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30 January 2008

Early intelligence in support of rail transportation security

During WWI, the threat of German sabotage operations was very real. Over fifty attacks were documented, primarily in the New York and New Jersey area. The most damaging of these was the destruction of the Black Tom munitions handling pier in 1916. While overall the attacks were only marginally effective in the military sense, they created the first serious homeland security problem of the modern era.

Among the many responses attempting to prevent further attacks against critical infrastructure assets and the defense industrial base were programs which sought to involve the public in what could be considered the predecessors of the tip hotlines and industry information sharing programs of today.

One of the surviving notices published in support of this program was carried in Railway Age in 1918. It read:

Attempts at Train Wrecking – The Military Intelligence Branch of the War Department requests that all employees along the lines of the carriers shall be instructed in case they notice any preparation for or intentional attempts at train wrecking or derailment, to at once notify Colonel M. Churchill, General Staff, Chief, Military Intelligence Branch, Executive Division, 1330 F Street Northwest, Washington, DC.”

One shudders to imagine the effort required to manage such a program by postal mail – and the delays that this communication would impose. One would presume that telegraph transmission – the Victorian Internet - would however be available to railway operators, which no doubt would have made any such effort far more effective. A study of such early message traffic management would no doubt be interesting – though it would likely mirror existing correspondence practices of the day, complete with registers, logs, and card files.

We have not found any other records of this program’s activities. Marlborough Churchill is a well documented figure in WWI and interwar military intelligence. A Harvard man, he was also involved in the investigation of the Chicago area publishers of propaganda materials, at the time violations of the Espionage Act of 1917, but reportedly recommended that the investigation be terminated. The good Colonel (eventually Brigadier General) was also the originator of the telegram which summoned the psychologist John Dewey to his captaincy in propaganda department of the Intelligence Bureau. He was also key player in early communications intelligence programs of the Cipher Bureau, alongside Herbert Yardley. Churchill would remain head of the MI Branch (later Division) until September 1920, and would pass away in 1942.

For those interested in other World War I era homeland defense efforts, we must recommend the excellent Studies in Intelligence article by the exceptional historian Michael Warner, examining how the “Kaiser Sows Destruction”. It is a well documented work with an excellent selection of otherwise quite rare photographs from the period.

We do wonder what other fragments of contemporary “early” homeland security in the Long War will survive into unknown futurity. While the volume of documentation itself is far greater, and the associated commentary more extensive, all spread widely through the wonders of digital distribution, so must have it seemed to those grappling with the first world spanning war.

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