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Aug 12, 2010 4:35 pm

Part One: Historic Interference

Cynthia wedding

The story of the spy, Madame Elizabeth Brousse, is not an easy one to tell. There is the confusion over her name, for instance, and she had many, many names, some given, some given in marriage, some given for purposes of espionage: Cynthia, Amy Thorpe, Betty Pack, Miss Powers, on and on. Then, there is the confusion created by her first biographer, a historian and active British agent out to author a best-seller and win a movie deal when he wrote about her. Where there is official recognition for Madame Brousse's wartime efforts, the documents are suspect because there is evidence that the documents were composed by the same British agent/historian out to tart up her exploits. Finally, there are her own sketches for a memoir, written in need of cash, in the last agonized year of her life, as she lay dying at age 53, her tongue amputated, her face dissected by cancer. Other questions about Madame Brousse's career arise from claims made about her work for Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). Not only is she described as a Mata Hari-like honey trap, she was said to have handed over to British agents Hitler's ultimate secret, the coding machine known as Enigma. There appears to be no end to such unlikely feats of derring-do. She was widely reputed to have seduced a heroic Italian admiral securing the naval codes that ended in Italy's own Pearl Harbor, known as the Battle of Matapan. There are stories of how she uncovered Hitler's secret plans for swallowing Czechoslovakia, even as Neville Chamberlain negotiated away the Sudetenland. Coupled to her role in securing the codes that opened the way to Operation Torch, America's cross-Atlantic invasion of North Africa in November 1942, she would appear to be, as the journalist David Brinkley enthused --"the greatest spy of this or any other war." Unfortunately, soon after Brinkley wrote those lines, he was successfully sued for his imputations about Madame Brousse and her associations with the renowned Italian admiral.

However, there is one enterprise that can be attributed to Madame Brousse, known in this story by her one indelible code name, Cynthia. Six months after Pearl Harbor in June 1942, Cynthia and a companion infiltrated the neutral Vichy French Embassy in Washington, DC. Their aim was to break into its secure code room and admit a picklock who went by the pseudonym, the Georgia Cracker. He would open the aging Mosler safe there, and they would steal off with France's naval ciphers. That daring and successful operation is without dispute. And what makes the caper particularly intriguing -- apart from an impromptu strip tease Cynthia performed in the embassy salon to avoid capture-- was the recklessness of the operation's timing, which came at the very moment when Prime Minister Winston Churchill hovered together with President Franklin Roosevelt at the White House deciding the direction of World War Two. More incredible still, Cynthia didn't break into the embassy once, but three times over four nights before finally succeeding. That meant that with each entry, she upped the opportunity for exposure and capture, which would have jeopardized the Churchill-Roosevelt summit, which has come to be known as The Second Washington Conference. It is a meeting that bears more scrutiny.

Timing is crucial. The robbery virtually coincided with the inauguration of the new Office of Strategic Services (OSS) --pre-cursor to the modern day Central Intelligence Agency. Cynthia's break-in, was a combined British-OSS operation, a fact that becomes increasingly telling as her story goes on. Indeed, the break-in was perhaps the earliest official domestic adventure for America's first independent espionage service. Only three days before the Vichy action, on June 16th, OSS finally got its name and hard won marching orders from the president. The long battle to establish OSS had been a bitter one, in which antipathies and jealousies ran high among four powerful wartime institutions: the State Department, which sternly opposed the concept of the OSS on principle; the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which wanted control over the OSS; the Office of Naval Intelligence (America's oldest spy apparatus), which refused to share its crucial signals intelligence; and the Army's espionage branch known as MID or, simply, G-2, which wanted more of whatever it was that the Navy had. Each of these Executive Agencies were serious contestants for power with OSS. They were eager to muddle in each others' business. So, beginning on the night of June 19, 1942, Betty's antics among the beleaguered French became the primary target of America's foes... and her American friends.

  Part Two: The Second Washington Conference  

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