April 2, 2014

How long can a conspiracy be kept secret?

One common argument against the existence of any and all conspiracies is that it's impossible to keep secret any project requiring more than a few individuals. 

This sounds plausible, but is it? After all, I grew up around massive secret projects. Friends of the family worked on the crown jewels of the national security state, such as Area 51, the U-2 spy plane, the awesome SR-71, and the F-117 Stealth Fighter. 

Stealth work began in 1975 at both Lockheed and Northrop (which eventually became the B-2 Stealth Bomber) and Lockheed had a stealth prototype, Have Blue, flying at Area 51 by the end of 1977. Carter's defense secretary Harold Brown announced the existence of stealth in August 1980, claiming that leaks in the preceding days had made it impossible to keep the entire concept secret anymore. Republicans angrily claimed he spilled the beans early to defuse Reagan's attack on Carter canceling the B-1 program. The Russians apparently were still clueless about stealth. (It came as a surprise to me, too.)

Airline pilots frequently spotted the otherworldly-looking Skunk Works planes being tested out of Area 51, especially the 2000 mph 80000' altitude SR-71 which covered enormous amounts of territory and caused sonic booms (the SR-71 was announced fairly quickly by LBJ). One theory is that the U.S. government encouraged rumors of flying saucers at Area 51 to discredit these highly credible witnesses.

But all these pale in comparison to the huge Bletchley Park decoding operation in WWII England, which had a staff of nearly 10,000 working on site by the end of the war, and didn't surface in the popular press until the early 1970s. It required the history of computing to be rewritten.

Besides decoding the German Enigma machine, there were other projects at Bletchley that weren't declassified until much more recently, such as Tunny, the breaking of Hitler's personal cipher.

An obituary in today's NYT:
Jerry Roberts, Last of Team of British Code Breakers, Dies at 93 
By PAUL VITELLO   APRIL 2, 2014
Jerry Roberts, the last surviving member of the British code-breaking team that cracked strategic ciphers between Hitler and his top generals, helping to hasten the end of World War II, died on March 25 in Hampshire, England. He was 93. 
His death was confirmed by the Bletchley Park Trust, a nonprofit group that administers the Victorian estate north of London where the British government lodged Mr. Roberts and hundreds of other code breakers during the war, among them linguists, mathematicians and puzzle masters of various backgrounds. 
Mr. Roberts, a German linguist, was part of a small top-secret group assembled in 1941 to help decrypt messages picked up in radio signals between Hitler and his field marshals on the front. The team’s very existence remained a secret until 2006, when the British government declassified wartime intelligence files.

This 2006 date seems exaggerated. Here's the obituary in The Telegraph from 2002 of Roberts' colleague W.T. Tutte:
PROFESSOR BILL TUTTE, who has died aged 84, was responsible for one of Bletchley Park's greatest codebreaking achievments during the Second World War when he cracked the teleprinter cipher, known as Tunny, which Hitler used to communicate with his generals. ...
This was a far more complicated mechanism than the famous Enigma cipher machine, since the Lorenz SZ40 had 12 wheels compared with the three or four on the Enigma. 
It also led to Bletchley Park's other great achievement, the construction of the world's first semi-programmable electronic computer, Colossus, which was used to decipher the Tunny messages.

Looking at the bibliography on Wikipedia, there are sources for the Tunny decryption going back to 1993, but that's still a half century after William Tutte broke Tunny in a tour de force of cryptography.

Roberts' NYT obituary continues:
By 1941, Bletchley Park cryptographers had already deciphered thousands of messages transmitted by lower-level German commanders in the field, thanks to the work of the mathematician Alan Turing, who in 1940 cracked the daunting German secret code that the British called Enigma. But they were stumped by the even more complex ciphered messages being transmitted among Hitler and the generals Erwin Rommel, Wilhelm Keitel, Gerd von Rundstedt and Alfred Jodl. 

 Code breakers initially called the system Fish, taking the name from a German code operator who, in an unguarded moment, had referred to the code as “sägefisch” (sawfish). Mr. Roberts and his group nicknamed it Tunny — as in tuna fish — and they were able to crack it. 

Mr. Roberts eventually served as the head cryptologist for the team, which grew to more than 100.

A maximum staff of 118.
The messages the team deciphered enabled the British government to warn Soviet leaders in 1943 about a major German offensive planned at Kursk that summer. The Soviet Army’s repulse of the attack in the Battle of Kursk was a turning point of the war.

