The Massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane

An American lawyer finds new evidence about one of World War II’s most notorious war crimes, seven decades after D-Day.

McKay Smith is used to keeping secrets. A lawyer with the Justice Department's National Security Division, he advises U.S. intelligence agencies on the legality of some of the country's most highly classified operations. The division oversees electronic surveillance and counterterrorism, and on a daily basis Smith might find himself eyeballs deep in classified memoranda and documents that will probably never see the light of day in his lifetime. The discovery of a 70-year-old military intelligence report written by a young Army Air Corps lieutenant, however, stopped Smith cold and led him to take on a new, public role.

Three years ago, Smith obtained a copy of a once-secret "escape and evasion report," in which one Lt. Raymond Murphy describes in precise detail how he bailed out of his flaming B-17 bomber over Avord, France, on April 28, 1944, and survived for the next four months behind enemy lines before making his way to England. Murphy had been part of a mission to attack a German-held airfield less than six weeks ahead of the D-Day landing at Normandy, which marks its 70th anniversary this Friday. Amid the harrowing stories of the airman's hard parachute landing, his efforts to avoid capture by German soldiers, and his exploits with French Resistance fighters, Smith spotted two barely legible lines, handwritten in pencil, at the end of the neatly typed document: "About 3 weeks ago, I saw a town within 4 hours bicycle ride up the Gerbeau farm where some 500 men, women, and children had been murdered by the Germans. I saw one baby who had been crucified."

Smith, a self-made World War II historian with an outsized passion for document research, concluded that based on Murphy's description of the scene and his location at the time, the young airman had seen the aftermath of a notorious massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane, a town in west-central France. On June 10, 1944, four days after the Allied landing at Normandy, a unit of the Waffen-SS, the Nazi Party military wing, descended on the village and killed 642 men, women, and children. It was one of the largest mass murders of French civilians during the German occupation, and an act of retribution against the townspeople for their perceived assistance to the French Resistance and the invading American forces.

The story of Oradour is well known to historians of the war, though less so to many Americans, who are more likely to recall the bloody U.S. landings at Omaha Beach and other sites along the French coast on D-Day. But those two handwritten sentences at the end of Murphy's report might be unique in American history. As far as Smith knows, there is no other account by a U.S. military service member of the massacre at Oradour. Murphy stands as a lone witness among the American men who fought -- and in many cases died -- to liberate France in 1944.

Seventy years later, that testimony could help deliver some long-denied justice for the victims of the French town. In January of this year, former SS soldier Werner Christukat, who was 19 when his unit razed Oradour, was indicted in Germany for allegedly assisting in the murder of 25 people, either by "taking on blockading duties" while the Germans rounded up the townspeople, or carrying "flammable material into the church," where the women and children were locked inside and then burned alive, investigators say. The men, according to eyewitness accounts from survivors, were lined up, shot in the legs with machine guns so they'd die slowly, and then set ablaze. Christukat denies that he was directly involved in the crimes.

"There's no doubt that this is a significant war crime, and on a scale that it has to be known about," Smith said in a recent interview, noting that he was speaking in his personal capacity and not on behalf of the Justice Department. If Murphy's account was accurate, he has provided new evidence of the slaughter -- evidence that remained undiscovered for seven decades until Smith found it on a U.S. government website.

Today, Oradour is but ruins -- brick houses where homes once stood, a rusting car. It's a "ghost village," preserved by presidential decree as a testament to German atrocities. German soldiers sacked several French villages, but none so viciously as Oradour. In January 2013, German investigators opened a new inquiry into the killings, prompted by documents uncovered in the archives of the Stasi -- the former East German secret police force -- about six German soldiers who were believed to have taken part in the massacre and were still alive. The East German government had refused to extradite them to a tribunal in Bordeaux in 1954, and they have never faced justice for their alleged crimes. Twenty soldiers were convicted for crimes at Oradour, but all of them were eventually set free. To date, only one former German soldier has spent significant time in prison for the killings (an officer who was convicted in 1983), but he was released 14 years later and lived another decade as a free man.

Smith is closely following the Christukat case. He said that while it may be unlikely that Murphy's account will end up being presented in court, given its significance and the D-Day anniversary, it could become "a lightning rod for public consciousness," so that even 70 years later, no one forgets what happened at Oradour, and so they know at least one American spoke up.

