Operations Security and the Art of Deception

By Trevor Jenson


Back during World War II, there were lots of slogans floating around to remind people to safeguard information which could be helpful to the enemy. One you might recall was, “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” This was an admonition to not talk to strangers about things that could conceivably compromise the country’s war efforts against the Axis. There were spies everywhere, of course, on both sides of the Atlantic, patiently waiting for some tidbits of information that could be used to their advantage. Deception was one of their major ploys — appearing to be someone other than who they really were. Their function was simple… Learn secrets about the other side that might be exploited to their benefit.

Some great posters came out during the war… All geared towards pushing the Allies toward their goal of winning against the Axis powers. Some things being fostered by this ‘propaganda’ was the recycling of scarce materials, increasing production of food from gardens and allotments and stopping waste and unnecessary consumption. But most of the posters were about loose lips sinking ships or some other catchy variation thereof.

“Careless Talk Costs Lives, ” was a national campaign launched in the U. S. In February of 1940, with the aim of stopping people from gossipping. The poster featured an unflattering caricature of Adolph Hitler with enormous ears, and the line: Mr. Hitler wants to know! Following this was a four-line poem about the necessity of keeping quiet on things such as where your loved ones are located and where they’re going next. This information could easily have been used by the enemy to foresee upcoming actions. The poem was well written as a stern reminder of what can happen if you say the wrong thing to the wrong person. It ends with, “Ships, guns and shells make him curious. But silence makes him simply Fuehrious.” The humor was included to make sure the slogan became a point of discussion in facilities or areas where they were located.

Another, very moving poster in the same “Careless Talk Costs Lives” national campaign has pictures of a fedora hat on the top and a soldier’s helmet beneath. The caption simply reads, “The more you keep information under your hat… The safer he’ll be under his!” They used a lot of exclamation marks on these posters. They were trying to urge the readers into action and used every emotion there is to succeed at this mission.

‘Keeping it under your hat’ meant keeping it secret. There was a whole series of posters featuring hats of one sort or another. One of the best posters was a Norman Rockwell-like rendering of a dozen cartoon drawings. The caption simply reads: “Be like Dad, keep Mum.” Of course, everyone back then knew that the word ‘mum’ meant quiet or silent. Unfortunstely, lots of secrets were passed along to the wrong ears in bedrooms and on bar stools, but these posters helped remind people to stay quiet and to keep an eye out for others who seemed to be talking too much.

The secrets of war, if learned by the other side, can spell disaster. During the Vietnam War, the U. S. Military command were racking their brains to figure out how to stop the leaking of information to the enemy. Many lives were being lost because of a tip-off about an operation taking place here or an attack being planned there. It was difficult to tell who was on whose side, who was a friend and who was a foe. To attempt to remedy this a push was made to develop a new system called Operations Security(OPSEC).

The mission of OPSEC was to determine ways to keep the enemy (or adversary) from getting critical information or at least limit their ability to exploit this information to their advantage. Once the war ended, some of the intelligence officers working in counter-intelligence and OPSEC took their model to several different agencies to try to sell them on the idea of Operational Security. This system of protecting secret information from others (enemies or not) is very important. There are not only state secrets to protect but also corporate secrets and personal secrets too.

Think of every e-mail you’ve ever received that was sent to try to extract information from you. Or, think of all the people whose identities have been stolen or their critical information somehow plucked from their computer, only to find a charge on their credit card from halfway across the world. It happens all the time. The concept of OPSEC is simple… Find out what info is vital for an adversary to know and then focus on the process of protecting this information. The world is full of deception. Protect yourself.