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US Army’s First Code and Cipher Bureau Created June 10, 1917

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

When Ralph Van Deman established the War Department’s intelligence organization shortly after the US entered World War I, he was faced with building his section from nearly nothing.  Although his background was more in the field of counterintelligence, he readily recognized the need for an office dedicated to cryptology.  He received numerous letters from amateur cryptologists offering their services, but he was intrigued by one person in particular: a bored State Department telegraph operator named Herbert O. Yardley who had deciphered a communication between President Woodrow Wilson and his aide in two hours.  Putting aside concerns about Yardley’s age—he was only 28—Van Deman chose him to create the Army’s first code and cipher bureau, known originally as the American Cryptographic Bureau but most popularly as MI-8.  Yardley reportedly remarked that “it was immaterial to America whether I or someone else formed such a bureau, but such a bureau must begin to function at once.”

Yardley was commissioned a First Lieutenant in the Signal Corps on June 29, 1917 and was given two civilian assistants.  Over the next year, MI-8 grew rapidly to 165 military and civilian personnel working in five subsections:  Code and Cipher Solutions, Code and Cipher Compilation, Secret Inks, Shorthand, and Communications.

Code and Cipher Solutions examined communications from commercial telegraph and cable companies, intercepted radio traffic, and seized mail.  Every suspicious missive, military or civilian, ended up on the desks of this subsection.  In addition to written communications, the section analyzed atypical items like postage stamps, musical scores, religious amulets, even a pigeon’s wings. The amount of work was overwhelming, especially after the US Navy stopped its cryptology efforts and let the Army take the lead.  During the course of the war, the subsection read more than 10,000 messages and solved 50 codes and ciphers used by eight foreign nations. This included the celebrated case in which Capt. John Manley deciphered a coded message found on Lothar Witzke (aka Pablo Waberski), a suspected German spy and saboteur.  Manley’s solution to the code sealed Witzke’s conviction for espionage.

The Code and Cipher Compilation Subsection established secure communications for 40-plus military attachés and hundreds of intelligence officers in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).  Its services were critical for several reasons.  First, the Army’s 1915 telegraph code book had been stolen during the Punitive Expedition and had yet to be updated.  Additionally, British cryptologists informed the War Department that German telegraph operators on U-boats were able to copy US messages sent to the AEF and its allies via the transatlantic cables.  Because breaches in US communications would ultimately compromise the whole Allied effort, the subsection revised the entire War Department code and cipher system.  In conjunction, the Communications Subsection operated round-the-clock, averaging the secure transmission of more than 100 sensitive and classified messages per day.

The Secret Ink Subsection established two laboratories specifically for MI-8 use.  Chemists succeeded in developing an iodine vapor reagent for all types of secret inks.  As a result, the MI-8 uncovered communications directing sabotage, which allowed the War Industries Board to implement tighter security measures.  At its peak, the subsection was reviewing more than 2,000 items weekly. As more sophisticated methods to conceal messages were developed, the subsection continually worked on new reagents.

The Shorthand Subsection was an impromptu addition to the organization.  Military censors provided MI-8 with a number of messages believed to be in code but were found instead to be written in shorthand.  The subsection cultivated a community of experts in more than 30 shorthand systems used worldwide.

MI-8’s work was at times exciting and often fruitless, but personnel persevered.  In a series of post-war articles, Capt. Manley stated, “…it is the business of a Cipher Bureau never to allow its interests or energies to flag, for although a thousand suspicious documents may turn out…to be entirely innocent or insignificant, the very next one might be of the greatest importance.”  Manley also stressed that the organization successfully uncovered cases of nefarious activities but also cleared the name of several innocent civilians wrongly accused of spying for Germany.

Although employing relatively simple deciphering methods using little more than pen and paper, MI-8 constituted a significant development for military intelligence during World War I.  Brig. Gen. Marlborough Churchill, the Army’s Director of Military Intelligence, predicted in 1919, “Code attack is indeed still in its infancy.  It is capable of rapid and incalculable development.” Consequently, both the State and War Departments continued MI-8’s efforts as the Black Chamber in the post-war period. Soon thereafter, cryptology evolved into more sophisticated codes and ciphers requiring the invention of mechanical devices that would dominate both Allied and Axis code operations during World War II.

