At about 3:30 PM today, German consular official Dr. Heinrich Albert steps onto an elevated train in Harlem, New York. He is making his way home after a hard week. A lawyer and diplomat by training, Albert has been the money man for Germany’s clandestine programs in North America since the beginning of the war. Already linked to Capain Franz von Rintelen, the guileless amateur spy whose fumbling approach to exiled Mexican dictator Victoriano Huerta resulted in the tyrant’s arrest at the Texas border, Albert is responsible for the financial accounting behind various schemes to float German war debt, buy or bribe newspaper editors, monopolize American munitions exports, and conduct sabotage against key infrastructure in both the United States and Canada.
There are two different accounts of what happens next. According to the official histories of espionage during the Great War, a tired Albert falls asleep before the train reaches the 50th Street station, awakening to discover his thick briefcase already gone. Assuming or hoping that a fellow weary traveler has mistaken his bag for their own, Albert puts an ad in next Tuesday’s Evening Telegraph offering $20 for the return of the briefcase and the documents in it, but to no avail. In fact, Albert’s precious financial and organizational papers have been stolen by Frank Burke, a Secret Service agent tailing him as part of the Wilson government’s investigation into clandestine German activities in North America.
Decades later, upon the occasion of his retirement, Burke tells a slightly different version of events this afternoon. Albert, he says, is an unidentified person riding the train with George Sylvester Vierek, a known pro-German propagandist who is allegedly on Albert’s payroll. In this version, Burke is accompanied by W.F. Houghton, a fellow Secret Service agent who follows Viereck when he gets off the train at 23rd Street, leaving Burke to observe the new subject alone. When the train stops again at the 59th Street station, Dr. Albert is distracted by his reading and almost misses his stop, jumping up to delay the train and exiting without his briefcase in an absent-minded moment. The woman who sat next to Albert attempts to alert him to what he has left behind, but Burke assures her that the handbag is in fact his own property, hides it under his coat, evades Albert by exiting at the rear of the car, and beats him to the nearest trolley.
Regardless of which way the event has transpired, Dr. Heinrich Albert has just given the United States as important intelligence coup, for the papers in his portfolio contain vital information on Germany’s clandestine network in North America. The divulging of their contents in major newspapers will prove a major embarrassment for the Kaiser’s imperial government.
Burke’s success also marks a bureaucratic triumph for the Secret Service in 1915, when the six year-old Bureau of Investigation — the future FBI — is struggling to expand its judicial turf under the nation’s weak espionage laws. Treasury Secretary William McAdoo has been eager to dig up proof of German plots in America, and the new Secretary of State Robert Lansing is much more aggressive on this score than his predecessor, William Jennings Bryan. As a result, Burke’s ten-man detachment in New York has doubled in size and resources, enabling better surveillance and allowing his spectacular train-car theft to succeed.
Having made his reputation by investigating a foreign spy ring in Tampa as a mere police chief during the Spanish-American War, Burke will not receive any credit for his coup-de-main at first. Instead, following the best new traditions of espionage, the US government elects to float the story that British agents stole Dr. Albert’s briefcase. When Dr. Albert’s embarrassing papers show up in headlines, sparking calls for the expulsion of German diplomatic personnel who have been involved in the conspiracy, the Germans accept this false explanation without hesitation, never realizing that the upstart Americans have achieved full-spectrum information dominance: whenever German spymaster Franz von Papen lifts his telephone from its hook, stenographers are standing by to transcribe his every word.
Secretary Lansing has overseen the creation of America’s very first strategic technical intelligence agency. Known as first as the ‘Black Chamber’ and then later as U-1, the ad hoc office within the State Department consists of Anglophile Ivy League graduates with language skills led by lawyer and diplomat Frank Polk. This arrangement naturally favors intelligence cooperation with Britain and a friendly, even collaborative relationship with Room 40, the codebreaking section at the Admiralty in London. In time, these close ties will be criticized for helping Britain beyond the limits of neutrality, and even for bringing America into the war. But that does not alter the fact that the intelligence gleaned by the Black Chamber is quite real, and describes real plots against the United States and other nations that are actually being carried out in the real world.
Reacting quickly, Ambassador Johann Heinrich Count von Bernstorff promotes Dr. Albert to Handelsattaché (commercial attaché) in order to give him better diplomatic cover. Bernstorff is assuredly aware of the clandestine German sabotage and propaganda activities in North America, for he meets with Albert on a regular basis to discuss them. While his signature has never graced an incriminating document, Bernstorff’s clear links to Papen, Rintelen, Albert, and others lead to calls for his expulsion. Rintelen will spend time in an American prison; Papen will be declared persona non grata in December. Living under constant watch and eavesdropping, Albert and Bernstorff will remain in the United States until American neutrality ends in 1917.