Kursk was the biggest tank battle of all time. Kursk is in Russia today, right near the border with Ukraine.
The Tunny code breakers later helped set the stage for D-Day, establishing in the weeks before June 1944 that Hitler and his commanders expected an Allied invasion along the French coast at Calais, preceded by a feint at Normandy. The Germans were caught off guard by the full assault at Normandy. ...
In an interview with The Telegraph, he conveyed the excitement code breakers experienced when deciphering strategic information, and the frustration they felt at having to keep their work secret. When sharing the information with allies, British intelligence always attributed it to “spies.” 
“I can remember myself breaking messages about Kursk,” Mr. Roberts recalled. “We were able to warn the Russians that the attack was going to be launched, and the fact that it was going to be a pincer movement. We had to wrap it all up and say it was from spies, that we had wonderful teams of spies.”

From The Telegraph:
Capt Roberts later received an MBE in recognition of his service and he became a tireless ambassador for the memory of those who had served this country in secret during the war. 
He spent years campaigning for greater acknowledgement of his colleagues, including Alan Turing, who broke the naval Enigma code. 
Capt Roberts also called for the entire Testery group to be honoured, including Bill Tutte, who broke the Tunny system, and Tommy Flowers, who designed and built the Colossus, which sped up some stages of the breaking of Tunny traffic.

Roberts then had a long successful career in market research.

It's interesting to look at the class background of these codebreakers:

Tommy Flowers was the son of a bricklayer.
William Tutte was the son of a gardener.
Jerry Roberts was the son of a pharmacist.
Alan Turing was highly upper middle class:
Turing was born in Paddington, London, while his father was on leave from his position with the Indian Civil Service (ICS) at Chhatrapur, Bihar and Orissa Province, in British India.[10][11]

The Indian Civil Service was an examination-only elite service.
Turing's father, Julius Mathison Turing (1873–1947), was the son of a clergyman from a Scottish family of merchants which had been based in the Netherlands and included a baronet. Julius's wife, Alan's mother, was Ethel Sara (née Stoney; 1881–1976), daughter of Edward Waller Stoney, chief engineer of the Madras Railways. The Stoneys were a Protestant Anglo-Irish gentry family from both County Tipperary and County Longford, while Ethel herself had spent much of her childhood in County Clare.[12] Julius' work with the ICS brought the family to British India, where his grandfather had been a general in the Bengal Army.

42 comments:

IHTG said...

It's probably easier to keep something a secret when it's a highly technical megaproject that each individual worker only has a small part in.

1) It's too complex to explain to other people.
2) You don't know that much anyway.

Rainer said...

The more sinister problems are war and after-war falsifications. They can be keüt as secret as these decoding efforts.

Anonymous said...

Tommy Flowers was the son of a bricklayer.
William Tutte was the son of a gardener.


Maybe the war conducted by the elites against the white working class in the US and UK might not be such a good idea.

Anonymous said...

Northrup - Northrop.

Creditable - credible (surely?)

Anomaly UK said...

The head of British Intelligence, Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, wanted to move the GC&CS to Bletchley Park 1n 1938, but the government wouldn’t agree, so he bought the place with his own money and went ahead. That was the sort of people that the middle-class classicist–cryptographers and working-class craftsmen–technologists would work for at the time.

Anonymous said...

We know know (search for Portes) that the mass 3rd world immigration into the UK post 1997 was a deliberate conspiracy. Yet a large number of people would sneer and dismiss such a thing. Many similar smoking guns exist for the US Im sure.

As long as you hold the political/MSM megaphone you can shout down any number of credible witnesses, documentation etc. The conspiracy is there yet intelligent, grown-up people are happy to chrus that the Emperor is indeed a well dressed chap.

Anonymous said...

"The more sinister problems are war and after-war falsifications. They can be keüt as secret as these decoding efforts."

Indeed. The mass rape of German women by the Soviets wasn't reported on in the mainstream until the 1980's. Ditto for Japan's Unit 731 experiments.

James Thompson said...

Went to a lecture of his at UCL about two years ago. Was perfectly fluent, with only an occasional pause for words. He learnt German to a high standard in two years. Said his first decoded message was "Corporal Schmidt to report to Kiel" and thought to himself "This message is of absolutely no significance, save perhaps to Mrs Schmidt". He then went on to explain how a knowledge of the background of key persons lead to an understanding of what projects were being conducted where, and often for what purpose.
I thought Tunny had been spoken about years ago, but cannot find my copy of the 1970s Ultra book.

