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    Wednesday, June 19, 2024

    What’s Going On: First counterintelligence chief got little recognition after WWII, and liked it that way

    James R. Murphy, chief of the X-2 counterintelligence division of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. Photo courtesy of the family
    Left, James R. Murphy, who was chief of the X-2 counterintelligence division of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, is shown in a family photo at a social event with his wife, Doris, to the far right. Photo courtesy of the family.

    James R. Murphy was a little leprechaun of a man with a high-pitched voice and a weakness for silly things, such as the green Frankenstein battery-operated toy at his home that lit up red as the monster sat on a toilet and lost his drawers.

    As his first and only grandson (a fact he wouldn’t admit till years later), I loved hearing his fantastic stories about cruel pirates and maidens in distress that often put me to sleep as a young boy when I visited him in his farm-style home in Arlington, Va., not far from his beloved Washington Golf & Country Club, where he was reputed to have a 3 handicap and played regularly with the likes of U.S. Sen Everett Dirksen when he was Republican minority leader.

    Jimmy Murphy could wiggle his ears and walk on his hands, a cool thing for his grandson to remember, but he is most noted for being one of the top spies during World War II as head of the X-2 counterintelligence division of the blandly named forerunner to the CIA called the Office of Strategic Services. His code name: Agent 120, and he was the first civilian head of counterintelligence (the military had its own CI branches).

    I knew for years that my grandfather had been a spy, but it was only many years after he died, while googling his name on Memorial Day, that Jimmy Murphy popped up as head of X-2, a supersecret agency that hunted Nazi and Japanese spies. I found out later that he was one of the few Americans entrusted with the secret of the Enigma Code, which the British broke early in World War II, helping enormously in tracking German intentions throughout the conflict.

    When Murphy died in 1986, the CIA director at the time, William Casey, shook my hand in the memorial service reception line and uttered these words that sent a tingle down my spine: “Your grandfather gave tremendous service to the United States of America during World War II.”

    My grandfather once took me as a young man to his law office in Washington, D.C., where he showed me some Nazi medals he had taken off a German officer and a silver-dollar-size coin of Chinese mint that had his initials, JRM, carved into it. He told me only three of the coins existed in the world.

    “That’s how I got in to see Eisenhower in London,” he told me, referring to the American general who would go on to be president of the United States.

    But I didn’t know anything at the time about X-2, or about counterintelligence, which is all about identifying foreign agents and either feeding them false information or turning them to actively work in your favor. My mother, for some reason, left that out of the conversation when we talked about her father’s spy work, and he never volunteered the information to me.

    He vowed to take many of his secrets to the grave, and apparently he did.

    My late mother, a longtime Old Lyme resident named Jean M. Howard, preferred telling amusing stories about how he had told her he was a garbageman, which brought squeals of derision from her classmates, and about the times as a teenager she’d be gossiping about school-girl crushes when she’d hear clicks on the phone indicating the FBI was listening in.

    “Your grandfather would make all his calls down the street at a gas station pay phone,” she told me.

    It turns out that my grandfather, who graduated with a law degree from George Washington University, spent time as law clerk for William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the famous spymaster and World War I military hero who headed up the OSS during WWII. Later, Murphy joined Donovan’s law practice as one of its junior members, specializing in tax law, and they became drinking buddies.

    Near the outset of the war in 1941, Murphy became a special assistant to Donovan. And then in 1943, when President Roosevelt decided to create the X-2 counterintelligence outfit at the urging of Donovan, my grandfather at age 37 found himself responsible for an agency that would grow to more than 600 agents in locations all over the world.

    It must have been a daunting task. The United States had very little history of counterintelligence spying, except in the military and the FBI. My grandfather, who spoke or read four or five languages, according to my mother (I have yet to confirm this), was to serve as the first civilian head of foreign counterintelligence in the history of the country.

    By all accounts, he did a smashing good job, helping identify about 3,000 foreign agents and flipping many of them to feed false information to the Axis powers. He also developed interrogation techniques that proved very effective in gaining critical information for the military, and they had nothing to do with torture or waterboarding.

    According to his personnel record, he was paid $8,000 a year for his service, far from the salary a lawyer would normally command in civilian life.

    When I toured the CIA building in Langley, Va., several years ago to visit the OSS Museum, the historian there told me he will be best remembered for hiring many of the most famous spies America has ever produced, including Jim Angleton and Norm Pearson. My mother babysat for both of these spies, who were part of a regular Sunday gathering at my great-grandfather’s farm on Glebe Road in Arlington.