And now two. Smith has had years of practice combing through archives and pursuing information that some people might prefer not be found. But he was more highly motivated than usual to find the escape and evasion report. Lt. Murphy was Smith's grandfather, a man he never met, and who Smith's own father never knew. Not long after the war, Murphy's wife left her husband, taking their newborn son with her, and she never saw him again. Murphy died in 1970.

"He had a problem with the ladies," Smith said his grandmother used to say. He never pried. But three years ago, he began a quest to fill out the story of Raymond Murphy, a man who loomed over his life mostly in legend. The documents brought him closer to his grandfather than he'd ever been, and closer to the savagery of the war than he'd ever expected.

Mostly using the Freedom of Information Act -- a tool that journalists employ to pry loose secret documents from government hands -- Smith has sent out records requests for everything he could think to ask about his grandfather. In addition to the escape and evasion report, he obtained a host of other documents about the men who flew with Murphy, as well as photographs from the fateful bombing raid over Avord. One shows the moment just before Murphy's B-17 took anti-aircraft fire, forcing all 10 crew members to bail out moments before the aircraft exploded in midair.

Smith has had to become a student of some of the darkest moments of the Second World War. At least one scholar whom he has contacted raised the possibility that Murphy actually saw the aftermath of a German attack on the city of Saint-Amand-Montrond, near where Murphy was working with Resistance fighters. But Smith doubts this was the scene his grandfather described. Murphy knew Saint-Amand-Montrond and mentions it by name elsewhere in his account. But when he recalls the dead civilians, he writes only of "a town." It must have been somewhere he'd never visited or didn't know well, Smith concluded. Oradour is also about the distance, by bicycle, from the farm of a local resistance leader, Camille Gerbeau, where Murphy was hiding out.

But there's grimmer evidence that Murphy was at Oradour -- far fewer people died in the other villages, Smith said. Murphy reports seeing 500 dead men, women, and children, and while it's possible he overestimated the number, that scale of killing most closely matches the massacre at Oradour, Smith said. And nowhere in the historical record is there evidence of such shocking cruelty to a baby. Murphy's report is matter-of-fact and precise, down to the number of rations and the amount of money he had on him when he dropped into a French field. There's no reason to believe he made up a story about a crucified child, Smith said.

The documents bring far-off history into sharp, intimate relief. But they have their limits, particularly when it comes to obtaining some justice for the victims of Oradour. Smith has re-examined his grandfather's interview through the eyes of an attorney trained in investigations. (Before coming to the Justice Department, he was a senior inspector and an intelligence officer in the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General, where he said he oversaw hundreds of interviews.) Smith said there are few indications that the military intelligence officers who interviewed his grandfather and managed his debriefing realized just how serious his allegations were. The note about the dead villagers and the baby is transcribed into the margins of an initial draft of the report, and it wasn't included in the final version. Also, the officer conducting the interview with Murphy recorded no further information about the grisly scene.

But that's not surprising, given the nature and purpose of an escape and evasion report. It's a tactical document meant to record how airmen had survived shootdowns and the dangers of life behind the lines, and then to pass that knowledge on to others, Smith said. The report was never intended to capture evidence of war crimes.

Murphy's escape and evasion report wasn't declassified until 1974, three decades after the D-Day landing, which suggests the military saw the document first and foremost as a piece of intelligence that needed to be kept secret to safeguard combat techniques. The report was only put online in September 2010, on the website of the National Archives and Records Administration, which is where Smith found it about six months later.

One is left to wonder whether Murphy intended to tell his Army interviewers about the carnage he saw in Oradour, or if the note was an afterthought. Murphy never spoke of the massacre to his family, Smith said. He surmises that his grandfather, a deeply religious Catholic, was so distraught by the image of a crucified child that he chose never to mention it again. Smith also points out that his grandfather signed a secrecy oath in 1944, promising never to talk about the shootdown and the circumstances of his escape. It seems he honored the pledge for the rest of his life.

The earlier draft with Murphy's note was affixed to the final report, but it was almost certainly overlooked by the officer who approved the report and others higher in the chain of command, Smith said. There's no indication that the report was ever used as evidence in Nazi war crimes tribunals, which in any event had mostly concluded a quarter century before the document was declassified. But with the new investigations and a pending trial against Christukat, Murphy's account could be re-examined. Even if those few faint lines aren't read out in a German courtroom, Smith feels affirmed knowing that one alleged killer might, at last, be held to account.

