Kurita’s Surprise

August 2, 2016–More than six decades out  it is astonishing that the greatest naval battle in history has garnered as little attention as it has. This, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, was “the greatest” in lots of ways. More ships participated, more sailors, the stakes were the fates of an entire invasion fleet, the awesome combat power of one side such that its losses would be minuscule compared to those of the adversary. Measured by its decisive aspect—the tonnage of ships sunk, the destruction of virtually all of a mighty fleet—Leyte Gulf shines. For the Japanese Navy, defeat at Leyte Gulf duplicated in reverse their greatest achievement, when Japan’s fleet destroyed a Russian one at Tsushima in 1905. Apart from anything else, Leyte Gulf set the trajectory of the final phase of the Pacific War that ended with the Japanese surrender ten months later.

There is another aspect of the Leyte events which astonishes too. In this lopsided contest the Allied side held every advantage. Allied forces were far superior to the Imperial Navy’s remaining vessels, in every category of strength from battleships to submarines. Allied airpower, both carrier-based and flying from shore also far outweighed that of Japan. And Allied intelligence, photographing Japanese garrisons at will, reading Japan’s coded messages, benefitting from captured Japanese documents, saw the enemy’s cards like an open hand. Like I said, the Allies enjoyed every advantage.

In the face of all that, the Imperial Navy managed to put an immensely powerful surface force up against an isolated portion of the Allied fleet. In these days when so many speak of “asymmetrical warfare” the Leyte Gulf experience demands more attention. Now the book Storm Over Leyte meets that need in detail. One aspect of Japan’s success in getting at one fragment of the Allied fleet in isolation was a huge intelligence failure, one virtually unbelievable for the side that had attained such a great advantage.

This is only a part of the story but it is an important one. The month of October 1944 began with an Allied misreading of radio intercepts. The major Imperial Navy fleet command at mid-1944 had been the so-called “Mobile Fleet,” that had been hard hit in the Battle of the Philippine Sea (aka “Marianas Turkey Shoot”). Afterwards the Japanese had split up their forces, with the main surface units going to the Singapore area while the remnants of the aircraft carriers regrouped in the Home Islands. Messages the Allies intercepted in early October were read to indicate the Mobile Fleet had rejoined the surface force led by Vice-Admiral Kurita Takeo, Japan’s Sir Harry Hotspur for this desperate venture. That interpretation proved mistaken and U.S. intelligence realized its mistake within a few days.

Admiral Kurita had charge of the bulk of Japan’s surface combat ships. At his Lingga anchorage and in Singapore they were out of range of the usual Allied aerial reconnaissance units. The Allies could have run photo missions with China-based B-29 bombers, but the leader there, General Claire Chennault, refused. Chennault had already been pulled into agreeing to make a B-29 strike on Taiwan in support of a carrier raid there, and evidently thought he was giving the Pacific oceanic forces enough help as it was.

The window on Japanese fleet activities therefore came down to radio intelligence. Allied spooks were sharp enough that to develop a good indicator entirely by watching Japanese operating practices. They discovered that by tracking movements of Japan’s oil tankers, especially the fleet oilers needed for underway replenishment, they had a reliable predictor for naval activity. As Allied forces closed in for the Philippine invasion, the radio spies detected enemy tanker movements of the kind that indicated a fleet sortie.

But radio direction finding of messages sent by Kurita’s fleet continued to put it in the Singapore area. Allied forces in the Pacific fought an entire battle over Taiwan, conducted a series of supporting air strikes on the Philippines, and began their invasion in Leyte Gulf, without the Kurita fleet stirring. On October 16, 1944, as Allied invasion fleets closed in the spooks still located Kurita near Singapore. That same day the radio spies acquired fresh intelligence on tanker movements and began expecting Kurita to sail. The admiral actually did so on October 18 (the 17th in Washington, where the Office of Naval Intelligence, the next day, still only “expected” a fleet sortie.

Admiral Kurita headed for Brunei, a micro-state on the north coast of Borneo, where he had sent tankers to wait for him. As it happened, Allied intel authorities had previously debated the chances the Japanese would come out to fight, and the chiefs of General Douglas MacArthur’s spy unit had asked for extra aerial scouting of Brunei. A B-24 scout plane actually sighted the Kurita fleet and the Japanese monitored its contact reports monitored. But somewhere up the line the messages were misplaced and the warning lost.

Existing accounts of Leyte Gulf make much of the submarine attacks and aeronaval battles of October 24, as the Kurita fleet closed in on the Philippines, but in truth the Allies were responding instantly to reports just reaching them. Had General MacArthur and his Pacific theater opposite number, Admiral William F. Halsey, had the advance warning they could have had, the scale of their attacks would have been ferocious and Kurita might have been stopped right there.

In truth the Kurita fleet, grievously wounded during its advance toward Leyte Gulf, arrived in a weakened condition, but it pressed ahead. The next Allied element to fail would be aerial scouts over the San Bernardino Strait, a passage Kurita main force had to transit in order to reach its target. For a variety of reasons the scouts failed that night. From Pearl Harbor the Allied Pacific theater commander, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, discovered from his radio traffic analysts that the Kurita fleet had passed the strait to debouch on the Pacific Ocean side of the Philippines. Nimitz sent messages to Halsey and other invasion commanders—revealed for the first time in Storm Over Leyte—urgently passing on the location data and identifying it as “ULTRA,” the Allied codename for its supersecret radio intelligence. Nimitz’s action could have given away the source, so they violated all the classification rules for ULTRA. The messages demonstrate his horror at the front-line situation.

