) that relations with Tokyo had deteriorated to a dangerous point. From a military standpoint, the winds coded message contained no actionable intelligence either about the Japanese operations in Southeast Asia and absolutely nothing about Pearl Harbor.

“In reality,” they concluded, “the Japanese broadcast the coded phrase(s) long after hostilities began — useless, in fact, to all who might have heard it.”

But excerpts of the NSA monograph--and the Times story--ignore the larger question of what warnings were available to U.S. officials. Recent books on the subject, including Robert Stinnett's Day of Deceit (2000) and George Victor's more recent The Pearl Harbor Myth: Rethinking the Unthinkable reveal that military and civilian leaders had at least 16 warnings of the attack, ranging from vague to clear.

These included the so-called "bomb plot messages," which divided the naval anchorage into a grid, to be used in planning attack runs on Pearl Harbor; decrypted intercepts by British and Dutch intelligence, which indicated that Japanese carriers were en route to Pearl Harbor, and radio direction finding that put the enemy fleet in Hawaiian waters on the night of 6 December 1941. As Victor writes, given that the Navy's "30-year expectation" that Japan would start a war with an attack on Pearl Harbor, "even one warning, from a reliable source," should have been taken seriously.

But dissemination of available information was uneven, and it's apparent that much of it was withheld from the commanders at Pearl Harbor, Navy Admiral Husband Kimmel and Army Lieutenant General Walter Short. While a number of mid-level intelligence officers urged sharing recently-received information with the Hawaiian command, their requests were rejected by superiors.

As a result, Kimmel and Short remained in the dark, concerned more about sabotage than the threat of surprise attack. When Japanese planes arrived on the morning of 7 December, they found our aircraft parked wingtip-to-wingtip, and most of the Pacific Fleet floating peacefully at anchor. Almost 70 years later, we can only speculate how Kimmel, Short and their subordinates would have reacted to the data that was denied them--and the extent of the information conspiracy within the U.S. government.

ADDENDUM: As Stinnett recounts in his book, Roosevelt seemed stunned by our losses at Pearl Harbor. "They caught our ships like lame ducks," he exclaimed to his Coordinator of Information, Colonel "Wild Bill" Donovan, who went on to head the OSS during World War II. But Donovan later disclosed that Roosevelt seemed "less surprised" by the attack than others at the White House, and claimed that "warnings" had been sent to Pearl Harbor in advance. Needless to say, there is no record of any advisory from the Commander-in-Chief.

Additionally, Stinnett provides another fascinating anecdote in the hours after the attack. CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow was invited for dinner at the White House days before the debacle. After supper, Murrow and Donovan participated in a private meeting with FDR.

After his session with the President, an agitated Murrow returned to his hotel room and paced the floor, unable to sleep. "It's the biggest story of my life," he told his wife Janet, "but I don't know if it's my duty to tell it or forget it." Whatever Murrow learned in that conversation with Roosevelt has never been disclosed. He carried that secret to his grave.


Anonymous said...

Blame the victim,
not the aggressor mentality
strikes again.

Yes, there was more information that could have been shared with Pearl, but would it have buried the commanders there with stacks of useless information?

Good thing the carriers were at sea, too bad the battleships didn't travel with them.

I guess all history will be rewritten to blame the USA.
The President should have warned the Trojans about the horse.

StormCchaser said...

It was my understanding that the Japanese fleet maintained strict radio silence, which would have precluded RDF intercepts.

I've always suspected that Roosevelt and others in D.C. expected an attack on 7 Dec, but figured it would be in the Phillippines.