Harvard Notes By Jeff Benitz
There has been a lot of talk about the U.S. using secret prisons in the
current war on terrorism. People in the United States, and even
internationally, express surprise that such a method would be used by
"civilized" peoples. Well, let me tell you something, it is not a new idea. A
"Top Secret" concentration camp (a) was used by U.S. Intelligence during
World War II and it was right here on the mainland in Alexandria, Virginia, at
Fort Hunt. Its code name was its postal address, "P.O. Box 1142". It was an
illegal prison, in knowing defiance of Geneva Conventions (of which the U.S.
was a signatory) designed for interrogation, and has only been de-classified,
recently, 60+ years later. Most of those who worked there have taken the
secret to the grave. Many of the files as to its activities are missing and there
is still little known about it. Had the "Cold War" not ended it is unlikely it
would have been de-classified. But let's step back a minute.
All countries that go to war believe that they are correct in their action. The
governments work vigorously to keep the population convinced. If they are
unsuccessful at that the army overthrows the government or the populace
does (the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 Russia for example). The war effort
must be right and good, while the enemy is unjust and misguided, or simply
evil. The moral high ground is an entitlement only for those on our side.
This position is required if the government expects to succeed. Some
administrations start out with better standards than others, but as war drags
on, as the situation becomes more desperate, the methods of conduct
become less humane and more severe. This is true of any war by any
country. "Fight fire with fire." No country can fight with a different standard
than its enemy. In the U.S. we are always led to believe we have a higher
standard and that we are superior to our enemy. As if every country doesn't
do the same thing. Sometimes countries use religion. Whatever it takes to
motivate your soldiers--- and keep them young, they are more idealistic and
The interrogation unit, P.O.Box 1142, was such an irregular force. It was
specifically designed to interrogate Third Reich Nazis and German civilians
who were thought to have information useful to the Allies. The program was
highly successful. Likewise, the program was kept secret, by virtue of the
fact, it was contrary to public propaganda the U.S. government was
displaying. It was also flatly illegal.
Most of the interrogators chosen for P.O.Box 1142, were German Jews who
had left Germany/Austria in the 1930s as the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment
was turning violent. This served two obvious purposes. As bi-linguists they
could translate, and second, they would be well motivated to squeeze
information from Axis prisoners.
"Persons of interest" were the target, German servicemen who were
operating in special programs that the Allies could not get intelligence on. It
was well known the Germans had superior technology in many areas. If it
came to tanks or the machine stamped machine gun, the Allies could capture
one and deconstruct it, but with many other technologies information was
elusive. A major point of interrogation was sailors on U-Boats that were
"raising Hell" in the Atlantic. They had sunk millions of tons in shipping but
when the Allies neutralized a submarine they couldn't retrieve it for research
because it sank or was scuttled. Only the personnel aboard who happened
to survive could supply information. The Allies were desperately trying to
break the Enigma code system the Germans were using for communication.
P.O.Box 1142 discovered the Snorkel system the U-Boats were using that
allowed the submarines to stay sub-surface. By the end of 1943 the Allies
were pretty convinced Germany would lose the war and looked ahead to a
program for international stability. Though the war took longer than
expected, it was clear the U.S. would be dealing with Stalin in the future. The
more ground that Stalin took in Germany the more German scientific secrets
he would get. Something had to be done.
The Germans were at the forefront of development in: submarine, jet engine
technology, rockets, microwave, atomic, and nuclear science. (The notion of
an atomic bomb and the Manhattan Project was personneled by physicists
who defected from Germany in the 1930s.) Therefore it became paramount
to get this technology. At the time the Germans were believed to be ahead
on the nuclear program. Little known was that Hitler had relocated talent to
other projects because he did not believe the war was going to last long
enough for the development of a nuclear bomb. Once the U.S. was on
mainland Europe, it became a grab for scientists from Germany. They were
civilians but none the less, targets. The U.S. and Britain knew the Russians
were grabbing these men up. Some surrendered, preferring not to be in
Russian hands, and others were kidnapped from a hit list the U.S. had
devised. All went to the concentration camp, P.O.Box 1142, for interrogation.
Not much is known about life there for interrogees. Dingy cells were bugged,
stooges were placed with prisoners after interrogations to "chat". Some who
cooperated stayed weeks, others were interrogated for nine months or more.
All were held incommunicado. Lots of U.S. records are missing. When U.S.
Intelligence thought it had wrung all the information from a person the Red
Cross was notified that the U.S. government had caught an enemy
combatant and they were transferred to a normal POW camp. P.O.Box 1142
never existed in the time between. All information gathered was "Top Secret"
and sent directly to the Pentagon. It was dissolved in 1946.