"To me, that's very strong evidence of the immutability of justice," he said.

Photo: Courtesy McKay Smith

Photo illustration: Ed Johnson for FP


Exclusive: Inside the FBI's Fight Against Chinese Cyber-Espionage

An American solar panel company wondered why Chinese firms kept undercutting their prices. Then the FBI knocked on their door.

SolarWorld was fighting a losing battle. The U.S. subsidiary of the German solar panel manufacturer knew that its Chinese competitors, backed by generous government subsidies, were flooding the American market with steeply discounted solar panels and equipment, making it practically impossible for U.S. firms to compete. What SolarWorld didn't know, however, was that at the same time it was pleading its case with U.S. trade officials, Chinese military hackers were breaking into the company's computers and stealing private information that would give Chinese solar firms an even bigger unfair advantage, including the company's pricing and marketing strategies.

SolarWorld learned about the hacking not from some sophisticated security software or an outside consultant, but from FBI agents. In early July 2012, they called the company and alerted executives to a "persistent threat, some kind of attack," said Ben Santarris, SolarWorld's spokesman, in an interview. Persistent threat is shorthand for hackers who burrow deeply into a computer system to steal information and spy on an organization from within. The FBI didn't offer any specifics about the nature of the intrusion, Santarris said, but according to a federal indictment made public last week, the bureau determined that SolarWorld had been infiltrated by hackers working for China's People's Liberation Army, who were stealing private documents that would be valuable to Chinese state-backed solar companies -- the same ones undercutting SolarWorld's business. Armed with the warning from the feds, SolarWorld tightened up its computer security, and in September 2012, the intrusions appear to have stopped.

That federal investigators already knew SolarWorld had been hacked reveals the extensiveness of the Obama administration's campaign, mounted almost entirely in secret, to turn the tables on Chinese spies, who U.S. officials say are responsible for nearly $300 billion a year in stolen intellectual property and lost business to American companies, and who have cost Americans jobs.

Interviews with eight current and former U.S. officials who are familiar with the now years-long counterintelligence campaign against China show that the administration has quietly waged a battle on many fronts. In the shadows, U.S. hackers at the National Security Agency (NSA) have broken into Chinese computers in order to find out what information has been stolen from American companies and who in the Chinese government is backing the operations. But closer to home, a team of FBI agents and a little-noticed group of prosecutors at the Justice Department have spent the past two years preparing to launch a more public offensive. This one, which aims to bring criminal charges against foreign government officials -- an unprecedented step -- relies on sophisticated cybersleuthing and the cooperation of American companies, which are willing to work with federal investigators and explain what damage they suffered as the victims of economic espionage.

The goal of the legal campaign, officials say, isn't to put foreign government hackers in jail. There is practically no chance that the five Chinese military officials indicted last week for hacking into the computers of five U.S. companies, including SolarWorld, as well as a large labor union, will ever see the inside of a U.S. courtroom. But officials hope that by laying out the evidence of Chinese spying for the world to see, the Chinese government will curtail its rampant targeting of American companies, which U.S. officials say is distinct from the kind of spying that nations conduct on each other every day.

To fight Chinese hackers, the U.S. government is sharing information about cyberspying with the specific companies affected by it and is working with those companies to bring criminal charges, John Carlin, the head of the Justice Department's National Security Division, said in public remarks last week. That in and of itself is a remarkable turn of events, since the FBI has long been focused more on collecting classified intelligence about foreign hackers and not as much on gathering evidence to use in a public trial. The government does share some of that intelligence haul, including with financial institutions and public utilities, but the information is meant to help the companies defend themselves against intruders, not to build criminal cases.

Without discussing specific details of the pending cases, Carlin said that federal prosecutors "and our partners at the FBI and other agencies are definitely reaching out to companies, both to warn individuals about the threat and encourage them to take steps to prevent it from happening, but also to work with them when it does occur."

The FBI knew about Chinese hacking against SolarWorld, as well as other companies named in the indictment, in part because of its success in monitoring computer equipment based in the United States that Chinese hackers use.