Hector Henry said...

There's a big difference between good people keeping secrets in order to safeguard a nation, versus a situation in which they intend to harm the public (the intent to harm is part of the definition of a conspiracy).

They aren't the same thing. Most of the country WANTS missile technology kept secret, so most of us aren't nosing around bases trying to find anything out. And if we did come across some missile part, and FedGov asked us to be silent, almost all of us would happily do so. Those are much easier secrets to keep.

josh said...

It's obvious there are no conspiracies because I know about several!

Anonymous said...

One theory is that the U.S. government encouraged rumors of flying saucers at Area 51 to discredit these highly creditable witnesses.

Yes, they did. I recall news reports on the radio about "flying saucers" spotted by pilots but not detected by commercial radar. Also, "cigar-shaped" objects flying at high speed and low altitude through the night sky. These witnesses were teased and discredited at the time; they were made into good examples of why it pays to keep your mouth shut.

ben tillman said...

One common argument against the existence of any and all conspiracies is that it's impossible to keep secret any project requiring more than a few individuals.

Anything can be kept secret if the mass media want to keep it secret.

It's like the old question: if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? Someone can talk, but it doesn't matter if the public doesn't hear him.

We all know how hard it is to publicize a non-conspiratorial truth and how easy it is for the communications media to conceal the truth in other contexts -- why should it be different in the case of a conspiracy?

Anonymous said...

Typical Anglo-Saxon navel gazing. Russia won WW2. Repeat: RUSSIA WON WW2. It wasn't code breakers (English or Navajo), Patton, Eisenhower, Bradley or Montgomery.

JDG1980 said...

Seems to me that it's a lot easier for secrets to be kept on a large scale if the motive is patriotism, rather than something more sordid. The British code-breakers during WWII and the Americans developing stealth technology during the Cold War were not troubled by uneasy consciences, nor with the fear that they would be punished if the public found out what they were doing.

Harry Baldwin said...

We still don't know exactly how Jimmy Hoffa got it or where he is interred, do we? Some conspirators can keep their mouths shut, it seems. Though it may be that the truth is hidden among the many stories that have come out about it.

Anonymous said...

"Secret projects" aren't equivalent to conspiracies. The latter are by definition crimes, and conscientious individuals who know about them are more likely to blow the whistle.

Black Death said...

Thanks for the links to the British codebreakers. There's a museum about them at Bletchley Park, where they worked.

Power Child said...

I've read in various places, and have been personally told by one or two people who worked on or closely with the SR-71 project that its ceiling is actually higher than 100,000'--not just 80,000' as you say.

I don't know how important that difference is from a tactical standpoint, but it seems important at least from a purely numeric one.

Anonymous said...

Typical Anglo-Saxon navel gazing. Russia won WW2. Repeat: RUSSIA WON WW2. It wasn't code breakers (English or Navajo), Patton, Eisenhower, Bradley or Montgomery.

BurplesonAFB said...

"Maybe the war conducted by the elites against the white working class in the US and UK might not be such a good idea"

There's been a tremendous brain drain from the working class as a result of the meritocratic sorting that Charles Murray described in Coming Apart. The bottom third of the SES ladder still produces some geniuses of course, but not at nearly the rate prior to WWII.

Also Steve, it occurs to me that the sheer number of overseas civil servant posts Britain had to fill during the height of their Empire was a tremendous benefit in finding/selecting/sorting excellent administrators. When you can give your up & comers enormous responsibility at relatively young ages you will see who cuts the mustard.

A 25 year old Harvard grad who wants to work in government can... intern at some shitty little NGO? ... be deputy assistant coffee getter at a federal department?

A hundred years ago, the 25 year old Oxford grad could be well on his way to running a province.

Discard said...

Any reading of history will show that conspiracies work all the time. Look into our entrance into WW1 or our wars against Spain and Iraq. Read today's papers on the doings in Ukraine and read January's papers on the same topic. Conspiracies are how bad things get done in this world. Those who deny conspiracies are nuttier than many of the conspiracy nuts.

Drawbacks said...

There's a story about an elderly couple taking a Bletchley tour not long ago: The wife corrected the guide on a technical point because she had worked in that department and the husband exclaimed, "You worked in Bletchley? So did I!"

Whiskey said...

Blunt, Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Ames, Falcon, Snowman, Hanssen.

