Wednesday, August 22, 2012

"Inception" in practice

The film Inception explores what it takes plant an idea that a target’s mind that the target believes is his own. The process involves infiltrating dreams, and the story itself blurred fiction and reality. By the end, both the target and the audience could no longer distinguish between the two.

The film itself is a work of fiction. But showing that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, British intelligence pulled off the same concept in WWII (minus the dream part). The target was Adolf Hitler. The event was the Normandy Invasion. And the exercise was a smashing success: large numbers of German troops did not move to repel the Normandy landing. Instead, they waited for an assault that would never come, tied down by a force that didn’t exist. The story is told in Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies.

Earlier in the war, British intelligence (MI5) had come to the startling conclusion: they had captured every single German spy in the entire nation. Many were locked up or executed, while a smaller number were persuaded to turn double-agent. They would continue to pose as spies, but would only report what MI5 told them to.

At first, the spies were used to confuse the Germans and monitor what German intelligence wanted. But as the war progressed, the MI5 expanded their horizons. Would it be possible, they wondered, to use this network of spies to plant a false idea in Hitler’s mind? And so a major part of Operation Fortitude was born. The mission was to convince Hitler that Calais, and not Normandy, was the target for invasion.

The plot was layer of falsehood upon layer of falsehood to a degree that makes Inception look straightforward. It involved real generals commanding fake armies, and look-alike actors taking tours as real generals. There were entire rings of spies that didn’t exist, as well as inflatable tanks (they had a tendency to want to blow away) and wooden decoy airplanes. Part of the plan was infiltration of Germany’s carrier pigeon network, and for a while the spies were demanding so much money from their German handlers (which MI5 promptly pocketed) that MI5 turned a profit on the operation.

But it was not all fun and games. Freelance agents who saw profit in selling fake stories to the Germans invented their own rings of fictional spies, and there was always the danger that an independent report would accidentally hit on the truth. And the spies themselves were a motley crew, with divided loyalties and a warped sense of morality. Outside of war, the entire group would have likely ended up in prison.

And of course, there was always the German side. The information presented by the spies needed to be straightforward enough that the Germans would arrive at the desired conclusion, but not so obvious as to raise suspicions that the spies were controlled. Some German officers had a great gift for not scrutinizing any information—often for personal reasons. Many were corrupt or just downright lazy. Others were harder to fool, either out of a desire to win the war or to cover the fact that they were simultaneously plotting against Hitler as part of the Stauffenberg conspiracy.

Ben Macintyre does not disappoint in telling this story. As in all his books, he highlights how history is driven by people, their quirks, and their responses to the planned and unplanned events in their lives. He also revels in the absurdities of counterintelligence. We now have the advantage of knowing that the Normandy invasion was a success, but the planners in this book had no such knowledge. Reality was often lost during the spy-game of double and triple crossing, and they were ultimately not sure if Hitler had taken the bait until the invasion started.

In fact, it is possible that those with the greatest advantage were the spies themselves. They simply invented their own reality. Were one to consider moral fiber, character, or loyalty, these men and women were not heroes in the ordinary sense of the word, but then there was nothing ordinary about them. However, in the time of crisis—especially for one of them—they did something truly heroic. It is quite possible that, but for the false ideas they planted in Hitler’s head, the Normandy invasion would have failed.


Click here for more book reviews.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...