In light of recent publicity about the U.S-British-Israeli cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, we might want to consider intelligence lessons from the past.
In the autumn of 1960, with the presidential race between Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy tightening, the Democratic Party candidate made much of a supposed “missile gap” that had emerged during the Eisenhower administration. Ike could have exposed the non-existent missile gap, but didn’t.
In May 1960, Soviet air defenses downed a U-2 reconnaissance plane flying high over the Urals on its way from a secret CIA base in Pakistan to Norway. In the messy aftermath, President Eisenhower suspended U-2 flights over the Soviet Union. He didn’t say that these missions were no longer necessary, which they weren’t, given the advent of satellite photo reconnaissance so good that only a handful within the American intelligence community knew the missile gap overwhelmingly favored the United States.
That fact was so far beyond top-secret classification that it’s likely Vice President Nixon wasn’t even cleared for it. In the interest of national security, Ike kept mum even though revealing the true nature of the missile gap might have favored the Republican candidate. Consequently, in October 1962, President Kennedy was ready to call Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s bluff during the Cuban missile crisis. National security trumped partisan politics—as it should and always must.
The Kennedy administration proved equally adept at keeping secrets by covertly committing U.S. forces to combat in Vietnam while claiming they were “advisors.” In February 1962, Air Force planes commenced Operation Steel Tiger, bombing a network of pathways leading from North Vietnam through Laos to South Vietnam. By 1968, the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail had escalated, but the secrecy surrounding what was then called “Operation Commando Hunt” held until mid-1971.
Commando Hunt was no secret to the tens of thousands of North Vietnamese troops manning and transiting the trail. It was no secret to the Russians and Chinese who supplied the 1,200 anti-aircraft guns along the trail and the thousands of trucks that moved supplies between North Vietnam and the battlefields to the south. Meanwhile, the Chinese busily built a road from southern Yunnan Province through northern Laos pointed directly at Thailand. The British, who with the Soviets were co-sponsors of the 1962 Geneva Accords—supposedly neutralizing Laos—knew that North Vietnam, China and the United States were violating those accords with alacrity. No one leaked, at least not until the summer of 1971 when Daniel Ellsberg, who came to Department of Defense on Secretary Robert McNamara’s watch, released thousands of classified documents published by the New York Times as “The Pentagon Papers.” By then, however, the American anti-war movement was ready to publish the Cornell University Air War Study Group’s “The Air War in Indochina,” edited by Raphael Littauer and Norman Uphoff—a cornucopia of facts and figures that revealed the secret bombing of Laos and much else. Ellsberg went to jail.
The “secret” bombing of Laos, though highly classified within the U.S. intelligence community, was no secret to intelligence services in London, Moscow, Beijing, and Hanoi. So why the secrecy? Without official acknowledgement, no one had to react. Escalation of the Indochina war benefited no one. If Washington denied the bombing, then Moscow need not increase its military support for North Vietnam. Accordingly, the United States wouldn’t be forced to blockade Haiphong Harbor, bringing pressure on Moscow and Beijing to react. Conversely, our reconnaissance planes stayed away from the Chinese road in northern Laos. If Washington didn’t acknowledge its existence, the Chinese wouldn’t be forced to defend it with more troops, and the status quo remained. No complications meant Nixon’s troop drawdown could continue and the world could put a messy situation behind it and resume the Cold War’s global chess match with one less potentially dangerous hot spot.