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22 November 2007

Case studies with enduring legacy

There is much to be thankful this holiday season, and it is natural at such a time to reflect back on the conflicts past, and those lost in the course of these conflicts. It is also a time to reflect upon history within the intelligence community, as our first – and for nearly 60 years, our most severe – intelligence failure at Pearl Harbor falls within these months.

Recently, new allegations have surfaced regarding what some consider to be another greater intelligence failure – the Allied ignorance of the machinations of death that were the Holocaust. This has long been an area of immense historical controversy, and present a number of opportunity to examine intelligence / policy relationships, the effects of cognitive bias, the questions of imagination (in thinking about the unthinkable), and (due to the importance of ULTRA decrypts in the overall reporting stream) decision-making in the SIGINT environment.

In short, the new claims put forth in the Hebrew language book Pazner: The Man Who Knew, are centered around supposed HUMINT reporting containing explicit discussion of the construction of camps intended for extermination operations in German occupied Eastern European areas. The reporting, alleged to originate in July 1942 from an unidentified German officer source with what was claimed to be good access, was passed through a Swiss intermediary to a Jewish Agency official. This reporting was subsequently provided to Allied intelligence, and may have even made its way to the highest echelons of the British government.

If true, it is an interesting addition to the historical case study of the Holocaust warning problem. One raw report does not warning make – particularly third-hand HUMINT from unevaluated sub-sources. However, a HUMINT source would have been encumbered by only a fraction of the difficulties of dissemination that the information provided by the ULTRA channel would have imposed. It is possible that such reporting could indeed have been the best “public case” material that could be used to support strategic communications and information operations pressure against the Nazi regime. Indeed, the source is alleged to have even proposed such a use of the information himself, recommending daily BBC broadcasts warning against the commission of war crimes. A later very similar reporting stream, which surfaced through the Riegner telegram, did become the basis of the US acknowledgement of the genocide in November 1942. Public diplomacy at the time had impact on the Nazi pogrom - and given modern experience in Bosnia, Darfur, and elsewhere - it is indeed questionable how effective even widespread public knowledge would have been in halting evil intent.

The handling of this information joins the already extant list of intelligence controversies from other collection disciplines – from the ULTRA COMINT to strategic air IMINT. The ultimate questions that are invoked, however, are ones of policy and operations – not merely intelligence. And these all continue to be well worth study – particularly in the face of the continued threat of genocide throughout the world.

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