As Nuclear Showdowns Loom, Three Lessons on Deception From Interwar Germany

A Defense Intelligence Agency analyst has a warning from nearly a century ago.

May 4, 2018 5:00 am
GERMANY - JANUARY 01:  First German Air Force School For Seaplane Pilots At Germany In Europe During Thirties  (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
GERMANY - JANUARY 01: First German Air Force School For Seaplane Pilots At Germany In Europe During Thirties (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

The Trump administration is barreling towards two momentous decisions that could change the global nuclear balance of power. One carries the potential for making a historic deal with North Korea, the other, for breaking one with Iran.

In both cases, two factors are key: the question of verification and the ever-present fear that the U.S. somehow is falling for some massive deception.

For North Korea, it won’t be enough for leader Kim Jong Un to pinky-swear he will get rid of his nuclear weapons. The U.S. has previously demanded“complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.” For Iran, Trump may scuttle the deal in part because he believes that the international process in place to verify that Iran is complying is insufficient. (Trump’s Defense Secretary, James Mattis, recently told lawmakers the verification process written into the Iran nuclear deal is “actually pretty robust as far as our intrusive ability to get in,” even if there was still a “valid question” to whether it was truly sufficient.)

Though today the weapons in question are nuclear and the technical tools of verification are cutting edge, an essay recently published by the CIA argues that there are a few broader strategies western intelligence agencies need to keep in mind when it comes to keeping America’s adversaries honest — they just happen to be almost a century old.

The essay, written by Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Brian Gordon, focuses on the series of intelligence and diplomatic failures that allowed the German military to reconstitute and advance itself, much in secret, after defeat in the First World War into the formidable fighting force that would imperil Europe in the Second World War two decades later.

Gordon should know a little something about state-level, long-term deception. He’s described as an all-source analyst in the DIA’s Underground Facility Analysis Center (UFAC). That aptly-named but little-discussed department, established in 1997, is tasked with finding out what an adversary might be hiding deep below the earth — whether it’s a protected command center for military leadership, storage for a cache of ballistic missiles or, most relevant to this report, the location of a secret nuclear material enrichment facility. In 2005, an unclassified newsletter from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which works with DIA and other agencies in the UFAC, said at the time some 10,000 underground facilities were being analyzed with a “suspected equal number yet to be discovered.”

It’s from this perspective that Gordon warns today’s intelligence analysts to heed lessons from the 1920s when Germany weaved a complex shroud of fact with fiction to hide its intentions for more than a decade. Here are his three main points:

If There’s a Big Scheme, There Will Be Evidence, Somewhere

The longer a deception goes, the bigger paper trail it’s going to leave. This was true decades before the dawn of the digital age, email and near-infinite virtual storage.

“The continuous nature of long-term deception means the deceiver will need to consistently coordinate a complex effort through a bureaucracy,” Gordon writes. “This will both increase the number of individuals aware of such an effort and necessitate some form of coordinating mechanism… Additionally, the expenditure of resources will need to be done in a surreptitious manner but will still likely result in some detectable signatures. Each of these necessities on the part of the deceiver is an opportunity for analysts willing to perform an exhaustive search of available information.”

Gordon notes that in the 1920s, Germany at least partially tricked international inspectors by hiding scores of airplanes, secretly inflating government budget requests before diverting the excess funds, and covertly training pilots.

“This effort, simple in description, must have involved significant work and coordination among the various offices and individuals responsible for budget formulation in the Weimar Republic,” Gordon writes.

The allies missed it all, or, ignored it. Some of the evidence might not even be secret. Germany took advantage of air mail services and airshows featuring high-performance aircraft to continue its research and development into fighters and bombers. It was just a matter of seeing what today would be called “dual-use” dangers for what they were.

Conversely, if there is no evidence of deception, Gordon writes, there may not be one at all.

Every Now and Then, Let the Analysts Step Back

Gordon notes that British observers made two big mistakes in the interwar period when it came to assessing the German air strength: underestimating it and then overestimating it.

That is to say, Germany first led analysts to believe it was dismantling more of its force than it was and then, a few years later, lied about how much it had built it back up (in one instance by painting bomb bay doors on transport planes), in order to convince their adversaries it was already too late for any counter-action.

“From the view of the historian, it appears British policymakers and analysts accepted low estimates of German air strength for years and then, seamlessly, accepted inflated estimates in just a matter of months,” Gordon writes.

If anyone had been taking the longer view, they might have noticed the two stances were incompatible, and that the truth was more likely somewhere in between.

“[T]hough policymakers require timely and relevant assessments of the deceiver’s activity, there may be an opportunity to permit teams of analysts the time and space to undertake a systematic review of all available evidence,” Gordon writes.

Beware Policymakers’ ‘Self-Deception’

Perhaps the biggest hurdle intelligence analysts will face may be the stubbornness of the policymakers to whom they report.

Despite Germany’s coordinated and creative efforts at deception, Gordon writes that the international inspectors’ final report in 1927 said that Germany clearly did not intend to disarm and had tried to frustrate their work at every turn.

“But with no ‘smoking gun’ proving German deceit, the report apparently fell on deaf ears in London and Paris,” the essay says.

It’s not necessarily that the policymakers didn’t believe the inspectors, but that the discovery of a deception “will often be a problematic development” politically.

In his essay, Gordon references the late military history analyst Roberta Wohlstetter who theorized that British estimates of German aircraft numbers were consistently low at first because “placing the estimates higher would have necessitated some form of action on the part of the British government that officials did not want to take.”

The CIA-published article, which was adapted from Gordon’s 2016 Ph.D. dissertation on nuclear-related long-term deception, does not make mention of either Iran or North Korea, and international inspectors have repeatedly reported that Iran, at least, has been complying with their deal. But as Donald Trump and his diplomatic teams prepare for two of the most consequential moves in his presidency, U.S. intelligence agencies will presumably be watching and waiting, doing their level best to ensure that whatever happens at the negotiating table, history does not repeat itself.

Lee Ferran is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist and the founder of Code and Dagger, a foreign affairs and national security news website.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.