Q&A with Douglas Waller

  • April 14, 2011

A Discussion with Douglas Waller on Wild Bill Donovan and the murky world of espionage. Interviewed by Erin Elliott.

Interview by Erin Elliott

Wild Bill Donovan: His Life, His Spies, His Secret Wars is a fascinating biography of the colorful man who formed the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II and laid the foundations for the modern CIA.

Q) At the beginning of World War II, Donovan lobbied Roosevelt for a guerilla army that would fight alongside the regular army. The organization Donovan built (the OSS) included such a component. When the OSS was dissolved after the war, did those parts of OSS evolve into the modern Special Forces units that we now have in the military?

A) When Truman closed down the OSS in September 1945, the agency’s research and analysis branch went to the State Department. The special operations, guerrilla warfare and commando functions went to the Pentagon, where they atrophied. Remnants of the OSS’s guerrilla and unconventional warfare capabilities filtered into later units such as the Army’s Special Forces. Today, in fact, the U.S. Special Operations Command, which includes Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs and Air Force Special Operations, considers Donovan its intellectual father.

Q) Donovan expanded the reach of his spies and saboteurs in Europe despite the presence of British intelligence agents in those regions who objected to his interference. What was his motivation for insisting that the U.S. have independent intelligence on Europe?

A) Donovan acknowledged the tremendous help British intelligence and special operations gave the OSS in the beginning. But Donovan did not intend to have his OSS become an adjunct of British covert operations, as the British would have preferred. He was like a teenager who had learned to drive dad’s car, and once he did, he wanted to drive it on his own. Donovan knew that his organization would never gain recognition and support within the U.S. military as long as it operated under the British wing. As the OSS grew and became well supplied, it was only natural that Donovan would demand independent operations. Moreover, the OSS (along with the Roosevelt administration and the American public) had little interest in preserving the British empire after the war, so often Donovan’s goals ― in the Balkans, for example ― were different from Churchill’s.

Q) You quote a British agent who said that the “American temperament demands quick and spectacular results” and that Americans had a “permanent hankering after playing cowboys and Indians.” But Donovan’s daring and bravado led to some success, especially during the Sicily and Corsica invasions and in the invasion of Southern France (Project Anvil).  Do you think the British gained respect for the OSS as it became more skilled?

A) Absolutely, although the respect sometimes came grudgingly. And as the war progressed, the British realized they couldn’t make Donovan’s operatives subjects of the crown or hold his organization back in Europe and Asia,

Q) You mention that despite repeated requests, Donovan wasn’t given direct access to the Japanese communications traffic that was decrypted by the Allies’ “Magic” project.  There was a parallel effort known as “Ultra” that decrypted German communications.  Was Donovan also denied access to the Ultra decryptions? Were any of his spying efforts influenced by data gleaned from the decrypts he did receive?

A) Ironically, Donovan had access to the raw take from the British Ultra, but not access to the raw take from the American Magic. Gen. George Marshall, the Army chief of staff, never trusted Donovan’s organization to keep Magic secret from the Japanese. But Donovan’s access to Ultra helped the OSS tremendously in its counterespionage operations.

Q) On a related note, do you know whether Donovan was aware of Herbert Yardley’s work in the 1920s in the “Secret Black Chamber”?  (Yardley was head of MI-8, the codebreaking branch of military intelligence, during the war.)

A) I’m not sure. But I believe he did, particularly after the war when he was studying U.S. intelligence history intensely.

Q) After Hitler’s suicide, the OSS supplied Hitler’s dental records to the Soviets so they could identify the corpse. How did the OSS come to have those records?

A) OSS officers had gotten their hands on Hitler’s dental records when they captured the führer’s personal SS dentist in April 1945.

Q) At Donovan’s suggestion, the OSS was formally charged with gathering evidence for the Nuremberg trials. Donovan believed that prosecuting individual German officers for their specific crimes would give the proceedings more legitimacy than convicting people based simply on their membership in the German High Command. He also believed that rather than relying on paperwork, the world needed to see real people on the stand as a “practical means of bringing home … the guilt of these men.” Do you agree with Donovan’s viewpoint?

