By Captain John Konrad (gCaptain OpEd) Last week, two US-flagged ships manned by US Merchant Mariners were targeted by Houthis and forced to turn around. This is a cause for concern due to the US Navy’s legal obligation to protect US Merchant Marine ships. However, what is more concerning is the secrecy surrounding the US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian in the Red Sea.
At the start of the operation shipping executives and sailors aboard American merchant ships freely talked about their security concerns with journalists from gCaptain and other trade publications. No classified information was shared and caveats did exist, with most speaking off the record and certain information being asked not to print, but overall information flowed freely.
That changed earlier this month when gCaptain was informed that pressure was being applied by Department of Defense officials to refrain from speaking to the press. One senior executive informed gCaptain that security clearances were under review and he was cautioned that any unauthorized disclosures could jeopardize those clearances.
This past week the tide turned to outright hostility toward the press when both gCaptain and Dr. Sal Mercogliano, host of the What’s Going On In Shipping channel on YouTube, received messages from shipping executives warning that information we are publishing is putting US Merchant Marine ships in mortal danger.
The concern is that Houthis who read gCaptain will obtain information that they can use to locate US-flagged ships. However, these hostile warnings fail to acknowledge that in today’s hyper-connected and satellite-saturated world, the US Navy is unable to keep the location of carrier groups a secret. Everything that gCaptain has published is already accessible through open-source intelligence.
Furthermore, this argument overlooks the fact that Iran is assisting the Houthis in targeting ships, and Iran has decades of experience in tracking and evading American assets in their efforts to evade sanctions.
Loose Lips In World War 2
This is concerning, particularly because it is not the first instance where the US Merchant Marine has been wrongly accused of leaking sensitive information.
In 1942, a Canadian chief steward in the British merchant navy, who had been torpedoed four times, expressed his frustration to New York reporters regarding the “loose talk” of his American counterparts. He speculated, “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if some of the recent torpedoings so close to your shores were the result of fifth-column work. New York is full of loose talk.”
The United States Navy faced significant pressure to increase patrols and collaborate with the Army Air Corps to protect Merchant Marine ships from being sunk at an alarming rate along America’s coast. Admiral King, the Chief of Naval Operations, was under intense pressure to find a solution. However, he was reluctant to relinquish navy-controlled waters to the Army Air Corps and had other priorities for his planes and destroyers that he considered more important than coastal defense.
The intense media attention surrounding the steward’s unconfirmed accusations gave King an excuse. Instead of holding the US Navy responsible for not protecting merchant ships, he blamed the Merchant Marine for sharing sailing information with German agents. He claimed that rather than dedicating critical navy assets the problem should be solved by tightening operational security.
With King’s approval, the War Advertising Council launched a massive U.S. propaganda campaign titled “Loose Lips Sink Ships” to support the Canadian steward’s allegation. This campaign gained rapid popularity, resulting in a decrease in public pressure on the Navy. Public outrage subsided almost overnight, and apathy towards Merchant Mariners (who the public now blamed for causing their own troubles) became so pronounced the Navy began having difficulty convincing coastal towns to turn off streetlamps at night to prevent ships from being illuminated by the background lighting.
There was a major problem with the Loose Lips campaign: it was based on false rumors.
In the book Operation Drumbeat, which is considered a seminal work on the U-Boat campaign, author Michael Gannon stated that there is no evidence to suggest that the interception of sailing information played any role in the German U-boat campaign in American waters during the first months of 1942. There were so many unescorted ships sailing in perfect target formation that even if a U-boat commander had access to “loose lips” information (which there is no evidence to support), they would not have needed any additional data apart from the numerous fat images sailing one after the other against a bright background into their periscope lens.
The White House even admitted, the FBI had successfully put an end to the German espionage threat before the Loose Lips campaign started. In his book Roosevelt’s Secret War, historian Joseph E. Persico states that the FBI “practically shut down German espionage in the United States overnight.”
The campaign was effective in relieving the public and political pressures on the Navy and Admiral King, but it did not provide any protection for ships.
Loose Lips Legacy
Despite not protecting any ships, the Loose Lips campaign was so viral and effective that even today, if you walk through the classrooms of any maritime college or naval academy, you will still find these posters. When I confront professors about the facts, they are usually surprised to learn of my objections. They often promise to take down the posters, but they rarely follow through.
Loose Lips Are Not Putting Ships In Danger Today
The majority of conspiracy theories that we come across today are clearly false. Therefore, when we come across a true conspiracy like the US Navy’s “Loose Lips” campaign, most rational individuals are naturally skeptical. However, in this case, the theory is indeed true – or, at the very least, cannot be disproven – and its consequences continue to pose a potentially fatal threat to this day.
It’s 2024, and with new open-source intelligence tools, the US Navy can no longer hide an aircraft carrier, as today’s Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Lisa Franchetti admitted at the Paris Naval Conference last week. This is true even if Iran is incompetent, even if AIS is turned off, Dr Sal’s videos are suppressed, and satellite images are banned. None of that will prevent thousands of Houthi sympathizers with binoculars and cell phones from sharing the location of ships.
However, by suppressing reports on the dangers and vulnerabilities of merchant ships, it limits public awareness of the actual risks faced by US-flagged ships today. This lack of knowledge hinders Americans from becoming upset and calling for greater measures to protect these ships. It also prevents any political consequences for an administration that is facing a paucity of support from allies.
