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Secret Writing

Set during the 1944 Allied invasion of Saipan, John Woo's WWII epic stars Nicolas Cage as a battle-hardened Marine sergeant reluctantly charged with protecting (killing) young private Adam Beach, one of a group of Navajo recruits whose native language became an unbreakable code.

In the beginning, people whispered. Others eavesdropped. And from these humble caveman origins have evolved one of the most powerful forms of intelligence and one of the most important forms of security in the world today. The practice of secret writing in military conflicts traveled to North America. During the American Revolution, the British, their Loyalist allies and the Colonials used a variety of secret writing systems, including codes, ciphers and nomenclators.

Cryptology was of service to Americans even before the United States itself was born. During the Revolutionary period, American patriots often used ciphers to protect their communications. Occasionally during the Revolutionary War, encrypted British messages fell into American hands, and military officers, as well as several members of the Continental Congress, were called upon to solve them.

One of the most efficient Colonial cryptology groups operated in Loyalist-dominated New York City From here, spymasters communicated with General Washington using a nomenclator and concealed messages with stains or invisible inks. They also used a dictionary-based code, in which numbers indicated the locations of intended words in an edition of a particular dictionary known to the sender and receiver. Secret writing allowed rebel agents to send valuable information about British troop strength, morale and supplies.

George Washington had a keen appreciation for the need for intelligence, and it is well known today that he was skillful in using spies to gather data on British forces. He worried about the security of his spies and concerned himself with ciphers for espionage use. He also employed cryptanalysis in the famous case of Dr. Benjamin Church, a Boston physician and Washington’s director general of hospitals. Church was caught sending an enciphered message across the lines. Washington enlisted the aid of Elbridge Gerry (later vice president of the United States) and the Reverend Samuel West. Both broke the cipher, which cloaked a report to a British general about American military plans and capabilities. Church was imprisoned.

Herbert Osborne Yardley

Born in April 1889 in Worthington, Indiana, Yardley dreamed of becoming a criminal lawyer but, following his high school graduation in 1907, he hit the road, bumming about the U.S. In 1912 he obtained a job in Washington, working for the State Department as a telegraph operator. He found the work fascinating and played a little game by decoding messages to President Woodrow Wilson.

For four years, Yardley toyed with messages sent to President Wilson, arguing with his superiors that American codes were hoplessly outdated. He proved this by decoding a highly sensitive message to Wilson from the American ambassador in Berlin. He then pointed out to his superiors that the British, then controllers of the Atlantic Cable, could obviously do the same and were privy to all of America's most secret diplomatic messages. To more than prove his point, Yardley authored a 100-page report titled Exposition on the Solution of American Diplomatic Codes. He submitted this to his superior, who became incensed since it was he who had developed most of these top codes.

Yardley then told his superior that his codes were predictable, and, to painfully prove his point, he opened the man's locked office safe within a few minutes, rightly figuring out that the combination was based on the telephone number of President Wilson's fiancée. Such brazen tactics almost lost Yardley his job but when America entered World War I in 1917, he was sent to the War Department and then on to the U.S. Signal Corps, where he was given the rank of lieutenant and named the head of a special bureau dealing with cryptology called MI8 (Military Intelligence, Section 8).

Within months, Yardley's small bureau had broken almost all of the German diplomatic and Abwehr codes. One of his many cryptological coups was deciphering a letter found on Lothar Witzke, a German saboteur who was picked up by American agents after he entered the U.S. from Mexico. Witzke was one of those responsible for the Mare Island sabotage (and most probably the Black Tom explosion). The letter found on Witzke proved that he was a saboteur for Germany and caused him to be tried and convicted, then condemned, the only German agent in World War Ito receive a death sentence. Witzke was not executed, however, but received a reprieve at the last minute from President Wilson. For this exploit, Yardley was promoted to the rank of major. His achievement firmly entrenched cryptology inside the American intelligence community.

In August 1918, while battles still raged along the Western Front, Yardley went to Europe to learn more about cryptology from the British and French intelligence agencies. In England, he met Vernon Kell, head of MI5, and Admiral William Reginald Hall, head of British naval intelligence, whose celebrated Room 40 operation had broken the coded contents of the notorious Zimmermann Telegram, a deciding factor for the America's entry into the war against Germany. He also went to France, where he studied the operations of French cryptology.

After attending the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 as chief cryptologist of the American delegation, Yardley was told that his job was at an end. He disagreed, pointing out that America had enemies around the world and the codes of these nations would have to be deciphered so that the U.S. could realize any future threat to its security. He prepared a comprehensive plan to establish a peacetime cryptological bureau and submitted this to the State Department and the Chief of Staff, a report titled Code and Cipher Investigation and Attack.