A) The question of prosecution based on membership in the German High Command is a tough one. Donovan, Eisenhower and other senior U.S. generals would not have wanted that kind of standard applied to them en masse if they had been on the losing side of the war. But the German High Command, I believe, cannot escape culpability in Hitler’s war crimes. And those who were convicted richly deserved the punishment they got. As for trial tactics, Donovan had a point in wanting to have more witnesses on the stand and more high-profile cross-examinations. The lead prosecutor, Justice Robert Jackson, was criticized for spending days boring everyone to tears reading dreary records into the record.

Q) Donovan and J. Edgar Hoover (head of the FBI) spied on each other and seemed to be constantly fighting over whose organization controlled which regions. Did Roosevelt intentionally use each organization to limit the powers of the other? Did that strategy work?

A) Intentional may be too strong a word, but Roosevelt did play powerful men in his administration off one another. He tended to let rivalries fester instead of resolving them in one person’s favor. Not even FDR’s closest and most senior aides knew everything that he was up to. In the case of the OSS-FBI rivalry, Roosevelt admired Donovan’s skills as a foreign spymaster. But he also admired Hoover’s skills in domestic counterintelligence.

Q) There was resistance to the continuation of spying activities during peacetime.  A reporter attacked Donovan’s proposed CIA as the “creation of an all-powerful intelligence service to spy on the postwar world and to pry into the lives of citizens at home.” But Donovan recognized the need for the U.S. to have constant intelligence on international activities, saying that “America has won a war but not a peace.” Did you find any evidence that Donovan was aware of the need to balance secrecy and international spying activities with the protection of civil liberties for U.S. citizens? Did he ever propose limits to the CIA’s activities within the U.S.?

A) The charge that Donovan intended to create an “all powerful” espionage agency to spy on Americans came from a conservative reporter who was a Hoover pal and had a dim view of Roosevelt and Donovan. Donovan did not propose that his postwar intelligence service spy on Americans at home — although Hoover always suspected it would. The only agency Hoover wanted spying on Americans was his FBI.

Q) Does your work on Donovan lead you to believe that the U.S. national intelligence effort should be centralized — controlled and budgeted by a single authority?

A) American presidents today need a centralized national intelligence service to monitor political developments and threats abroad, just as much as Franklin Roosevelt needed one in his day. The country needs secret agents with “disciplined daring,” as Donovan advocated before the United States entered World War II. The risk-taking, the unconventional thinking, the élan and the esprit de corps of the OSS still permeate, to a degree, the CIA today. But presidents have to keep their eyes wide open and their hands firmly on the controls of the CIA. The OSS had its successes during the war, but it also had its intelligence failures, as all spy agencies do — some of them spectacular failures, as I chronicle in the book. The same is true with today’s CIA. The delusion that covert operations can produce dramatic results, that legal or ethical corners can be cut to serve a higher cause, infected the OSS and it has plagued the CIA in years past. Even so, Donovan “was one of the men who shaped modern warfare,” as I write at the end of my book. And that makes him an important person in our nation’s history.

Q) Is there anything that you’ve been wanting to be asked about the book, a section or detail that particularly caught your interest?

A) I was struck by how much history does repeat itself. How much the operations the OSS carried out more than 60 years ago mirror the operations the CIA carries out today — both the successes and the failures. For example, before the Iraq war the CIA thought it had valuable intelligence from an Iraqi defector code-named “Curveball,” which would prove that Saddam Hussein was producing biological weapons. Curveball, who claimed he’d worked as a top chemical engineer in Iraq, turned out to be a con artist and his allegations were false. During World War II, Donovan thought he had a silver-bullet agent penetrated deep inside the Vatican, who was feeding him transcripts of Papal conversations and intelligence on Japanese peace feelers conveyed through Catholic envoys. His code name was Vessel and he turned out to be an Italian pornographer with a vivid imagination, who fabricated intelligence reports to feed to the OSS.

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