Howard Blum's exciting story of the German terrorist cell that operated in the United States in the aftermath of the start of World War I in Europe was inspired by an article Blum read in the CIA's in-house publication, Studies in Intelligence. The article, written by a CIA staff historian one year after 9/11, was subtitled "Protecting the Homeland The First Tome Around".
While the Brescia Circle had been a domestic syndicate [albeit made up largely of recent Italian immigrants] it was a foreign threat that led to Tunney's heroics.
Even before the start of the fighting in World War I in 1914, Germany knew it was going to war. It also knew that it wanted to keep the U.S. out of the fight. That desire, however, had to be balanced with the need to make sure that America did not become what Franklin Roosevelt would call 25 years later - prior to the next World War - "the arsenal of democracy." The Kaiser and his secret intelligence service, Abteilung IIIB, planned to make sure that Britain and France were not aided by supplies sent from America.
To do this, it was decided to set up a spy network in the United States to sabotage - as much as possible - attempts to aid the Allies at Germany's expense. The Kaiser decided that the German Foreign Service in the U.S. would be the best cover for the operation. Along those lines, in July 1914 Germany's Ambassador to the United States, Count Johann Heinrich Andreas Hermann Albrecht von Bernstorff was recalled to Berlin by the Supreme Commander of Abteilung IIIB, Walter Nicolai, for a full briefing on the plan. When Nicolai met von Bernstorff in Berlin, his instructions were simple: establish a network of intelligence agents in America. This network's mission would be twofold: keep the U.S. out of the war; and prevent arms and other goods from leaving U.S. docks for Europe.
While working out of the German Embassy in Washington, von Bernstorff decided to locate the headquarters of the spy network in New York City - a more German-friendly area and one less likely to raise suspicions. For staffing, Heinrich Albert, the Embassy's commercial attaché, served as paymaster for the cell. Indeed, in that first year alone, he distributed $30 million to spies and saboteurs in the network. Other key players included Karl Boy-Ed, a German diplomatic expert on the U.S. Navy and it's fleet, as well as Franz von Papen, who set up a War Intelligence Center to recruit and direct spies and saboteurs to where they were most needed.
It is important to note, as Blum reminds us, that at this time over 8,000,000 people - one tenth of the U.S. population - had been born in Germany or had a German parent. Another key audience from which to cull spies was the large number of German military reservists (about 500,000) who had suddenly found themselves stranded in America when the war broke out. President Woodrow Wilson's neutrality policy kept these German soldiers on U.S. land because he stated that any ship docked in the United States at the outbreak of the war would not be allowed to leave the U.S. to join the hostilities. Because of this, East Coast ports were filled with German vessels and idle sailors for the duration of the war. A captive audience from which to recruit spies, indeed.
The network was made up of more than just Germans, though. There were also 4,500,000 Irish-Americans in the U.S., and the strains of Irish nationalism ran deep for the common enemy - Great Britain. So here, too, was a population likely to help the Germans.
One of the final leaders put in place was Paul Koenig, a man Blum describes as, "a thug and a bully and he enjoyed hurting people." He was hired to carry out covert assignments for the Abteilung IIIB. Because he worked security for the Hamburg-American Shipping Line, he was familiar with all of the best criminals on the New York City docks. Koenig rounded up his best thugs and formed a "secret service division". They planted and detonated bombs on ships carrying materiel to the Allies throughout 1914-15. In most cases, the bombs went off at sea and appeared as "fires" rather than intentional explosions.
By the spring of 1915, Tunney had formulated a theory that these fires were not the result of poor safety practices by sailors but were instead related to German sabotage. Tunney went to Commissioner Woods with his theory after more than 70 fires/explosions, 38 deaths, and $22 million in damages had occurred.