The only ones in the dark were the US and UK public. Soviets knew everything. Like atomic secrets.

Anonymous said...

I saw some footage of the lobby of the NSA. One of the people who passed the desk and entered the secure area was a big, fat black woman walking with authority. My point being that England in WW II wasn't showing the world it's secret HQ and most certainly didn't have any staff members who looked like the fat black woman in that footage I watched. Diversity isn't conducive to secrecy, I'm guessing.
JohnDSee

Anonymous said...

Re conpiracies: "Offiicial" (i.e., government sponsored) conspiracies proceed because members are aborbed into a consensus culture of conspiracy where conspiracy discipline is the highest value, stressed on daily basis.
Illegal conspiracies, on the other hand, conspicuously lack such consensus discipline and are by definition "against the state," thereby outlaw. Moreover, such activities tend to involve marginal people.
Thus a Bletchley conspiracy could last, while it's still doubtful a JFK one would.

Anonymous said...

"Maybe the war conducted by the elites against the white working class in the US and UK might not be such a good idea. " - what makes you think they want that sort of thing to happen to them?

Anonymous said...

Isn't almost everything embraced by the Jewish left the opposite of what Middle America and Southern America (iows, all minus the Coasts) would approve of?

It's knee-jerk: "Oh, a farmer in Iowa or Nebraska said that, believes that; therefore, it's a horrid thought" or "A Christian in a Methodist church in Georgia said that so I know it's wrong." Or "A guy working in an auto plant likes bowling so I can't possibly try it to see if it's fun."

Canadian Cincinnatus said...

I suspect one thing that kept the stealth aircraft projects and the British decoding projects secret was that the participants all felt that it was their patriotic duty to keep quite.

The NSA scandal was blown up because Snowdown didn't feel the same way. Quite the opposite, he felt that the NSA domestic spying program was a threat to the country.

Black Death said...

Mavis Batey, another Bletchley Park code breaker, and one of the few women, died last year.

Anonymous said...

Typical Anglo-Saxon navel gazing. Russia won WW2. Repeat: RUSSIA WON WW2. It wasn't code breakers (English or Navajo), Patton, Eisenhower, Bradley or Montgomery.

Exactly! And to preempt the usual objections:
1. Without land-lease, Russia would still have won (the war would have lasted 1-2 years longer and cost more Russian lives).
2. The only reason US/UK opened the second front is that they were scared shitless at the prospect of victorious Stalin army taking over the entire Europe. Even more: without the entire Western from and UK's heroic fighting, Russia would have still won.

Christos T. said...

‘Besides decoding the German Enigma machine, there were other projects at Bletchley that weren't declassified until much more recently, such as Tunny, the breaking of Hitler's personal cipher.’

Steve, the Lorenz SZ40/Z42 cipher teleprinter (called ‘Tunny’ by the Brits) was not Hitler’s personal cipher. It was used for high level messages sent to Army Groups etc. Hitler had at his disposal both teleprinters and also specially wired Enigma cipher machines.

Simon in London said...

anon:
>>Exactly! And to preempt the usual objections:
1. Without land-lease, Russia would still have won (the war would have lasted 1-2 years longer and cost more Russian lives).
2. The only reason US/UK opened the second front is that they were scared shitless at the prospect of victorious Stalin army taking over the entire Europe. Even more: without the entire Western from and UK's heroic fighting, Russia would have still won.<<

Well, this is probably right - Stalin was good at overstating Russian weakness to get more stuff out of Churchill and Roosevelt. I'd guess that Nazi conquest of Britain in 1940 followed by Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941 would have put a final Soviet victory back to 1947, assuming minimal US aid - though surely the US would have at very least taken the British Isles once Berlin fell, so no hammer & sickle over Downing Street. The final result would have been very much Oceania/Eurasia.

But it's not 'navel-gazing' to discuss Bletchley Park and its role in Russia's victory in 1945. Probably saved tens of millions of lives across Eurasia.

E. Rekshun said...

I worked w/ an otherwise articulate and smart guy (a 60-year old mid-level manager) who stubbornly believed that G. W. Bush masterminded the WTC attack, and that strategically placed explosives imploded the buildings.

I pointed out that, if that were true, it would have taken hundreds of government workers and outside contractors to pull it off. Several of them surely would have been Bush-haters and would have told someone of the scheme. And wouldn't obama and his senior staffers and law enforcement & spy agency heads have learned of the scheme and spilled the beans as well; and if obama didn't advise the public , then obama was in on it too, right?