"A large amount of China's hacking against U.S. companies is done through U.S.-based servers acting as the 'hub.' Meaning, China breaks into a computer in the United States and from there moves out along spokes and breaks into hundreds or even thousands of other victims," said Steve Chabinsky, the former deputy director of the FBI's Cyber Division. "The FBI oftentimes establishes visibility on these 'hubs' -- typically by getting consent from the victim company whose computer is being misused."

Once the FBI can see the hub-and-spoke system Chinese hackers have set up, it can trace victims by their Internet protocol address, a unique identifier that can help physically locate a computer user. The FBI can also see what documents the hackers are stealing. It's possible that the FBI found evidence of the hacking at SolarWorld by monitoring a hub, whose owner is still unidentified. Santarris said that the FBI never asked for access to the company's computers or its networks, nor did the company ever offer it, so agents must have obtained their evidence from other sources.

The bureau could have found the information around July 2012, which is when it first alerted SolarWorld it had been hacked. But the indictment traces the Chinese hacking activity against other targets to as early as 2006, indicating that the bureau has been gathering information for many years.

Spokespersons for the other companies named as victims in the indictment declined to comment. A spokesman for the United Steelworkers union said, "We're supportive of and have been cooperative with the administration" on prosecuting Chinese spies, but declined to elaborate on how.

As a practical matter, the FBI may not need a company's help or its permission to gather evidence of hacking. But to bring charges, it helps to have company employees explain why the information that was stolen was valuable and what damage they suffered because of the loss, said Chabinsky, now a senior vice president with the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike. In his remarks last week, Carlin echoed that notion. "It's critical" for companies to cooperate with the government, Carlin said, "so that you understand what was taken and why it was of importance, what it meant for it to be taken."

In the case of SolarWorld, prosecutors allege that the information the Chinese hackers stole could be used to "target SolarWorld's business operations aggressively from a variety of angles," including by copying the company's product designs and then selling cheap knockoffs on the open market. Chinese companies were already dumping their own cheaper solar products on the U.S. market in 2011 when SolarWorld filed a complaint about unfair practices with U.S. trade officials. (Imports of Chinese solar panels and cells skyrocketed from less than $100 million in 2006 to nearly $1.2 billion in 2010, and U.S. manufacturers' prices plummeted between 30 and 40 percent that year.)

The spies allegedly stole communications between SolarWorld and the attorneys representing the company in its trade dispute, including question-and-answer documents submitted to the Commerce Department that the Chinese competitors weren't legally allowed to see. SolarWorld ultimately prevailed in its complaint, and the United States imposed heavy duties on imported Chinese solar products -- around the same time that the hacking began.

Santarris said that several months after the FBI first informed the company it had been hacked -- he couldn't recall precisely when -- officials came calling again and asked whether SolarWorld was willing to help with a criminal investigation. The company didn't hesitate.

"We said, 'Yeah, we'll cooperate,'" Santarris said. "We want competition. But we don't want to have to compete with the Chinese government." FBI agents interviewed company officials as well as employees in SolarWorld's IT department. The company only learned of the final outcome of the investigation when the indictments were announced last week, Santarris said.

The U.S. indictments against the Chinese hackers caught many in Washington by surprise and were newsworthy because the United States has never brought a criminal hacking case against government officials. But Barack Obama's administration has been on a steady course to do just that for nearly three years.

In October 2011, the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, the government's top spy hunter, released a 31-page report on foreign spies targeting U.S. companies. It marked the first time that the U.S. government had publicly and unequivocally named China as a source of some of the most aggressive cyberspying. Until then, U.S. officials had largely confined their complaints to off-the-record remarks to journalists, calibrated not to disrupt diplomatic relations with one of the country's most important trading partners. Those days were over with the publication of the report.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department was mounting its own offensive. On Nov. 7, 2012, federal prosecutors from around the country gathered at department headquarters in Washington for the inaugural meeting of a new unit trained to deal with national security-related cyber cases. Known as the National Security Cyber Specialist network, or NSCS (pronounced "niscus"), it was modeled on the FBI's joint terrorism task forces, set up in all the bureau's field offices after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to get agents working on terrorism cases more aggressively and in partnership with their colleagues from other parts of the government, especially the intelligence agencies.

The newly tapped prosecutors spent three days in Washington discussing computer forensics and other unique facets of cyber investigations. The NSCS planned to include 100 prosecutors who work with the FBI and the NSA and who represent the government before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes surveillance and intelligence-gathering.

