Operation STAGE: The FBI sleeper agent plan in case Alaska was invaded
Just a half-decade after the end of WWII, it was thought that the Soviets could soon make a push to reclaim their lost North American colony, and the U.S. government turned to Hoover’s “G-men” to establish a plan to continue to generate clandestine intelligence from “somewhere in occupied Alaska” in that event.
The program started in January 1950 when a U.S. Navy Captain, Minor Heine, who held the position of director of intelligence for the service’s Alaskan Command, called FBI Special Agent in Charge John H. Williams at Anchorage– the new state’s largest city, which held about a third of Alaska’s 135,000-person population– to see how the Bureau could fit into the intel game in the event of a Soviet invasion or occupation. By the end of the month, Williams was meeting with Heine; Col. Wallis Perry, the U.S. Army’s top intelligence officer in Alaska; Lt. Col. Donald Springer, Perry’s corresponding representative with the U.S. Air Force; and other top military intelligence officers in the state. The subject of the meeting, which had been cleared by Heine with Gen. Nathan Farragut Twining– one of top commanders of the USAF and just a few years later appointed by President Eisenhower to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff– was to enlist the FBI in establishing a network of sleeper agents from among the local Alaskans that would be trained and placed in stasis during peacetime, then activated in the event of a potential future occupation. The role performed would be two-fold: to spy on the Soviets, sending back information of tactical and strategic importance to U.S. forces; and provide a system of safe houses for shot down U.S. and friendly aircrews or other military personnel behind the lines.
The local FBI went for the idea, then contacted Washington where the military’s Interdepartmental Intelligence Conference committee at the Pentagon– where the Bureau had a seat on the table due to their traditional role in counter-intelligence– hashed out some behind the scenes details over the next several months, the minutia of which are still classified. This small and very select chamber predated the efforts of today’s Defense Intelligence Agency, which was only formed in 1961. The newly-formed CIA was deliberately kept out of the loop in the discussion, with one FBI memo on the subject openly saying, “The principal advantage to the FBI’s assuming joint responsibility in these two programs is that it will preclude any other intelligence agency, such as the CIA, getting into the intelligence field in Alaska at this time.”
By May 1950, Washington, with the blessing of infamous FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, decided to greenlight the effort in Alaska, to be headed by the Anchorage FBI office, using local contacts that had already been vetted by the agency– confidential informants and local sources who the Bureau was already using to keep tabs on possible Communist agitators in dockworkers unions, movie theater operators who showed Russian-language films, and the like. This latter suggestion was rebuffed by the agents on the ground in Alaska, who cabled back via coded radiogram in June, “Anchorage informants presently prevailing not believed to be the type suitable for this project, although office has contacts who possibly could function in such a program.”
Among those the G-Men thought would work as stay behind operatives were the sort of hard, frontier men who had proven themselves in the unforgiving region and had established ties that would keep them there in the event of a foreign invasion. In fact, most of the proposed stay-behinds had previously weathered WWII in the territory, a conflict that saw Japanese troops occupy several islands in the Western part of the state.
One of the proposed operatives was a 45-year-old hunting guide in Anchorage. Another was a native-born Alaskan who was a medical doctor and avid outdoorsman who had helped the local agents in cases from time to time. A third was a 69-year-old Italian immigrant who had come to Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush as a teenager and was considered something of a local legend. Another immigrant, a Croatian who the FBI noted was rumored to have been a bootlegger during the Prohibition-era, owned an area bar and hotel. In all, the youngest considered was 29-years of age, while the bulk were over age 35. A third were big game hunters and guides, with the famous Holger Larsen, the bush-pilot head of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in the state, instrumental in helping the Bureau with its recruiting efforts.
Many of the men owned boats or small airplanes and were skilled in their use in the poorly-mapped state. Others had dog teams. About a third already had experience using radios. All were known to the Bureau as dependable and had –mostly– clean records. Most had occupations and pursuits that had required them to travel across broad swaths of Alaska and knew the vast and rugged territory like the back of their hand after a lifetime of adventures. Some were employed by local and state governments in survey, conservation and road work. The skillset was unlike any that could be taught.
What had to be explained to the planned 75-100 operatives across the state to be recruited, was a crash course in being a hidden agent. Initially each man– there were no women– was to be given about two weeks of intense training in the Washington D.C area by and FBI subject matter experts in aircraft and ship recognition, Russian language, firearms, first aid, bacteriological and nuclear warfare and, most importantly, sending and receiving coded messages via hidden radios.
When it came to codes and ciphers, each was trained in the use of pocket-sized Diana Cryptosystem one-time pads, double meaning words to signal distress, and issued a common paperback novel– for example the 25-cent pulp “Trouble on the Border” by Gordon Young– as an emergency key.
This would later be expanded to include the use of secret writing to include “damp pressure” and “aniline pencil” methods. They were also prepped in techniques known to be used by the Soviets in the past to ferret out espionage agents.
