Old and interesting #5: OSS Morale Operations Field Manual (Part 2)
The use of false pamphlets and forgeries.
This is the second part in my series on the OSS Morale Operations Manual. In this part, I concentrate on written materials, specifically false pamphlets and forgeries. The first part was about rumors.
The false pamphlet sponsored by a belligerent nation attempts to convey the impression that it is a bona fide message from the people's own fellow country-men who are sharing the same risks as the rest of the population and have similar aspirations, aims, and goals.
The false pamphlet can be effectively used to make the enemy uneasy about the loyalty of the people in the territory. The very existence of clandestine pamphlets is "evidence" of underground activity.
Some trust between a country’s (or an occupied territory’s) residents and its authorities is fundamental. This feature provides the undercover agent with an opportunity. Instead of directly targeting his objective, like encouraging citizens to engage in sabotage, he can try to achieve it indirectly by first undermining trust and then allowing events to follow their natural course.
The undercover agent can employ two strategies to undermine trust between the populace and the authorities.
First, he can give people reasons to distrust each other. For instance, when a rumor spreads that the authorities are harassing villagers, or are channeling food supplies away from them, the villagers will develop an initial feeling of distrust. Motivated reasoning kicks in, whereby the villagers will look for instances that seem to confirm the authorities’ bad intentions towards them. They might interpret an accident as part of a broader conspiracy against them, or view a soldier offering food to local children as an attempt at poisoning.
Second, the undercover agent can take advantage of the idea that distrust breeds more distrust. The undercover agent leaves false pamphlets by the roadside, to be discovered later by the authorities. Upon discovering these pamphlets, the authorities perceive them as evidence of the population's distrust. This leads to a reciprocal response—they begin to distrust the population. The population notices this change in sentiment (e.g., in the form of burdensome security measures or checkpoints) and starts distrusting the authorities. This cycle repeats. Even if there was no initial distrust between the population and the authorities, once they are entangled in this escalating cycle of distrust, it’s difficult to get out of it. The undercover agent can sit back and enjoy the resulting chaos.
Trade-offs and unintended consequences in forgery
Extreme care must be taken to make the forgery appear authentic - otherwise it may have a serious boomerang effect.
Imagine a resistance fighter working at a clandestine forgery workshop in occupied Poland during WWII. She is near the end of her workday and is feeling a bit tired. Should she make another forgery before she goes home? On the one hand, a forged protection document—her specialty—could grant a Jewish person safe passage, potentially saving a life. On the other hand, if her tiredness leads to an otherwise avoidable mistake, the Nazi authorities might spot that the document is a forgery. Not only does it seal the fate of the Jewish person, but it also endangers her broader mission. The Nazis might decide to ignore all protection documents from now on, which would lead to the deaths of all those she could have saved.
Each forgery she creates presents a trade-off: to save one life now, she risks her ability to save future lives, either by getting arrested or by rendering all protection documents inadmissible.
As is only human, she is unsettled by this trade-off and strives to eliminate (or at least limit) the risk her forgery creates for her future ability to help the persecuted. She wants to outsmart the Nazis, so she builds a mental model of how they punish forgeries.
She thinks the Nazis could consider every document a forgery if it comes from the same organization as the forged document. Her tactic is to issue documents under the name of an organization that doesn’t issue many documents. This may work for a while, but then the Nazis become aware of this. They then start accepting only those documents that had been issued by reputable organizations. The forger changes gears again. She forges documents under the name of a reputable organization—but does so only occasionally. Alternatively, she may decide to specialize in an entirely different type of document.
As this example shows, every action generates a counteraction, which then generates a counteraction to the counteraction. Just as energy is conserved yet shifts in form within the cosmos, we cannot eliminate trade-offs; we can only exchange one trade-off for another.
Tragedy of the commons
Up until now, we assumed that it’s only one person who is creating forgeries. This is rarely the case in real life. As we add an extra forger, the situation becomes even more complex. Forger A’s actions impose costs on forger B, and vice versa. Forger A can make perfect forgeries, yet she can have her mission fail if forger B is as skilled at forging signatures as the average toddler.
But we don’t need forger B to completely lack manual dexterity for a complicated situation to arise. A simpler account will suffice. It’s enough if we assume that both forgers want to save their friends, and they don’t care about saving the other forger’s friends.
This is a classic example of the “tragedy of the commons,” where individuals, acting in their self-interest, unintentionally harm the group by depleting a shared resource. In this case, the “commons” is the ability to pass a forged document as genuine. Each forger, while aiming to save his own friends, contributes to the loss of this ability (by occasionally having his forgeries detected), thereby making it harder for any subsequent forged document to be accepted as genuine.
If there were only one forger, she could strategically choose the right trade-off between saving lives and avoiding detection. However, with two independent forgers, the shared resource is depleted more quickly, as each forger rushes to maximize their use of the resource before the other.
Intended second-order consequences
So far, we have considered a single forged document having consequences for the whole document class as something inherently bad. But what if the undercover agent actually desires that outcome?
Too many forgeries will defeat the purpose - unless the purpose is that of making all documents of the given kind suspect.