    Another agent recruited by Murphy for X-2, Jane Burrell, wound up being the first CIA agent killed in the line of duty when her plane crashed in 1948, according to a CIA account.

    “Murphy had a habit of spotting capable young people with proficiency in West European languages (for example, James Angleton) and recruiting them into (counterintelligence),” according to the CIA website. “Murphy had a particular interest in recruiting women, who were considered good candidates because of their presumed attention to detail — a crucial skill in (counterintelligence) work.”

    Murphy also was put in charge of deceptions leading up to the D-Day invasion to make it look like the attack would not be coming to the beaches of Normandy. Later in the war he became responsible for tracking down and returning art looted by the Nazis.

    For this and more, James R. Murphy won the Medal of Merit and the Medal of Freedom in the United States and France’s Croix de Guerre, among other honors, though he is largely forgotten today. Family lore suggests he was offered the chance to be the country’s first CIA director but turned it down. The historians I have talked with doubt the story, which could have been one of my grandfather’s famous Irish yarns.

    Another story told to me by a former law partner, John Shmuck, has a bit more credibility, having been retold in several accounts of the OSS published over the years. Donovan, a drinking buddy of my grandfather’s who also counted him as one of the three people who could walk into his office without an appointment, once became so disillusioned with the constant battles he had to wage with other agencies, that one night he handed an envelope to Murphy and told him to walk it to the White House in the morning.

    It was his resignation letter.

    Murphy put the letter in his pocket, and the next day Donovan asked him if he still had it. My grandfather put his hand into his trenchcoat and handed the paperwork back to Donovan without a word.

    Donovan recommended Murphy for the Medal of Freedom in November 1945, after America’s victory over the Axis powers and Japan. The award suggests Murphy, a quiet, soft-voiced lawyer known for his typing prowess along with good humor and keen intellect also had exhibited exceptional bravery, regularly visiting X-2 agents near enemy lines to help bolster morale.

    "A firm agreement with the British was made in March and April 1943, and carried out on a basis of loyal cooperation and full interchange of pertinent information throughout the war,“ the award read. "Mr. Murphy was not, however, content to remain in tutelage of the old established foreign agencies. His constant aim was to develop American counter-espionage to the point of being an equal partner with its allies.”

    Murphy and the United States, at first neophytes in the spy game, “emerged during the last phases of the war as an equal, and in many respects a superior to other Allied counter-espionage services,” according to the award. “The completeness of its success became fully apparent at the end of the war, when capture of German Intelligence documents and interrogation of key German intelligence personnel established the fact that Germans were quite unaware that virtually all of their most highly prized agents were operating under Allied, and in the majority of cases under OSS control.”

    To give but one example of the range of X-2 accomplishments, Murphy reported in August 1945 that the agency had prepared reports on Nazi war crimes (the fodder for the subsequent Nuremberg Trials, where he also was a participant), provided a list of Gestapo collaborators in France, investigated the mysterious appearance of French wines for sale in New York City, compiled a list of official and unofficial Japanese residents in Sweden, reported on Swedish cartels collaborating with the Germans, provided information on Chinese activities in Thailand and India, and microfilmed and scanned archives from the German Minister to Afghanistan.

    Over the past year, I have vowed to finally tell my grandfather’s story, twice visiting the National Archives at College Park, Md., to research Jimmy Murphy’s contribution to launching U.S. counterespionage efforts. While I have learned a good deal from cables and reports once marked “top secret,” I still have a long way to go.

    My grandfather, who appears to have kept his hand in the spy game throughout his life, left one satchel of personal information with a few intriguing tidbits, but the rest of his papers were gathered up by the CIA shortly after his death.

    Memorial Day is certainly a time when the brave soldiers who risked their lives on the beaches of Normandy and the islands of the Pacific, among other venues, should be remembered and honored. It is good to know, too, that there were people like Jimmy Murphy working behind the scenes to make sure those soldiers had the best chance possible to survive.

    And it’s also good to remember that those early spies like my grandfather were regular people called to do remarkable and often dangerous work for little to no credit and even less remuneration.

    It’s called doing your duty for your country. Perhaps it seems a corny concept in today’s world of preening politicians and fair-weather fans, but we could use a bit more noblesse oblige if the United States is ever to move toward becoming that bright, shining city on a hill we all like to imagine.

    Lee Howard is The Day’s business editor. To share your Memorial Day memories about a family member or loved one, send stories to l.howard@theday.com.

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