Lieutenant Herbert O. Yardley created the Army’s first code and cipher organization.  By the end of World War I, he had been promoted to Major and oversaw all cryptologic efforts for the US delegation to the Peace Commission in Paris.

Ralph Van Deman and the Birth of Modern American Military Intelligence

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

When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, the US Army’s intelligence efforts were nearly non-existent.  Early attempts to gather information about foreign armies resulted in the creation of a Military Information Division in 1885.  In 1903, the division transferred from the Adjutant General’s Office to the Office of the Chief of Staff, where it became the Second Division of the General Staff.  However, by 1908, the Second Division had been absorbed by the Third (War College) Division, and the Army’s intelligence functions had been relegated to a committee.  Intelligence activities declined over the next several years due to insufficient personnel and appropriations as well as limited interest or understanding of its importance.  By early 1917, “personnel and appropriations were limited, the powers of the committee were narrow and its accomplishments, though valuable, were necessarily meager.  Such was the situation at the time war was declared.”  But change was coming.

In 1915, Major (later Major General) Ralph Van Deman arrived at the War College.  A native of Delaware, Ohio, he had attended both law and medical schools before accepting an infantry commission in 1891.  Over the next two decades, he gained valuable intelligence experience in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and China.  In Manila, Van Deman established an intelligence organization to conduct terrain analysis, mapping, and counterintelligence.  By the time he arrived at the War College, Van Deman was one of few career military intelligence officers in the Army.  He immediately grasped the implications of the United States’ lack of a military intelligence organization and resolved to reverse the situation.

Van Deman wrote numerous memoranda criticizing the ineffectual nature of the War College’s committee.  He stated, “To call a chair a table does not make it a table—it still remains a chair. And to call the personnel of the War College Division a Military Information Committee does not make it one” [emphasis in original].  His appeals for the creation of a competent organization were essentially ignored.  One week after the US declaration of war, Van Deman pled his case to Major General Hugh Scott, the Chief of Staff, who refused to consider the proposal on the grounds that it would only duplicate British and French efforts.

Persisting, Van Deman enlisted the aid of a female novelist and the Washington DC Chief of Police, both friends of Secretary of War Newton Baker.  Either because of or coincident to these outside interventions, Secretary Baker summoned Van Deman to his office on April 30, 1917, to explain the state of US military intelligence.  Just three days later, on May 3, the War College received an order to create an intelligence organization and detail an officer to “take up the work of military intelligence for the Army.”  Van Deman, of course, was the perfect choice to lead the newly established Military Intelligence Section (MIS).

The MIS experienced rapid growth throughout the war.  The Section was divided into a Positive Branch for intelligence collection, attachés, translations, maps and photographs, and training, and a Negative Branch for all counterintelligence functions.  A Code and Ciphers Section within the MIS became the Army’s first organized signals intelligence unit. Finally, Van Deman initiated the first personnel security investigation and identification card systems within the War Department.

By 1918, the renamed Military Intelligence Division had more than 1,400 military and civilian personnel.  At this time, it moved out from under the War College to a spot as one of four equal divisions on the War Department’s General Staff, a position it has maintained to this day.  In addition to equality on the General Staff, other long-standing consequences of the establishment of the MIS were the recognized need for professional intelligence personnel and the preservation of an intelligence effort even in times of peace.

That the World War I period was a watershed in US Army intelligence history cannot be overstated. No single individual did more to advance Army intelligence than Ralph Van Deman.  In 1988, the MI Corps recognized this when it chose him as one of the initial members of the Hall of Fame.  In 1992, it further memorialized him by naming the East Gate in his honor.  Maj. Gen. Ralph Van Deman is recognized as the Father of American Military Intelligence for his role in establishing the first effective, professional intelligence organization within the Army 100 years ago.

NOTE:  Join the US Army Intelligence Center when it rededicates the Van Deman Gate during the Hall of Fame activities, June 23, 2017, at 1430.

 

Ralph Van Deman

Ralph Van Deman

After the war, Ralph Van Deman, shown here as a Colonel, commanded at the regiment, brigade, and division level.  Promoted to Major General in 1929, he retired later that year but continued to consult in Army intelligence matters until his death in 1952.  (US Army photo)