Furthermore, silence avoids public outrage over the lack of a congressional hearing or the inexplicable silence of the so-called Ghost Admiral, Ann Phillips of the US Maritime Administration (MARAD), and Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who, like turtles in their shells, have remained silent on the dangers faced by the US Merchant Marine in the Red Sea. While the US Navy awards combat ribbons to their sailors, neither Phillips nor Buttigieg – who are in charge of the US Merchant Marine – have issued a single medal, hosted a single press conference, or posted more than a terse tweet about the danger their sailors face in the Red Sea.
Similar to the Loose Lips campaign of World War Two, threatening shipowners and crews with consequences if they speak out deflects blame from the military and political entities who are legally obligated to protect American ships onto the Merchant Mariners themselves.
The primary threat to the Merchant Marine today is not Houthi drones, but rather a lack of support from military, congress and White House leaders. These leaders, along with their predecessors over the past few decades, have turned their backs on the Merchant Marine and allowed it to decline. These leaders who should be embarrassed for ignoring the security of the Merchant Marine are instead, like King, trying to muffle their legitimate concerns.
The Merchant Marine lacks leadership and a compelling narrative that resonates with the American public. Currently, the world’s attention is focused on the Merchant Marine. However, the restrictive actions taken by the Ghost Admiral and other leaders have resulted in ongoing apathy towards their struggles. During World War 2, union leaders fought allegations that their members were putting fellow mariners at risk. However, today, union leaders are just as reluctant as MARAD itself to engage with the press.
The story of the attacks should be headline news, not only in the trade press but also in prominent outlets like the New York Times and on programs like 60 minutes. Congressional hearings should be scheduled, MARAD medals should be awarded for bravery, and IMO delegations should be formed. However, without first-hand accounts, it is unlikely that any of this will happen.
Yes, US Merchant Mariners are in grave danger and yes, your ships are rich targets. However, remaining silent will not change this. What could protect them is bringing more attention to the lack of Naval protection. Instead of suffering under a gag order, we should be exposing our vulnerabilities and demanding USMC security teams and US Navy escorts.
However, unlike World War II, no US Merchant Mariners have been killed or seriously injured in the Red Sea but the Houthis are not the only ones endangering the lives of sailors, but their proxies in Iran and potential threats from Russia and China also pose a grave risk in the future. If remain silent about vulnerabilities today, we will not be prepared to defend the US Merchant Marine ships that resupply our military in the future. This negligence and public apathy towards protecting Merchant Marine ships has resulted in the deaths of countless mariners in past wars, and it will happen again tomorrow if another large-scale war occurs.
Media Attention Does Solve Problems
Media engagement is effective. Ten years ago, the autobiography and movie Captain Phillips garnered global support for the protection of unarmed merchant ships and played a vital role in establishing a robust naval coalition for safeguarding merchant shipping. But unlike Phillips who became an overnight star, today’s Maersk captains are being discouraged from speaking to the press altogether.
With only about 85 US Merchant Marine ships remaining in international service today, and open source intelligence quickly uncovering even the most well-hidden information, such as secret drone attacks in the Black Sea, these ships are easily trackable by even the least equipped enemies. It is time to allow them to share their story and put an end to it.
Tight Navy Lips
And this isn’t just a problem for the US Merchant Marine; the US Navy is also suffering from tight media restrictions. The Navy faces significant shipbuilding challenges and budget battles with Army generals who are reluctant to allocate funds or influence to the Pacific. Currently, the Navy does not allow journalists aboard ships like the USS Carney and USS Eisenhower to report firsthand stories that can capture public attention, influence public opinion, attract recruits, and secure budgetary support for the US Navy. Without engaging firsthand stories of battle in the Red Sea, why should the public care about the Navy’s need for more destroyers?
“If you go back to the Iraq war or Afghanistan, the US government wanted to tell a story. They went out of their way to tell the soldier’s story, they brought journalists in,” said US Navy veteran Chris Servello during last week’s CavasShip podcast. “What prevents that today is the White House wants you to know as little as possible about what’s going on in the Red Sea. They have not put a single journalist on a navy ship to report what’s going on.”
Servello argues that the Pentagon and the services should share events in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden without restrictions. He criticizes the administration for preventing journalists from embedding with Operation Prosperity Guardian and sharing detailed information about specific units. Servello believes that sharing the stories of servicemen and women, as well as American mariners, honors their service and inspires others to join. He emphasizes the importance of highlighting the work done by the fifth and sixth fleets and argues that it’s foolish not to share these stories with the American public, given the significant amount of money spent on the military and the need for increased funding to support a stronger navy.
The forced silence of the US Merchant Marine – both historical and current – underscores a vital lesson: informed public engagement and transparency are indispensable for the safety and effectiveness of maritime operations. The misguided belief that silence and secrecy will protect our ships has been disproven by history and current events. It is a ridiculous notion in today’s information age and it’s time to acknowledge that informed public awareness, rather than silence, is our strongest ally in ensuring the safety and efficacy of the Merchant Marine and Navy. By embracing openness and fostering a well-informed public discourse, we can better safeguard our maritime assets and honor the service of those who navigate these perilous waters.
Loose lips do not sink ships, public disinterest and apathy do. If the public was aware of just how close US Merchant Marine ships came to being sunk during recent attacks, they would demand more Navy and Marine Corps protection for the brave American sailors who are moving military equipment on US hulls.
Americans have forgotten about the US Merchant Marine but our nation’s enemies, including the Houthis, most certainly have not.
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