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Counterintelligence In The American Expeditionary Forces (AEF)

Published with Permission by:
Lori S. Tagg, Command Historian,
US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, AZ.

In 1917, following declaration of war against Germany, the United States began building its one-million-man military force through a wide-spread draft. In the process, all eligible US citizens and resident foreign nationals were swept into the US Army.  The Allies, particularly paranoid of America’s “melting pot,” warned the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) G-2, Major Dennis Nolan, that US forces needed to be safeguarded from internal and external threats of enemy espionage, sabotage, and subversion.

On July 11, 1917, Nolan wrote to the Chief of Staff of the Army requesting “that fifty secret service men, who have had training in police work [and] who speak French fluently, be enlisted as sergeants of infantry in service in intelligence work and sent to France at an early date.” Nolan also requested 50 company-grade officers to assist British and French counter-espionage efforts at French ports and on the front lines.  Both requests were approved the following month and the Corps of Intelligence Police (CIP) became the first official recognition of the counterintelligence discipline in the US Army.

The first 50 CIP agents arrived in France in November 1917.  Two months later, the AEF received authorization to recruit another 700 agents from units already overseas. By the armistice in November 1918, however, the CIP had only reached a strength of 418 agents.

Belgian and American personnel in Wortegheim, Belgium, question a suspected spy charged with signaling to a German machine gun emplacement, November 1918.

One third of CIP agents served in the Front Zone, where the US Army had responsibility for 123 miles of territory adjacent to the fighting. They established mobile checkpoints to prevent entry of non-combatants into the combat zone and secured France’s border with neutral and Allied countries. Other agents served directly with advancing troops of the First and Second Armies where their chief mission was to control the civil population and detect and prevent espionage. Among the first to enter recaptured towns, they immediately replaced any suspect government officials and interviewed inhabitants for enemy order of battle information.

The majority of the CIP agents served with the G-2 Services of Supply (SOS) in the Rear Zone.  They provided security for 14 ports in France, England, and Scotland; 400 miles of frontier along the borders with Spain and Italy; 31 supply depots; and 7 leave centers.  They disguised themselves as laborers and interpreters to detect enemy agents circulating among US troops.  They also warned Soldiers about the consequences of “loose talk” and investigated suspicious behavior or cases of possible sabotage.  The CIP agents in the G-2 SOS investigated 3,706 cases and neutralized 229 suspected enemy agents through conviction, internment, or expulsion from the war zone.

Additionally, a few CIP agents worked “Special Projects” in the Counter Espionage Section of the AEF G-2. In addition to compiling a central file of more than 160,000 names, they provided security for traveling VIPs and, at times, served as General John Pershing’s bodyguard.

The CIP recorded a number of problems that arose during their World War I operations. Foremost, wartime haste left little time to procure suitable personnel, to adequately train agents, or to educate the rest of the US Army about the need for and importance of counterintelligence.  Furthermore, since CIP agents arrived in France several months after the first American combat troops, they did not have time to set up a “protective screen” to safeguard US forces and support services from enemy espionage or subversion.  The secret nature of much of the CIP’s work meant that their successes went unrecognized, which inhibited promotions for officers and commissions for enlisted personnel and negatively impacted morale.  Rank disparity often became an issue when agents interviewed senior officers or interacted with Allied counterintelligence personnel. Finally, the word “police” in the organization’s title led to CIP investigations of more criminal activities than their mission required or allowed, much to the consternation of the Military Police.

Despite these myriad problems, CIP agents were exceedingly proud of their service.  According to their official history, “World War I experiences taught most CIP agents that it was hard, unglamorous and painstaking work that earned for the Corps of Intelligence Police a permanent and honored place in all the future wartime plans of the United States Army.”  This, however, did not protect CIP from post-war reductions along with the rest of the US Army.  While the CIP remained a viable organization, carrying out critical counterintelligence missions in Hawaii, Panama, the Philippines, and along the United States-Mexico border, the number of agents on duty from 1920 to 1940 ranged from just 18 to 40.  Unfortunately, the same wartime haste that plagued effective operations in World War I would cause similar problems in World War II.

World War I Counterintelligence Agents Get Their Man – February 1918

Published with Permission by:
Lori S. Tagg, Command Historian,
US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, AZ.