General Marlborough Churchill, head of Army Intelligence, was so impressed with Yardley's report that he was determined not to let MI8 go out of existence. He persuaded officials in the State Department to fund an "unofficial" code-breaking operation. Because of legalities, the State Department insisted that this operation not be located in Washington. Instead, in 1919, Yardley opened up his cryptology bureau in a four-story New York City brownstone at 141 East 37th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue.

Yardley quickly organized a staff of twenty top cryptologists, mostly those who had worked under him at MI8, including Dr. Charles Mendelsohn and Victor Weiskopf. One of his most brilliant code- breakers was F. Livesey, who became his assistant. Yardley dubbed the operation the American Black Chamber (after the French Black Chamber, the cryptology division of French intelligence in World War I that he so admired), a name that soon became world famous.

Yardley's group proved to be successful in breaking the difficult codes of the newly formed Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police in Russia which had supplanted the czarist secret police, the Okhrana. Further, the American Black Chamber was then ordered to break the Japanese diplomatic codes so that the U.S. would better be able to negotiate with Japan at the 1921 Washington Naval Conference. This conference involved decisive negotiations involving the tonnage of warships of all major nations at that time.

The formula then being argued would limit warship tonnage to each nation. The U.S. was deeply concerned about Japan, an aggressive nation since its naval victories over Russia in 1904-1905 in the Russo-Japanese War. Knowing that Japan had set itself on a war footing and was eager to build up its war fleet, the U.S. wanted to curb that warship escalation and insisted that Japan's ratio to U.S. warships be 10:6 (one million tons of U.S. naval strength for each 600,000 tons of Japanese naval strength).

Japanese negotiators insisted upon a 10:7 ratio and stubbornly clung to that argument for months. Yardley's code-breaking operation, however, was able to break the then top Japanese diplomatic code and deciphered messages between its delegation to the U.S. and Tokyo that clearly showed that the Japanese, to "avoid a clash," were to compromise at 10:6. When U.S. negotiators learned of this, they stiffened their resolve and the Japanese finally accepted the compromise.

In 1924, Yardley's funds were considerably reduced by the State Department, which was then undergoing budget cuts under direct orders from President Calvin Coolidge. In 1929, Henry L. Stimson became Secretary of State. In reviewing the American Black Chamber operation, Stimson dismissed the organization as non-essential. Stimson, an old-school diplomat, was repelled by espionage and covert operations of any kind. He reportedly told Yardley in a reproachful, stuffy manner: "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail." He then ordered the State Department to cease funding Yardley's operation. It simply went out of business because the crusty, naive Stimson was unable to grasp the vital importance of intelligence information.

Yardley suffered greatly. He found himsel unemployable, having earned a reputation as a man who had alienated heads of state. After using up his savings, he wrote an enormously successful book titled The American Black Chamber, which was first serialized in the Saturday Evening Post. Though the book earned Yardley a great deal of money, it also earned him the enmity of Congress, where he and the book were denounced as having given away America's secrets.

Other cryptologists, including the greatest American cryptologist of them all, William F. Friedman, chief of the U.S. Army Signal Corps Code and Cipher Section, took exception to the book, saying that Yardley had cast a slur on American cryptographic work. Congress then passed a bill, "For the Protection of Government Records," which prohibited the public revelation of government secrets by federal employees or former employees. In 1933, the newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed this bill, creating Public Law 37, making it a crime for anyone to use material in official codes for personal reasons.

Yardley's book sales were stopped but by then he had already captured a huge audience and earned considerable profits. He next busied himself with developing invisible inks, which he attempted to sell to the government without success. To earn a living, Yardley continued writing, going after what he properly considered the most menacing nation at that time, Japan. He wrote a manuscript entitled Japanese Diplomatic Secrets, but this book was seized before publication and did not see print, the government upholding Public Law 37. He next churned out a spy-comedy called The Blonde Countess, which, combined with code-breaking elements from The American Black Chamber, made up the script for a 1935 MGM movie, Rendezvous, starring William Powell and Rosalind Russell.

Though he reapplied for cryptographic work with the government, Yardley, because of his exposé, found himself persona non grata, so he went to China in 1938, where he worked with Chiang Kai-shek's intelligence bureau, working under the spectacular Morris "Two-Gun" Cohen. By 1941, Yardley had moved to Canada to help establish a code-breaking bureau but he returned to the U.S. after World War II began and was finally given a government job, but not one in the area of cryptology.

Yardley was given a paper-shuffling job with the Office of Price Administration. By that time, William F. Friedman and others had preempted Yardley's place in American cryptology to the point where they were able to break the so-called "unbreakable" Japanese codes transmitted through what was called the Purple Machine, predicting Japanese military movements and battle plans throughout World War II.

Following the war, Yardley pursued his old hobby, poker, writing articles about the game and, in 1957, producing another book, The Education of a Poker Player. Sales were brisk but Yardley did not live to enjoy his newfound success; he died the following year, all but forgotten as America's founding father of modern cryptology. It should also be said that without Yardley's considerable contribution, including his unpublished manuscript concerning Japanese diplomatic codes (perused by cryptographers in the U.S. Signals Intelligence Service), the successes enjoyed by others coming after him may not have been possible.