My coworker grumbled, got mad, and his head imploded.

Anonymous said...

Typical Anglo-Saxon navel gazing. Russia won WW2. Repeat: RUSSIA WON WW2. It wasn't code breakers (English or Navajo), Patton, Eisenhower, Bradley or Montgomery.

Exactly! And to preempt the usual objections:
1. Without land-lease, Russia would still have won (the war would have lasted 1-2 years longer and cost more Russian lives).
2. The only reason US/UK opened the second front is that they were scared shitless at the prospect of victorious Stalin army taking over the entire Europe. Even more: without the entire Western from and UK's heroic fighting, Russia would have still won.


Typical Slavic/Slavophile navel gazing.

Who gives who "won" WW2?

We're discussing how long you can keep a conspiracy secret.

Sean said...

"How long can a conspiracy be kept secret?" About 15 minutes, if any intellectualy demanding project necessarily has traitors due to the intelligentsia having been infiltrated by commies. Stalin knew all about Bletchley Park thanks to commie John Cairncross. And Stalin was allied with Hitler at this time. Stalin thought his Marxist perspective gave him the key to what was going on and the capitalist powers were going to exhaust themselves. Stalin had every reason to give Hitler a bit of help to get totally committed in the West against Britain at this stage.

During WW2 a US newspaper printed the US order of battle in the Pacific. PRINTED IT.

Sean said...

Read R. D. HOOKER, JR. and Stofi. Hitler alone wanted to stop at Smolensk, on the land bridge to Moscow for almost two months, and GO INTO THE UKRAINE.

He took the decision that lost the war, but if he had smashed the Soviet state in August 1941 he would not have gotthe Wagnerian ending Rienzi, would he?

Sean said...

Official secrets are different to conspiracies, so those who find out official secrets keep very quiet. There can be the death penalty for divulging an official secret. But implicating people in a conspiracy you have discovered brings benefits. We don't know about conspiracy, (officers fragged in Vietnam for example). It's supposed to have happened but probably not as often as is claimed.

There is only a need for high level conspiring if the people that matter are not all on the same page behind closed doors. I mean, what business says in their mission statment that their priority is to make maximum profit? McDonalds is not really about what it says its about. What is?

The best tank of WW2 would be the one the Germans surrendered at the sight of: Churchill Crocodile

The USSR didn't win the war, Hitler lost it.

Anonymous said...

The idea in war is to kill the enemy and not how many of your own are killed. Without Western aid and Soviet spies controlling the White House the Soviets would have won even less.

Anonymous said...

Maybe off topic but,

Robert Caro wrote a book the Powerbroker about Robert Moses and his control of New York City and State from 1920s to 1960s. If he did not write the book people would have dismissed stories about Robert Moses as conspiracy theories. So the Moses story might have been lost forever but for Caro.

The status of the Lusitania as a belligerent ship has only been learned recently.

That HMS Hood was likely not hit by shells from Bismark and just spontaneously exploded like her sister ships did at the Battle of Jutland has only been recently admitted by the British Admiralty.

Anonymous said...

1100 years

Procopius, the writer of "History of Justinian's Wars", came clean in his "Secret History" which was discovered in the Vatican Library 1100 years after being written.

"The Secret History reveals an author who had become deeply disillusioned with the emperor Justinian and his wife, Empress Theodora, as well as Belisarius, his former commander and patron, and Antonina, Belisarius' wife. "

Anonymous said...

"Typical Anglo-Saxon navel gazing. Russia won WW2. Repeat: RUSSIA WON WW2. ...

Without land-lease... (the war would have lasted 1-2 years longer and cost more Russian lives)..."


It's silly to waste your life on hypotheticals. Just read real history instead, it's quit fascinating. Woulda, shoulda, coulda... if, if, if...

Nobody knows what would have happened in a war which wasn't fought.

Interesting facts about Lend-Lease:

"The USSR was highly dependent on rail transportation, but the war practically shut down rail equipment production: only about 92 locomotives were produced. 2,000 locomotives and 11,000 railcars were supplied under Lend-Lease.

...by 1945 nearly two-thirds of the truck strength of the Red Army was U.S.-built."

Anonymous said...

Simon in London:" I'd guess that Nazi conquest of Britain in 1940"

Most military historians rate the prospects of a successful Nazi invasion of Britain as being somewhere between slim and none.