Americans love technology. In fact, we often rely on it more than on human influences. How often in our professional lives do we hear, “Engineer the human factor out so the problem can be solved logically”? While the human factor can lead to problems, it can also help determine motives or other factors. Clearance holders need to understand how to protect sensitive but unclassified information, because such facts can suggest to a spy what our classified programs or capabilities are. Pay attention to the spy stories of the past because this could have saved American lives in the future.

Innovation Story That Changed History

This story is exactly how many of our present day regulations came into effect, and they bear directly on classified projects. Take for example the most well-respected combat tank of the Second World War. No, not the American Stuart or Sherman tanks. These were neither the most mechanically powerful nor the most agile. Neither were they weaponized like their European counterparts. The most powerful weapon of the tank wars was the Soviet T-34.

Meet J. Walter Christie

This saga begins with a typical tale of an American businessman’s woe. J. Walter Christie was nothing short of an inventive genius. He enjoyed racing cars in the 1920’s at the dawn of that remarkable era of motorized vehicle travel. In fact, he began to study how to invent components that would serve as better ways to make our motor vehicles faster, more balanced, and easier to handle. Tanks used in the First World War were huge, cumbersome, prone to breakdown, and fail. And they were slow. To confront these problems, Christie developed a patented suspension. Indeed, it was revolutionary. His 1931 patented suspension system, or ‘helicoil’, made the tank prototype swifter, more manageable, and with a sloping armored body, better protected. The U.S. Army turned him down. In time, he turned to foreign countries.

U.S. is Not Interested in What Christie is Selling

The Soviet Union expressed an interest. In fact, Whittaker Chambers, a former Soviet spy who testified before the United States House of Representatives Committee studying Soviet espionage, confirmed that Christie’s work was considered important by his secret co-conspirators. They tipped the Kremlin off to the value of Christie’s patent, and the chase was on. Christie, whose prototypes were considered too expensive by his own American government, sought to sell them abroad. However, he certainly didn’t want to bother with the required U.S. State Department ban on selling military weaponry abroad without their authorization.

Repackaged to Sell Abroad

What he did instead was to title his deconstructed tanks ‘agricultural equipment’. Then they were sent overseas. Meanwhile, the Communist spies in American stole the plans and blueprints. Historically, the Soviet T-34, complete with Christie’s suspension and sloping armor shields, helped them win the greatest tank battle on earth against the German Wehrmacht at the Battle of Kursk on the vast Soviet Steppe.

Verify Patent Protections

For our purposes, we can take this away. If your company owns any patents, verify how they are to be protected. You should also know whether your materials are controlled in any way by regulation or physical requirements. For example, you might be prohibited from sharing it abroad because of military reasons, or other prohibitions of national security. Nowadays, that concern has broadened remarkably. As early as the 1980’s, Chinese military thinkers began writing about how their military purposes can be served through information gained by stealing medical, computer related, chemical based, or even logistical data. All of these items are finally becoming better regulated by our government to protect our programs from compromise. Recently, we’ve learned that our medical studies are being hacked.

See the Bigger Picture in Innovation efforts

Consider, that Sherman tank we referred to earlier did not have a very powerful main gun compared to say the typical German armor it would come up against. This is because it had to be shipped in container vessels that were only so big and could carry so much. Thus compromises were made.  We substituted massive numbers of thin, fast tanks for protective weight. We can thus see how protecting the shipping requirements from compromise can protect a significant factor about our weaponry’s capabilities. Through this simple example we can see that the tank’s design was suggested by the container ship it had to be delivered in. If you have classified material to protect, be aware as if by memory, all that impacts it from design to battlefield deployment.

So you see, you’ll not only need to be aware of the methods by which you protect that secret component you are making, but must see it in its much broader perspective. It has to be shaped, fashioned, packed, loaded, transported, and shipped. One truism many American tourists asked about when they were in Europe was, “Why is there the symbol of a tank on all these bridges?” Indeed, there was a yellow sign which showed not only the width of a bridge, but also its tank carrying capacity. In case of war, a tanker needed to know if he could safely cross such a bridge. Indeed, one major international incident happened when one Canadian tanker decided to cross an unmarked ancient bridge in a German town with his huge tank. The bridge collapsed, and the Canadian government owed several million German marks to replace it. This story is important because low level Soviet spies were tasked to check Western European bridge carrying capacities during the Cold War. They were aware that the mission of their Communist tanks wasn’t over until they could cross all obstacles to whatever their target was.

Spies want the Innovation and the Process

When in doubt, check with someone conversant in Commerce Department rules to guide you. Your government trained foreign disclosure officers are a Godsend, so be certain you know who they are, and consult them. Be aware that the spies’ business is only partly to steal your military innovations. They also want to know how it was conceived, patented, and where it will go to work.

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John William Davis was commissioned an artillery officer and served as a counterintelligence officer and linguist. Thereafter he was counterintelligence officer for Space and Missile Defense Command, instructing the threat portion of the Department of the Army's Operations Security Course. Upon retirement, he wrote of his experiences in Rainy Street Stories.