Is it naïve to think secrets can be kept these days? What government agencies, large corporations, or malevolent hackers are aware that you’re reading this article right now? Where is the line between privacy, public information, and national security? Any material that can cause “exceptionally grave damage” to national security if made public is deemed Top Secret.
On May 16, 2012 FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III announced his agency’s investigation into recent Top Secret leaks to the news media. The investigation is a reaction to a press release that revealed a spoiled Al Qaeda plot to smuggle an underwear bomber from a Yemeni affiliate onto a U.S.-bound airplane. If government secrets are in big trouble, so are yours.
Travel back to a time when World War II is heating up, and the following information requires Top Secret clearance, the highest security classification of the U.S. government. Spring’s in full bloom in the Oregon woods. Elsie Mitchell takes five children on a fishing trip near Bly. Someone finds an inflated, metallic object caught in the brush. When the others poke around the thing EXPLODES releasing a massive fireball that kills them all.
Sirens wale rousing Air Force pilots out of bed. A squadron of P-51 Mustang fighter planes races over the ocean meeting the rising sun. The pilots bulls eye their targets, silver, unmanned balloons. Across the Pacific, Japanese General Kusaba directs an operation that unleashes thousands of similar balloons traveling via jet stream toward the North American coast. After three days, the balloons wreak havoc, indiscriminately dropping incendiary bombs on American and Canadian rural areas and cities. Some of the firebomb balloons even wind up down in Mexico. Incendiary bombs made of rice paper are the world’s first intercontinental weapons of mass destruction. Military analysts can’t even fathom that the balloons are actually coming all the way from mainland Japan. They mistakenly believe the Japanese are launching the balloons on North American beaches, or submarines just off the coast.
Japanese propaganda films rush to produce reels portraying hysterical Americans terror-stricken by ten thousand casualties and raging infernos. Compounding the balloon threat, the military grows anxious over biological weapons being developed at the infamous Unit 731 site at Pingfan in Manchuria. Equally troubling is the recent memory of The Battle of Los Angeles. Just three months after the U.S. enters the war in 1942, a presumably stray weather balloon (some argue a UFO) triggers a wild aerial barrage against an imagined Japanese attack force. The extreme overreaction to what Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox calls a “false alarm,” causes 3 civilian deaths from anti-aircraft guns, and makes splashy headlines nationwide.
Something must be done before the cat gets out of the bag. Around three hundred witnesses report sighting Japanese balloon bombs. Turning up the heat, on January 1, 1945 Newsweek runs an article, “Balloon Mystery”. In response, the Office of Censorship issues a request calling on all newspaper and radio news agencies to keep the balloon bombs under wraps in order to protect national security and prevent widespread panic. Incredibly, news agencies all over the country comply.
Meanwhile on the European front, the badly depleted ranks of American paratroopers urgently require replenishment. Out of options, the Army turns to men whose ordinary military service consists of little more than menial jobs like cooking and cleaning. On December 19, 1943 the Army activates the first all-black unit in history, consisting entirely of black officers and enlisted men. Despite the pride of their new commission, these soldiers still feel the sting of using “colored only” restrooms and sitting in segregated sections of movie theaters. By November of 1944 the unit blossoms into a full battalion called the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, nicknamed the Triple Nickles (Old English spelling). Their emblem consists of a pyramid of three buffalo nickels, and 17 of the original 20-member “colored test platoon” come from the 92nd Infantry of Buffalo Soldiers. Members of the 555th see white soldiers and prisoners of war from Germany sitting at the same table drinking and smoking while they can’t join them because of their skin color.
Shocking military brass, the battalion successfully completes the rigorous airborne training. However, European theater commanders cite fears of white racism, and allege they have “no use” for these highly trained soldiers. Even though the military denies the Triple Nickles the action overseas they signed up for, the mounting balloon bomb assault on the West Coast makes them the perfect men for a daring Top Secret mission, Operation Firefly.
The rash of blazing forest fires grows wildly out of hand. Making matters worse, most able-bodied men are already off fighting in the war, leaving too few to tackle the challenge. The Triple Nickles must adapt to fighting fires instead of Nazis. Picture this, a doe and its fawn sip water from a lazy river in the remote woods. Suddenly, swarms of birds flee the nearby trees. A tsunami of fire pours over the treetops. Then, the Triple Nickles descend on the river, punching sunlight holes through the billowing smoke. Armed with only a leather football helmet and a shovel, the men get to work digging trenches to tame the blaze. Fearlessly leaping into raging infernos soon earns the men a second nickname, “Smoke Jumpers.” During Operation Firefly, the Triple Nickles astoundingly complete over 1,200 successful jumps.
On March 10, 1945 one of the last fire balloons causes a short circuit in the power lines supplying electricity to the Hanford Site, a plutonium production facility for the Manhattan Project hidden in the Washington woods. Begun in 1942, the Manhattan Project was another Top Secret American-led effort, working in cooperation with the United Kingdom and Canada, to produce the world’s first atomic bomb. Fortunately at the Hanford Site, emergency backup generators kick in to cool the pumps keeping the nuclear reactor at a safe temperature. Amazingly, both the Japanese military and the American public remain clueless about the narrowly avoided, Chernobyl-like catastrophe. In addition, the press blackout leaves the Japanese unable to gage the effectiveness of their balloon attacks. Lacking any tangible evidence of success, the Japanese order General Kusaba to cease his bombing operations.
Despite its overwhelming success, once Top Secret Operation Firefly and the heroics of the Triple Nickles are mostly forgotten and unknown. No longer a threat to national security, this vital information impacts a variety of topics including military desegregation, unmanned weapons, nuclear warfare, and covert operations. On March 30, 2010 the Pentagon held a ceremony honoring the 555th Infantry Regiment which included the three surviving members of the test platoon Clarence Beavers, Walter Morris, and Roger Walden.
These days, both governments and individuals find secrecy harder than ever to maintain. For better or worse, almost any kind information is now immediately accessible all over the world. Governments are no longer the primary, central source of information they once were. It’s the age of “choose your own” propaganda. Also, judging from the monsoon of media criticism about the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars it’s highly unlikely that the media, if it even exists anymore as a cohesive unit, would play ball with the American government, let alone military. Could America keep a secret like Operation Firefly today? Doubtful.
Commenting on the recently exposed secret of the foiled underwear bomb plot FBI Director Mueller remarked, “Leaks such as this have a – I don’t want overuse the word ‘devastating’ – but have a huge impact on our ability to do our business, not just on a particular source and the threat to the particular source, but your ability to recruit sources is severely hampered.” So maybe there’s something to be said for keeping state secrets from time to time. Makes me wonder how the government manages to keep the truth about Roswell under wraps.