At almost exactly the same time, the British Secret Service cracked the German code. To continue to make that a useful tool, however, they obviously did not want the Germans to know of their success. Britain, therefore, would not share with the United States that the code had been broken. They would, however, share with them the knowledge of the German sabotage cells, gleaned from being able to read the dispatches between Berlin and Washington. Guy Gaunt, head of Section V, the British Secret Service New York station - let Franklin Polk, his liaison in the Wilson Administration, know that the German Secret Service was directing a campaign of sabotage against the United States. President Wilson had placed Polk in charge of U.S. security operations at the start of the European war. Polk had grave doubts, however, that there was anyone in Washington who could handle such a case. He knew about what Woods and Tunney had done with the Brescia Circle case in New York City, and he tapped them with the job of investigating the bombings. Tunney's group thus became the awkwardly-titled Bomb and Neutrality Squad.
At this time - spring 1915 - two new actors appeared. Franz Dagobert Johannes von Rintelen was sent by Nicolai to the U.S. to take over the German sabotage campaign in April 1915. While von Bernstorff would remain in charge of the entire operation as Ambassador to the U.S., Nicolai realized that there needed to be a physical presence in New York City overseeing day-to-day operations, something von Bernstorff could not do from Washington.
The second actor was Dr. Walter Scheele. Scheele invented a bomb that evaporated in the explosion itself - thus it was untraceable and allowed the user to create fuses that would not detonate for up to two weeks after they were planted - when ships were well at sea. These "cigar" bombs were smuggled aboard ships heading for Europe. They'd be in international waters by the time they ignited and therefore there would never be a clue as to what caused the fire. Unless, of course, Tunney could find a cigar bomb that - for some reason - didn't explode.
To manufacture these bombs in sufficient quantities, space was needed. Charles von Kleist - a longtime German captain stranded in New York City - suggested to von Rintelen that he use the steamship Friedrich der Grosse and it was transformed into a factory. It took one week to fabricate about 100 lead cigars. Von Rintelen used Irish stevedores to smuggle them onto the ships. The first ship targeted was the British ship Phoebus carrying American-made bullets and shells. It worked.
Not every bomb exploded, of course, When French police found unexploded bombs on the steamship Kirkoswald when it docked in Marseille from New York City. the French sent the bombs to the U.S. State Department who sent them onto Tunney and his team. After studying the design, Tunney figured out how the bombs worked, but not why this particular bomb hadn't. Tunney knew "by their design that they were the work of a skilled and artful professional with a sophisticated knowledge of chemistry and design."
While most know the story of Germany's attempt to recruit Mexico against the United States just prior to U.S. entry in the war, Blum discovered that it was not the first time Germany had tried this. In mid-1915, von Rintelen met with ousted Mexican dictator Victoriano Huerta [who was trying to regain his seat of power in Mexico]. Von Rintelen proposed that German U-Boats would deliver covert shipments of weapons along the Mexican coast; Germany would provide large sums of money to outfit Huerta with a Mexican rebel army; in return, once Huerta regained power, his troops would attack the United States. Unbeknownst to either man, the whole meeting had been recorded by British Intelligence [they had bugged Huerta's hotel room, where the meeting had been held].
The plan started when 8,000,000 rounds of ammunition were purchased and awaited shipment to Huerta; another 3,000,000 rounds were on order; $800,000 was deposited into Huerta's personal bank account; another $95,000 went into a Mexican bank account also in Huerto's name; and Franz von Papen, from the aforementioned War Intelligence Center, started drafting plans to attack the American army barracks in Brownsville, El Paso and San Antonio.
That's as far as this plot got. The British tipped off the Americans - again, not explaining how or exactly what was learned - and Huerta was arrested on charges of sedition. As Blum writes, this is where the story of what really happened must go untold. We know that Huerta was first incarcerated in El Paso, and then released on bail. He was invited mysteriously to a dinner at Fort Bliss. It was there that Blum surmises that Huerta was more than likely poisoned. He died before ever returning to Mexico.
