By Pam Ribbey, Opus (2022)
Rebuttal Review By Capt. J.R. Reddig, USN (Ret.)
I read a review of this book and wanted to respond. By way of background, I served in three wars in uniform. Three that were declared, anyway. Others were undeclared, like the war in the Navy about communications intelligence.
The issues were stark, and play out today in the review you published. Who owned the management of the radio intercept system that collected it? Who provided authoritative analysis of the material that was collected? I joined in 1977, when the lines had been drawn. SIGINT collection had been consolidated at NSA, and the old and sometimes bitter struggle between the War and Navy Departments over sources and methods had been settled by brute force. An entirely new bureaucracy was set up outside both. That is one of the conflicts not mentioned in your recent review.
Hearing about it in person from a few of those who were participants was a rare privilege. My time of reference in uniform begins in 1977. It was immediately after the conclusion of the Vietnam conflict and spanned the end of the Cold War, Desert Shield and the War on Terror.
After retirement, RADM Donald “Mac” Showers became a close friend. He was in his early 80s at the time and had three careers. First he was a code-breaker and intelligence specialist in World War Two, then after the tumult of wars in Korea and SE Asia, retirement to a job at CIA handling Watergate-era issues that Director Helms wanted solved without DCI involvement. We still couldn’t talk about some of them. His last job was a departure from the IC: he retired to assume duty as care-giver to his lovely wife as over a decade her health failed.
In the interviews we tried to conduct weekly, he related his experiences serving on the personal staff of FADM Nimitz, from Station HYPO at Pearl Harbor in February 1942 to the conclusion of World War Two. The products of his Estimates Section on likely casualties in the invasion of the Home Islands- military and civilian- led Admiral Nimitz to strongly support using the “Gadgets” as a means of saving lives. After his passing in 2012, an extended account of Mac’s Cold War experience was added to include the issues around creation of the national Intelligence Community we know today.
As part of a project to capture his memories and insight, I met author Pam Ribbey. At the time, she had launched an ambitious project to talk to those men who remained alive and who had direct experience with the units involved in the commencement of hostilities at Pearl. The list of them was remarkable in length, and the loss of Pam’s library in the horrific Woolsey Wildfire in 2018 is a historic tragedy. Thankfully, she was able to save key interviews as she fled the flames.
Pam’s effort in War Alert was fascinating to follow as she wove the story together with Mac and others who still lived. Missed in your recent review was the criticality of other, larger issues. When the histories were first written, material was carefully curated to ensure existing capabilities to conduct signals intelligence were not compromised to new opponents in the Soviet Union.
So, the history we learned about the war was the version acceptable for release. Real understanding of the how-and-why requires an understanding of the battlespace. That included the bureaucratic imperatives under which they had to operate.
CDR Joe Rochefort’s story is a case study. With declassification of HYPO’s role in the 1970s, he was correctly noted as a hero for his contributions to victory in the Pacific. But directly after his analytic triumph in the Battle of Midway, he was abruptly relieved and ordered to command a floating dry-dock. It is hard to imagine a role further from the codebreaking that helped produce the greatest naval triumph since Trafalgar.
At his detachment, Admiral Nimitz recommended award of the Distinguished Service Medal for his accomplishments. It was turned down by ADM King in Washington who felt others should be rewarded. RADM Showers later spent years in an effort to have the award granted posthumously, and finally succeeded. But that is a microcosm of the depth of the internal struggle.
In my career time, we dealt with the CIA (HUMINT) and NSA (SIGINT) in very much the function they assumed after the National Security Act of 1947. That was not at all the case in 1941, since the War Department (Army) and Navy Department each had Cabinet seats and interests to protect within each. Pam was determined to get to the bottom of the factual stack and understand why things happened the way they did.
Consider the odds against that understanding within the history as written. There were two major investigations about the attack on Pearl. The first was conducted in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Scapegoats were needed. In addition to classification issues, there was also a certain amount of “CYA” involved. Tens of thousands of Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and civilians were yet to perish in the conflict from a dozen nations. The second investigation was after the conclusion of hostilities in the warm light of victory.
History had an institutional role in the post-war struggle for Defense reorganization. The Navy’s view was promulgated by Samuel Elliot Morrison with official assistance. Pam’s unique access to many of those who still lived after the official story had been long promulgated. Their version of the times they lived were told after many of the secrets were declassified. But not all of them. As a former intelligence officer, I am always interested in secrets that remain classified some eighty-years after the events they describe.
The nature of those secrets? Some are technical accounts of handwriting and other coding techniques. But they also include some associated with intelligence shared by Winston Churchill’s imperial elements in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, notably Singapore and Australia. Another was a struggle of an American Administration determined to pursue a course of action hard to sell to the public.
In the Cabinet, there was tension within the American military, between the War and Navy Departments. These were efforts within both Departments to control the information necessary to win a global conflict. Navy had an independent intelligence organization, founded in 1882 and the oldest in the nation. But the technical innovation of radio communications was beginning at the same time, transforming how military units operated. It also exposed vulnerabilities without clear lines of authority for exploitation. Further issues materialized, including a fight about centralized versus distributed analytic nodes to provide intelligence support to fleet operations.
The tension between Navy and War Departments is not the focus of War Alert, nor the schism between communications and intelligence. It does play directly into her description of what happened to make the surprise attack on Pearl not exactly what we have been told. Her account is essential reading at the baseline, since it depicts a Navy that was not “sleeping at dawn,” but had been ready, under layers of secrecy, for combat but did not act. By design.
Her craftsmanship reflects the decades-long effort to collect the memories of those who still lived. They were free of the cloak of secrecy around the narrative. Her work fills a void regarding the consolidation of the radio intelligence branches of two cabinet departments into a single large and (largely) independent National Security Agency in 1947.
There is more to tell on that story, some of it legitimately still in classified channels. But the story contained Pam Ribbey’s War Alert contains invaluable context for how the fight over information began. It is invaluable in understanding the desire to integrate ‘information’ in the digital age into a single inclusive as a main battery of the Navy’s warfighting capabilities, and firmly establish the U.S. Navy’s prominence in intelligence, cyber warfare, and information management.
Pam Ribbey’s War Alert is a useful analytic effort to deconflict how the pieces were set in motion. Secrets that were kept, and some that remain buried today.
War Alert in the Tropical Dawn at Pearl. By Pam Ribbey (Washington, DC: 2022)