Consider a scenario where military orders are routinely forged. Unable to distinguish genuine orders, the enemy must develop a system to verify each document, leading to costly delays. Another use of this tactic is to use false information to crowd out true information. If information about your military capabilities is leaked to the enemy, a strategic countermove might be to “accidentally” release multiple, conflicting documents about your capabilities. This way, you might create confusion about which version is true.
This tactic of obscuring genuine information—akin to mixing chaff with wheat—has also been applied to a special type of document: banknotes. In Operation Bernhard, the Nazis forged British banknotes with the intention to create hyperinflation in Britain. The overly ambitious plan failed, but the forged banknotes circulated in a large enough volume to create some headaches for the Bank of England after the war.
Incriminating Nazi collaborators
Incriminating documents are often designed merely to harass and over-burden the enemy secret police. If supported by other evidence, they may, however, succeed in causing liquidation of undesirable persons although this is a result that should not be anticipated unless circumstances are very favorable and the case is built up with the greatest skill. Additional results of incriminating documents may be resentment against the secret police on the part of individuals investigated (particularly of army officers), and the slackening of secret police investigation of really disloyal personnel, should a number of suspect individuals turn out to be loyal and cause embarrassment to the secret police.
In addition to harassing and overburdening the enemy, the undercover agent can also attempt to incriminate Nazi collaborators. In essence, his objective is to convince the Nazis that the person they believe to be a collaborator is conspiring against them.
Trying to incriminate a collaborator has two advantages.
First, the collaborator might turn against the Nazis due to the harassment and persecution at their hands. A historical example supports this hypothesis.
During the Philippine Revolution against Spanish rule in the late 19th century, the Filipino nationalist organization, Katipunan, used a similar tactic to get the initially hesitant wealthy and educated Filipinos (ilustrados) on its side. They crafted fake membership certificates for the Katipunan, complete with the names and forged signatures of these reluctant ilustrados. These certificates were then “discovered” and handed over to the Spanish authorities.
The Spanish colonial government, already on edge due to the growing insurgency, reacted harshly. They targeted the individuals named on the forged certificates, subjecting them to harassment, investigations, and even imprisonment. This left many ilustrados with no choice but to join the insurgency.
Second, when the Nazis investigate a collaborator who did not conspire against them, they look incompetent. This sends a message to future collaborators: you may not be safe even if you collaborate, so you might as well just stay put. An additional consequence of a Nazi official appearing incompetent is that it may lead to behavioral adjustments. He may be more cautious in investigating suspects, some of whom are actually guilty. If the authorities are constantly tricked into accusing innocent people, they become like the boy who cried “wolf,” losing their credibility in the process. This makes it easier for the real “wolf”—the true saboteur or resistance fighter—to evade capture and punishment.
Building the incriminating case
The incriminating case. The offense charged or implied should be serious enough to be worthy of secret police attention. It should be consistent with the known past of the accused. For example, a man of wealth, particularly one who has often dealt with foreign firms, would be a most suitable person to implicate as having concealed funds in a neutral country. A direct accusation should be accompanied by several correct corroborating circumstances. A mere general charge that X is really not a quisling but an Allied agent is likely to receive little attention, but a statement of true particulars of X's whereabouts and actions on a certain day on which he is alleged to have acted treasonably will produce action.
A letter of accusation should be written in the way in which the purported sender would be expected to write. If, for example, it purports to come from an Argentine banker and to acknowledge to a Swiss banker the receipt of funds for the account of a French client, ordinary commercial language should be used. The accusation should not be so subtly concealed that the censor or other intended reader will fail to discover it.
In this scenario, a single key issue, the alleged concealment of funds, is surrounded by irrelevant but verifiable details, such as past dealings with foreign firms or a person's specific whereabouts on a given day. What matters is not the number of irrelevant facts that hold up to scrutiny, but rather the truth of the single key assertion.
When the manual recommends the technique of introducing many irrelevant yet verifiable facts, it makes an assumption about how people process information. It assumes that people use a simple averaging heuristic, whereby they weigh every piece of evidence equally. In other words, they fail to disregard the evidence that doesn’t matter.
Consider a claim that consists of the following three statements:
Statement 1: Was the guy really in Bank X on that day? Yes.
Statement 2: Was he chatting suspiciously with the bank director? Yes.
Statement 3: Was he concealing funds in another country? Hm, good question, maybe.
With two out of the three statements being true, an individual applying the simple averaging heuristic may conclude that the overall claim (consisting of the three statements) is probably true. One week later, the “probably” quietly exits the equation, and the individual remembers having seen all the evidence and having concluded that the claim was definitely true.
In the mechanism I described, the auxiliary facts are indeed irrelevant, introduced merely to lead the observer astray. However, in everyday life, the veracity of one statement from a person can often tell us something about the veracity of his subsequent statements. If your plumber has repeatedly failed to show up despite promising to, there's no reason to cancel your plans for the next morning based on his new promise.
Generally, as the number of verified facts increases, our suspicions slowly fade away. This rule of thumb works well in dealing with everyday interactions, such as with your plumber. But it breaks down when someone deliberately constructs a fake persona to trick you, akin to a fraudster offering substantial returns on your initial investment to earn your trust, only to vanish with your larger investment later. Avoid being the turkey that grows increasingly confident of its immortality with each passing day, only to meet its end just when it's most assured of its safety.