As incredible as the story of sabotage is, many of these acts were occurring in international waters. What the Germans next proposed would be on U.S. soil. In the spring of 1915, the Germans sent Erich von Steinmetz to the United States to launch germ warfare. The target wasn't humans - although there was a grave risk of human contraction of deadly disease - the primary targets were horses. In the war in Europe, horses, "we're suddenly as valuable as oil." The idea was to poison the American horses before they could be shipped to serve in Europe. The fact that Americans would die too was irrelevant. . Von Steinmetz came to the United States with vials of bacteria for glanders, anthrax, and meningitis. He went to Van Cortlandt Park, where hundreds of the soon-to-be shipped horses were held. He inserted a stick covered with glanders bacteria into a nostril of every third horse. Then he waited. And waited. Nothing happened. After a week the horses were still healthy. It turned out that the germs he'd brought with him were too old. After a month they lost their potency and these were at least four months old. For now, at least, germ warfare was put on hold.
One of the great financiers of the Allies was J.P. Morgan. As such, he was the target of much wrath from Germany. In early June 1915, a new figure [one with an incredible backstory detailed marvelously throughout the book by Blum] presented himself on stage. He name was Frank Holt and he was going to "convince" Morgan that he shouldn't aid the allies. Holt also wanted to send a message to Congress that their protests over the sinking of the Lusitania were "misguided".
Holt's plot unfolded quickly. On July 2, 1915, Holt toured the U.S. Capitol and planted a bomb under a canvas covering the switchboard near the Vice President's office. He then sent a letter to five recipients - President Wilson and the four principal Washington newspapers.The bomb went off at 11:23 pm.
By that point, Holt was en route to see Morgan. On July 3rd, Holt managed to gain entry to Morgan's summer home on Long Island by pulling a gun on the butler. Holt then rounded up the two youngest Morgan children as protection should Morgan be armed. Seeing his children, without thinking, Morgan threw himself at Holt, who shot Morgan in the abdomen and left thigh. Though shot, Morgan fell on Holt and managed to wrestle the gun from his hands while the butler knocked Holt unconscious.
Once he regained consciousness, Holt gave a statement that read similarly to the language used in the letters dealing with the U.S. Capitol bombing. Tunney quickly linked Holt to both events. Tunney took over the case and was hopeful that Holt would be the linchpin that would help him bring the others down. This was particularly true because, after only a short conversation with Holt, Tunney realized that he had no idea how to make a bomb himself, meaning he must have had accomplices.
Then another of those unknowable mysteries arose: Holt died in his holding cell. There were conflicting stories that Holt had gotten hold of a gun and shot himself; that German agents had somehow gotten access to him and shot him; that there was no gunshot at all and Holt managed to commit suicide by jumping head-first from the top of the window in his cell onto the concrete floor below. Blum expanded on each theory but concludes that Holt's death is one of those things that will never be solved. Indeed, back when Commissioner Woods had given Tunney "command of his special task force, the commissioner had warned that some secrets might never be revealed. The circumstances surrounding Holt's death, he now suspected, were among them."
A break in the case of the overall spy network came on July 24, 1915, when German paymaster Heinrich Albert accidentally left a briefcase full of incriminating documents on an elevated train, just as he was being watched by one of Tunney's agents, who confiscated the briefcase. The documents in it were a treasure trove of detail. The contents took a circuitous route to President Wilson: Tunney forwarded them onto Secret Service Chief William Flynn, who brought them to Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo, who briefed Wilson. McAdoo told Wilson that the briefcase contained details on the German sabotage network including plans to set up a phony company to buy up as much American munitions as possible to exhaust the supplies of those receiving orders from Europe. The documents also disclosed plans to buy up liquid chloride (used for poison gas). [As an aside, Blum notes that by that point the United States was selling 52 tons of liquid chloride a month to the Allies].
It was an incredible find. But Secretary of State Robert Lansing pointed out the elephant in the room: the documents couldn't be used in a court of law - a federal agent had essentially stolen them. Wilson agreed but his close aide, Colonel Edward House, had seen about enough of his friend's tortured 'neutrality' policies. These documents were too much for House to allow. If they couldn't be used in court, they could be used in the press. House subsequently leaked the documents to Frank Cobb, editor at the New York World. They were front page news on August 15, 1915.