Finally, each trainee was given courses in selecting and training subagents and informants, close in use of knives, and defensive tactics such as disarming assailants.
Although each candidate was approached quietly by the FBI to gauge their willingness to participate in the program– which was voluntary– they were to be paid for training ($150 per week plus $11 per diem for expenses, about $1,500 and $100, respectively, in today’s greenbacks) and, naturally, in the event of their activation in standby periods and full-scale invasion. To hide the fact from local bankers who may talk in small communities and blow the operative’s cover, each had a bank account established at a bank in the lower 48 to which their payments were made. The recruit was vetted locally before they were recruited, then given a more extensive background check prior to their travel to Washington. A cursory medical exam by an Army doctor at Fort Richardson “for deformity” was also part of the onboarding process.
By the end of June 1951, three operatives had been trained and another 75 were in the recruiting pipeline. Four dedicated FBI agents in Anchorage were detailed to the run the top-secret program, which had become known by that time as Operation STAGE.
Earnest efforts were made to maintain the secrecy of the sleepers’ identity. All the stay-behinds were given a cover name. At no time during the recruitment or training process did any operative learn about the identity of others in the program. Candidates were never told about other stay-behinds, always met with controlling agents one-on-one, and traveled to training alone. Classes, staggered to begin every three days, were attended by only a single student and the instructors. Stay-behinds were forbidden to talk about the program or their new job to anyone outside of their handler, including their family, and were coached to provide cover stories about their travel, for which the FBI would help provide receipts and items such as postcards and fake documents to support.
Correspondence for the program was directed to a Post Office Box secured at the Anchorage Post Office in the name of Alfred Burr. The program was handled from Room #1533 in the Anchorage FBI office on a strict “need-to-know” compartmentalized basis. When the balloon went up, the six personnel at the office familiar with STAGE were to be evacuated from the state after destroying their files, with a backup set of files maintained in Washington.
Once the stay-behinds returned to Alaska from training, they were encouraged to become civilian “ham” radio operators to provide cover for their regular practice sending and receiving coded transmissions from an FBI agent in the Anchorage office that had been given 45-hours of radio training in Washington for that purpose. In the event of activation, pre-planned radio call signs, protocols and frequencies were established.
Still, the program plodded along. By late July 1951, the first dedicated escape and evasion stay behinds, with orders to help shepherd downed aircrew to “Free America” or Canada, were sent off for training.
At times, typical Washington bureaucracy reared its head in Kafkaesque ways. One memo, ordering 504 pencils for the use of the stay-behinds, specified that the writing instruments should logically not be stamped “property of the U.S. Government” and that “we do not want all the pencils to look alike.”
Another round of memos debated the value of planned parachute training for operatives, with the main issue being increased per diem costs to Uncle Sam at a time of tight budgets. Still another urgent radiogram requested a cash increase of $1,000 to the Anchorage office as two trainees were scheduled to come and get $500 advances and the office was low on funds.
Further, to protect the carefully manicured persona of the suit-wearing college-degreed FBI special agents that Hoover had spent decades nurturing, it was specifically ordered that the stay-behinds, characteristically flannel and wool-clad backwoodsmen, should never be termed “agents,” and instead be referred to only as “contacts” or “informants.” Similarly, use of the word “spy” was forbidden.
By August 1951, an effort was made to scout out hidden cache locations for the stay-behinds at abandoned mines, cabins and ghost towns, each to include a full year’s worth of food, survival gear, radios, generators, and other supplies sealed in weatherproof packaging along with shelter for the operative and a guest. The list of recommended supplies was immense for each location, to include as many as 5,000 gallons of gas, a tractor, three tons of fuel oil for heating, 150 pounds of canned meats, 400 pounds of dried fruits and vegetables, extensive fishing kits and lockers full of clothes. It was estimated that each location would take a team of six men a period of 10-days to install and cost some $2,800 to complete. When you multiply this by 75-100 planned stay-behinds, it was a small fortune.
This drew fire from Hoover, who penciled on one memo on the cache proposal, “What about this? Are we left holding the bag with no assistance?”
Then, on Sept. 17, 1951, the rug was pulled out from under the feet of the STAGE program with Hoover personally firing off an order to shutter the operation and for agents in Anchorage to tell stay-behinds that the FBI was pulling out of the operation– although redacted documents infer that other unnamed agencies or services had expressed interest in stepping into the Bureau’s now-vacated spot. By November, the program had been wound down as far as the FBI was involved, although the Anchorage office would continue to process background checks on stay-behinds for several additional months, possibly in support of whatever “unnamed agency” or service had poked its nose into the program. In all, just 20 stay-behinds completed FBI training of the 78 selected and cleared. Some 140 individuals were considered. According to meticulous records, the law enforcement agency spent $10,260.62 on the program– about $100K in today’s dollars, which was a bargain for what was accomplished.
As for Alaska, the invasion never came, but the more than 2,100-pages of documents related to STAGE were only recently declassified after some 50 years.
The above published by yours truly in last month’s Eye Spy Intelligence Journal