To underscore the importance of the new unit to the administration's counter-espionage strategy, Attorney General Eric Holder and then-FBI Director Robert Mueller spoke to the group during its visit to Washington, emphasizing that it would take all components of the department working together with the FBI and intelligence agencies to combat cyberspies.

Justice Department officials began asking FBI investigators to look for cases that could be brought to court and to start collecting evidence of economic espionage. The prosecutors were getting close to bringing an indictment. "I'll give you a prediction," Carlin, the current head of the National Security Division, said in a December 2012 interview with Defense News. "Now that we are having people look at bringing one of these cases, it's there to be brought, and you'll see a case brought."

Meanwhile, the administration stepped up its political pressure on China. In March 2013, five months after the new prosecution unit met in Washington, Obama's national security advisor, Tom Donilon, gave a major speech at the Asia Society in New York calling Chinese cyber-espionage "a growing challenge to our economic relationship with China" and a "key point of concern and discussion with China at all levels of our governments." Donilon called on Beijing to "take serious steps to investigate and put a stop to these activities." His were the first public remarks by a White House official directed specifically at Chinese cyber-espionage.

The stage seemed to be set for an imminent prosecution. But whatever plans were in place came to a screeching halt on June 5, 2013, the day the Guardian published the first story about surveillance by the NSA, based on documents provided by leaker Edward Snowden. Over the coming weeks and months, Snowden's disclosures exposed a vast network of NSA spying programs, including operations to hack into Chinese and other foreign companies and steal sensitive and proprietary information -- precisely the same kinds of activities for which U.S. officials were blasting the Chinese and building criminal cases against state officials.

According to former U.S. officials familiar with the long campaign against Chinese cyberspies, the Snowden revelations knocked the administration back on its heels and squashed any hopes of bringing charges against China in the near future. The United States would have been accused of hypocrisy and trying to deflect the controversy over its own spying.

"Talk about anything cyber-related was dead," said one former official, noting that the administration also stopped any significant efforts to push new cybersecurity legislation through Congress, which had been on the White House's agenda. "Cyber" had become a politically radioactive word, drawing unwanted attention to all the work U.S. spies were doing in the shadows, including spying on the personal communications of American allies and hacking into the private overseas data centers of some of the biggest American technology companies.

But nearly a year after Snowden's disclosures, the Justice Department's prosecution campaign appears to be back on track. In a speech last week at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Carlin credited the new unit of specially trained prosecutors with bringing the cases against the five Chinese officials, including the hacker who stole from SolarWorld. The unit brought together U.S. attorneys from western Pennsylvania, where the majority of the victims are located, with those in Wisconsin, New York, and Georgia to help build the case, Carlin said. And those lawyers worked with FBI agents in California, Oregon, Oklahoma, and Washington, D.C., he said. "Our team thought creatively. They worked collaboratively. They explored all available options for stopping this activity."

The Justice Department has eyes on more prosecutions. Carlin promised last week that more espionage cases are coming, and officials have said the next targets could be Russian hackers. In his 2012 interview, Carlin said that the United States might also prosecute employees of a corporation. "Whether it is a state-owned enterprise or a state-supported enterprise in China, if you can figure out and prove that they've committed the crime, charging the company means they can't do business in the U.S. or in Europe," Carlin said. "It affects their reputation and that then causes them to recalculate: 'Hey, is this worth it?'"

The administration's legal campaign has drawn howls from Chinese officials, who accuse the United States of hypocrisy because U.S. intelligence agencies also target foreign companies. Carlin has tried to make the case that U.S. spying on foreign companies is qualitatively different than what the Chinese are doing, because the United States doesn't share the fruits of its espionage directly with companies, the way China does. Chinese officials have long denied that they do that and have challenged the United States to prove its allegations. Last week's indictments answer that call and help explain what the Obama administration hopes to gain by so publicly naming and shaming Chinese officials.

"The Chinese said, bring us hard evidence, evidence that could stand up in a court, of this criminal activity," Carlin said at Brookings. "And so, one hopes, and continues to hope, that now that we have, that they'll take action to stop this criminal activity.… I'm not aware of any country that condones this behavior, so now that it's laid out, maybe it'll stop."

Jamila Trindle contributed reporting.