During my years of assisting on the battlefield, I sometimes ran into military commanders who didn’t believe my warnings and tip-offs derived from signals intelligence—the intercept and exploitation of the radio communications of the enemy. I never had that problem with the Marines, but it happened with army officers more often than I’d like to admit. As I have written before here, I coined a term for my dilemma, the Cassandra Effect. Cassandra was, according to Greek myth, a Trojan woman blessed by the gods with the ability to foretell the future but cursed by the gods that no one would believe her. Too often I found myself in that position: I knew from enemy communications where he was, what he was doing, which of his units were there, and what his plans were, but the army commanders I warned too often disregarded my admonition.
I believe that the reason army commanders so often ignored my intelligence was that they were not trained in the use of signals intelligence. Many of them had never heard of it and were suspicious of this civilian—me—operating under cover as an enlisted man in the unit they commanded. The National Security Agency (NSA), my employer, back in those days went to great lengths to keep its existence and work secret. We joked back then that NSA stood for “No Such Agency.”
And all too often army commanders gave little to no attention to communication security, that is, protecting their own communications from enemy intercept and exploitation. On one occasion I can never forget, I was working with a large U.S. army unit in the central part of Vietnam. I was able to use signals intelligence to inform the commander of the whereabouts of the enemy unit he sought to attack. As he set out for location of the enemy force, he insisted on using unenciphered voice communications to coordinate his subordinate units. I counseled him that the North Vietnamese were excellent at communications intelligence and were undoubtedly monitoring his transmissions. He waved me away. When I continued to protest, he finally said to me, “Fine. I want them to know we’re coming.”
More next time.