The subsequent 60+ years have not been simple for the interrogators. They
took an oath to NEVER release the secret of their operations. Many did not
and took it to their graves. Of those still alive, not many will talk. The world
has changed much since then and with the government de-classifying the
documents on Fort Hunt, some have seen reason to explain their duties.
One man assigned to P.O.Box 1142 had the misfortune of meeting one of his
subjects. He was at a scientific conference many years after WWII in Paris.
He noticed a man staring at him and heard him say in German to a
colleague, "That was my interrogator". They cordially introduced and shook
hands. It must have been an awkward moment.
There were no parades, clubs, reunions for P.O.Box 1142. Due to the
nature of their operations, they didn't exist. After the war, none ever saw
each other again. They never informed family of their work, even spouses
were kept life-long in the dark.
So secret prisons are not a new idea for America. I would not want to be an
inmate or a warden, but it does raise a moral question. When can a country
operate in such fashion contrary to its laws? The answer is found in war.
Jurisprudence has noted a distinction in law or there would not be a separate
Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Those in the Service are not
protected by Constitutional rights. The Geneva Conventions (most important
to this discussion the 1929 revision"relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of
War" ) were an international treaty designed to ameliorate abuses during
war. It is a distinct system of law often stricter than civilian law. However,
when soldiers get frustrated or governments get desperate, laws only act as
a guideline. It is an attempt at civility.
By observation, a populace, especially if not directly affected by the conflict,
does not want to know the truth. They have no appetite for the brutalities of
war. As long as they can maintain a position of superiority to the situation---
they are content. That's what I see going on in America today. Lots of
armchair Generals pontificate about war from the safe position of a
living-room, with regular meals, showers, and sleeping times. Then there are
those shocked by the activities of the government.
It is crucial to remember our country is at war. You would not know it walking
around the streets. To me a country at war should have interrupted
lifestyles. The only interruption for the public is discussions of morality and
how America is not holding up to the standards it should. The chaos of war
creates many harrowing situations none of which is felt in this country by the
civilians, yet they are all expert judges.
All countries devise different methods of creativity and style to win wars. All
ignore International Law at some point. In an (partially) open society like
ours we have more access to discuss the matter--- and more freedom to
condemn. The position of a soldier should be amoral (not to be confused
with immoral). This is touching on dangerous territory. If a soldier is amoral
the argument can be used, "just following orders". This would give
permission to the Final Solution for the SS Totenkopf Division or the Khmer
Rouge. There must be an ethical point where a soldier can reject an
egregious order. These decisions are made often in the most dire situations
when the condition of success for the war is deteriorating or the soldier is in a
terrible position. Life and death conditions are abnormal to regular life, and
require abnormal reaction if one is to sustain. Should the interrogators of
P.O.Box 1142 have operated in France, instead of the U.S., and been caught
by the Axis, after a short trial, they would have been executed in accordance
to international law.
For the most part, America has been able to claim the moral high ground in
wars. Not only because the victor writes the history but because of its vast
manufacturing machine. In the latter 20th century, very few U.S. soldiers
have gone without compared to other countries armies. Medical evacuation
is prompt, starvation non- existent, withering diseases rare, lack of
ammunition unusual, and air support readily available. I don't know of any
sustained battles where all five conditions were absent. Khe Sanh with the
USMC in 1968, fighting 77 days was close but they still had air support. In
the 1993 Mogadishu action the soldiers did run out of ammunition and did
not have air support. There was no medical evacuation. It was a rare
circumstance for the U.S..
When situations get desperate governments act in ways that should not be
judged by peacetime standards. And it is a mistake to judge a soldier at war
by civilian standards, hence, the UMCJ. There do need to be checks on their
actions but every government begins to "fudge" the rules as war carries on.
Seizing civilians and combatants and placing them in secret isolation cells is
not a new idea. The interrogators of P.O.Box 1142, though unlawful, led to
50 years of peace with the USSR until its final collapse. It also led to the
NIKE missile project, and ICBM development for the United States; Nuclear
powered submarines and submarines that carried nuclear warheads,
probably the most important protection to our country at this time. Jet
airplanes like the F-14 could parry with USSR Migs (ironically both
contributed to by German scientists captured on each side). And the U.S.
would not have gotten to the moon in 1969. Many of the German scientists
interrogated at Fort Hunt stayed in the U.S. after WWII to work on projects for
the Military Industrial Complex.
War does strange things to people, its outcomes are often uncertain. One
must operate, "Measure for measure".
(a) Definition Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary.
Concentration Camp :A camp where persons (as prisoners of war, political
prisoners, or refugees) are detained or confined.