The Japanese appearance was actually preceded by a series of intelligence failures—to detect by aerial reconnaissance at Lingga-Singapore or Brunei, to detect by radio direction finding at the moment of the sally, and to detect transiting the San Bernardino—to the extent that Pacific commander Nimitz felt it necessary to send messages that broke all the rules. Usually Admiral Nimitz is associated with a message that needled Halsey on the activities of his fleet, but the ULTRA messages were a far greater act of intervention. Thus our old understanding of the Battle of Samar—the action Kurita’s fleet fought off of Leyte Gulf—needs revamping.

Storm Over Leyte: The Philippine Invasion and the Destruction of the Japanese Navy (PenguinRandomHouse) is available today.

 

 

 

 

What’s Secret, Hillary? Who’s Careless, Trump?

July 28, 2016–There’s a significant slice of folks out there who think Hillary Clinton ought to be in jail. This latest business of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump inviting Russian spies to hack U.S. computers to track down allegedly missing Clinton emails is typical of the genre. But what we’re really talking about is imagined transgression versus truly stunning betrayal. Don’t fall for it!

Readers of this space will know that when the Clinton email scandal broke, now more than a year ago, the very first pieces you saw here explained how phony were the breach of secrecy charges. I’ll refrain from going back over those details and just make a few central points. First, not until 2009 did the Department of State have any regulation regarding officials’ use of private channels, not until 2012 did the National Archives and Office of Management and Budget issue rules requiring agencies to actually manage electronic messages sent thereon, and not until 2014 did the State Department actually ask former senior officials, including but not limited to Clinton, to hand over copies of their electronic messages. Clinton may indeed have lied in responding to those inquiries, but she was not in violation of regulations. In columns posted here I showed that a range of other senior officials had done the same. Both Condi Rice and Colin Powell were later shown to have been dissembling when they initially denied ever using private channels.

My second point concerned the arbitrary operation of the secrecy system. Much of the fancied Clinton secrecy violation was the product of after the fact judgment by unnamed officials of the CIA and other agencies. Director James B. Comey of the FBI acknowledged as much on July 5 of this year, when the Bureau formally ended its investigation of the Clinton emails. Over three thousand emails–a little more than ten percent of those Ms. Clinton handed over–were found to have sensitive contents. Of those, 2,000 were found to have been retroactively graded classified, and another 1,000 contained a category of information, deemed “sensitive but unclassified,” which really doesn’t belong in the secret vault at all. Eight emails were judged to contain Top Secret information, an equal number confidential, and 36 messages plain secret info. Moreover, those messages appear in chains, where Secretary Clinton reacted to messages in ongoing conversations, and where the actual insertion of the information could have been by anyone.

My conclusion at the time bears repeating: when the regulations become so onerous that top officials cannot do business without violating them, it’s time to change the regs, not persecute the officials.

As a historian I deal with government secrecy every day. I make requests to open secret records, make arguments for why documents should be opened to the public, or desist, agreeing or begrudging claims that continued secrecy is justified. But secrecy can be phony just as it can be real. One of the supposed Clinton violations concerned a newspaper story about the drone war, the text of which was forwarded to Clinton, then traveling, so she would be able to respond to reporters’ queries. It happens the CIA considers everything about drones Top Secret–so it charges the secretary of state with dealing in Top Secret information she could have read in the newspaper. That is phony secrecy.

Contrast it with an example from my current book, which deals with the battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944, the largest naval battle in history. Arguably the two biggest Top Secrets of World War II were the development of the atom bomb and the fact that the allies were reading their adversaries’ coded radio messages, a form of intelligence called “ULTRA.” Extraordinary measures were adopted to protect the secrecy of ULTRA, including never identifying the source. In the battle of Leyte Gulf a powerful Japanese fleet transits through the Philippines to the Pacific side of the archipelago to engage the Americans. In the book I show how America’s Pacific commander, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, threw security to the winds in order to warn of the emergency, and identified ULTRA in a dispatch to subordinates that gave a position for the Japanese fleet on the Pacific side of the islands. That was a real security breach. No one even criticized Nimitz for his deliberate action.

Today Donald Trump invites Russia to hack in search of Hillary Clinton emails. That would be a true cyberattack–a security breach–an intelligence penetration, and an intervention in United States politics. The act is not fundamentally different from the political terraforming the CIA accomplished with its covert operations in various lands. At its heart Trump’s is an act of disloyalty.  Sounds like The Manchurian Candidate.

During 1944’s presidential campaign, Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey, who knew the secret of the codebreaking, thought to employ it to charge Franklin Roosevelt with dereliction for Pearl Harbor. Instead Dewey kept his silence after the visit of an emissary from Army chief of staff George C. Marshall. That was being careful.

The politics has fallen very far when citizens want to jail the former secretary of state for doing her job, while political adversaries invite foreign spying merely to obtain votes.