On August 13, 1917, the US Army’s Military Intelligence Section (later elevated to Division) created the Corps of Intelligence Police (CIP) to protect American forces in France from sabotage and subversion. CIP agents also conducted special investigations, including suspected German espionage activities, throughout the United States.  The CIP had difficulty apprehending the enemy agents involved because they often fled to Mexico.  Several CIP agents were stationed along the US-Mexico border during this period to investigate and apprehend suspected German spies.

Two CIP agents in Nogales, Arizona, Captains Joel A. Lipscomb and Byron S. Butcher, recruited Dr. Paul B. Altendorf to infiltrate German spy rings in Mexico.  Altendorf was an Austrian immigrant to Mexico, where he served as a Colonel in the Mexican army.  Known to the CIP as Operative A-1, Altendorf managed to join the German Secret Service and become linked with several other German spies living in Mexico.

In January 1918, the CIP learned that Altendorf was accompanying one Lothar Witzke from Mexico City to the US border.  Witzke was a 22-year-old former lieutenant in the Germany navy, who alternately went by Harry Waberski, Hugo Olson, and Pablo Davis, to name just a few of his many aliases.  He had long been under CIP surveillance as a suspected German spy and saboteur.  During the trip from Mexico City, Witzke had no suspicion that his companion was an Allied double agent taking note of Witzke’s every move and indiscretion.  At one point, a drunk Witzke let slip bits of information that Altendorf quickly passed on to Capt. Butcher.  Specifically, Altendorf informed the CIP that Witzke’s handlers had sent him back to the US to incite mutiny within the US Army and various labor unions, conduct sabotage, and assassinate American officials.

On or about February 1, 1918, Capt. Butcher apprehended Witzke once he crossed the border at Nogales, and a search of Witzke’s luggage revealed a coded letter and Russian passport. Capt. John Manley, assistant to Herbert Yardley in the Military Intelligence Division’s MI-8 Cryptographic Bureau in Washington, DC, deciphered the letter, revealing Witzke’s German connections. The letter stated: “Strictly Secret! The bearer of this is a subject of the Empire who travels as a Russian under the name of Pablo Waberski. He is a German secret agent.”

While detained at Fort Sam Houston awaiting trial, Witzke was extensively interrogated by CIP agents but refused to provide any details about his contacts, co-conspirators, or alleged espionage.  His trial began in August 1918, and witnesses against him included Dr. Altendorf, Capt. Butcher, Capt. Lipscomb, and Capt. Manley.  Witzke took the stand in his own defense and spun a fantastical tale of how he was simply a down-on-his-luck drifter framed as a German spy.  The Military Commission found Witzke guilty of espionage and sentenced him to death, the only German spy thus sentenced in the US during World War I.  After the war, President Woodrow Wilson commuted his sentence to life in prison, and he was transferred to Fort Leavenworth.  In 1923, however, Witzke was pardoned and released to the German government.

A decade later, during the international Mixed Claims Commission hearings into damages related to the war, several American lawyers revealed Witzke’s role in the sabotage of the Black Tom Island munitions depot in New York Harbor on July 20, 1916. Ostensibly, he had been one of three collaborators who had placed dynamite on several barges loaded with ammunition causing a blast felt as far away as Philadelphia and Maryland.  The explosion lit up the night sky, shattered windows, broke water mains, and peppered the Statue of Liberty with shrapnel.  Seven people were killed.  Although in 1939 the Mixed Claims Commission found Germany complicit in the sabotage, Witzke and his co-conspirators, allegedly responsible for the worst act of terrorism on American soil up to that time, went unpunished.  Additionally, Germany refused to pay the $50 million judgment.

The capture of Witzke and other German spies and saboteurs by the Army’s counterintelligence agents undoubtedly prevented many, but not all, planned sabotage activities during the war.  Such incidents poisoned relations between the US and Germany and introduced suspicions and fear in the minds of the American public.  Americans could no longer assume complete security from enemy acts of terror on US soil, a reminder still valid today.

For more information on the Black Tom Island incident, see Michael Warner’s “The Kaiser Sows Destruction: Protecting the Homeland the First Time Around,” https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol46no1/article02.html#rfn12.

 

Damage to a pier at Black Tom Island caused by German sabotage to prevent American munitions from reaching Germany’s enemies.
(Library of Congress Photo)