House was not alone in being exasperated by Wilson. Blum - for most of the book - is extremely critical of Wilson's unwillingness to act on the intelligence Tunney and others were giving him. Blum said, "...Wilson's patience was inexhaustible." The patience of his friends was not. House in particular became more and more critical of Wilson. In language that risked his friendship with his boss, House said that by refusing to speak out against Germany's covert operations in the United States, Wilson was endangering the nation. As Blum reports, "The president was unmoved."
A second attempt at germ warfare came in the person of Anton Dilger in early October 1915. Dilger was sent by Abteilung IIIB to carry out von Steinmetz's aborted mission. Dilger set up his headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland, just six miles from the White House. He set up what he called "Tony's Lab" in the basement and went to work on breeding anthrax and glanders.
At the same time, though, the organization itself was beginning to unravel. And the key was an old standby - money. A German operative in Hoboken, New Jersey, Charles von Kleist, was angry. He had performed work for Walter Scheele - inventor of the cigar bomb - but felt he had not been paid properly. Von Kleist was furious and wanted his money. He'd tried to get it by going up the chain of command but he had gotten nowhere. Just at that moment, Tunney had decided to send agents into heavily German Hoboken to try to infiltrate a cell. One of the agents posing as a German spy, Henry Barth, found von Kleist and was all too eager to tell the German that he could make sure that Scheele paid him his money. Soon, von Kleist thoroughly trusted Barth and told him everything he knew, which was quite a bit - including the location of a bomb-making factory in Hoboken. The final straw was when he brought Barth to his home and dug up a cigar bomb to show him what they'd used. Barth immediately arrested him.
With von Kleist talking, others were rounded up and arrested. Actually, most of the conspirators were talking. One of those Tunney interviewed was named Bonford Boniface, who had first-hand knowledge of von Steinmetz's attempts at germ warfare. According to Bonfiace, a second attempt at germ warfare was supposedly in motion but he didn't know any details.
Tunney was stunned. As he shared this plot up the chain, Franklin Polk - also tired of Wilson's lack of backbone - didn't even bother to bring the news to House, "...he had no faith that the president would listen to the news and then act decisively."
Meanwhile, things in "Tony's Lab" were about ready. Frederick Hinsch, one of the German operatives, was tasked with taking the germs from Dilger. He took anthrax and glanders, which were to be given to horses to start a plague.
But the Germans were running out of time. Another pillar fell out from under them when John Archibald, an American reporter sympathetic to Germany, agreed to deliver papers from German Ambassador von Bernstorff to Germany. Amazingly, a waiter at the table where von Bernstorff and Archibald were dining tipped off the Secret Service. When he arrived in England [en route to Germany], Archibald was arrested with 110 documents outlining German plans to foment labor strikes in the U.S.; cancelled checks to saboteurs and dozens of other incriminating documents. By this point, the British had joined the legions of those wary of Wilson. Rather than forward the information onto Washington, the British simply leaked the contents of the files to the American press.
Meanwhile, unlike von Steinmetz's samples, Dilger's germs worked. It is believed that the first human to die was a handler of the horses on one of the ships. The cause of death was glanders and it was assumed the man had contracted it from a sick horse. Indeed, it would not be until 1924 - when lawyers seeking reparations for Germany's sabotage activities in the U.S. conducted their investigations - that the existence of "Tony's Lab" was discovered. While this man was the first known human fatality in the contagion caused by Germany's germ warfare attack, Blum says we will never know how many deaths went undiagnosed.
Blum adequately covers the build-up to U.S. entry in World War I. By the time the Germans declared unrestricted submarine warfare [February 1, 1917], much of the German spy network was either in jail or back safely in Berlin. By that time, the German spy network - in just three years - had destroyed $150 million in property and caused over 100 deaths.
It could have been much, much worse if not for Thomas Tunney. As Blum writes, "In the end, it had been left to Tom and his small group of men to protect the homeland."