In 1838, Samuel Morse transmitted the first recorded telegraph message. The development of Morse code showed that numbers and letters can be transformed into dot-dash patterns. Both sides relied upon the telegraph during the American Civil War. Abraham Lincoln in particular used the new technology to stay in touch with his forces almost in real time. But other, more secret, means of communication also played important roles.

In the American Civil War, the Industrial Revolution first became a close partner with warfare. Armies moved rapidly over rail, and communications had to keep up. Both the Union and the Confederacy depended on the newly invented telegraph to control their armies in distant theaters of war. Both sides adopted visual signal systems for field operations based on waving a single flag. Both types of communications were vulnerable to intercept, which put a premium on encryption to protect friendly messages and on cryptanalysis to read the enemy’s signals. Neither side had cipher systems that could withstand a concerted attack, and this new “communications intelligence” became a major source of information in Washington, Richmond, and many far-flung battlefields.

Union forces employed transposition ciphers to conceal telegraph messages from Confed erate wiretappers and cryptanalysts. Anson Stager, Western Union's first superintendent, devised a word transposition cipher used by Union General George B. McClellan. Historians credit Rose O'Neal Greenhow with leaking strategic information about Union troop movements and numbers that helped Confederate General Pierre G.T. Beauregard achieve victory in the 1861 Battle of Bull Run. Greenhow transmitted the information with a number and symbol substitution cipher.

The invention of wireless radio at the turn of the century brought communications and cryptology into a new era. The new source, then termed “radio intelligence was adopted by the U.S. Navy and the Army, and was first used operationally during the Mexican border incursion of 1916, when the Army pursued Pancho Villa into northern Mexico. The U.S. commander, General Pershing, took with him mobile intercept vans — then known as “radio tractors” — to listen to radio messages sent by Mexican government forces. This was the first mobile intercept station in American history; the use of these mobile units was later adopted by American a forces when Pershing led U.S. forces to France in 1917. All the major combatants in World War I engaged in radio intercept — then known as “listening in” — and cryptanalysis of enemy messages.

Pershing’s forces, like virtually all the others, were well outfitted for radio intelligence work. Army-level support came from Section 8 of the new Army intelligence service. In France, battlefield communications intelligence support was conducted by an organization entitled G2A6, with intercept sites at fixed locations and “radio tractors” following the troops at the front lines.

With the increasing unrest in Europe that presaged WWI, Britain's Parliament ordered an increase in the military's efforts to intercept and decrypt messages. In 1914, this resulted in the birth of a cryptanalytic group known as Section 25 of the Intelligence Division, or "Room 40". It became the Allies' leading code and cipher branch.

Shortly after its creation, Room 40 received a gift: A German codebook obtained by the Russian Navy from a German light cruiser. A British trawler recovered another German codebook. Within weeks, the codebreakers began to decode radio intercepts. Room 40's efforts led to the discovery of a plan for German warships to converge at Dogger Bank, located off England's eastern coast. The British navy met the German vessels, severely damaging two warships and destroying a third.

One of the most famous decryption efforts revealed the contents of an encoded telegram sent on 16 January 1917, by German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann to the German Minister in Mexico. Germany planned to begin unrestricted submarine warfare against neutral shipping, a strategy that might compel the United States to join the Allies. Concerned that the US might not stay neutral, Zimmermann outlined a proposal for an alliance with Mexico: "make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona." Room 40 intercepted the telegram and decrypted the contents. The revelation spurred the US into the war effort.

At the conclusion of World War I, building on the wartime MI-8, the United States for the first time established a peacetime cryptanalytic organization, which was directed by Herbert 0. Yardley. Yardley had been an important figure in the wartime operations against enemy encrypted communications. After the war, the State and War Departments continued the task, this time targeted against foreign diplomatic cable traffic; Yardley was chosen to lead the effort. His most famous success came in 1923 during the Washington Naval Conference, which was seeking ways to prevent a postwar arms race. Under MI-8, Yardley broke Japanese diplomatic messages and sent the information to the State Department, which in turn used it to negotiate favorable provisions in the final agreements. In 1930, however, a new Secretary of State, Henry Stimson, withdrew the State Department’s funding from MI-8, causing its collapse. No longer in government service, Yardley wrote a “tell-all” book, The American Black Chamber, which publicized MI-8’s achievements. Among other effects, it caused a number of countries to search for and adopt new encryption methods.

After the war, ciphers surpassed codes as a military concealment method. Advancements in electromechanical technology allowed the production of rotor machines that quickly reordered letters to create polyalphabetic ciphers. In the late 1920s, the German military modified an encrypting machine built for use in business. It was called the Enigma and could create immense numbers of electrically generated alphabets.

In the early months of WWII, Britain's new prime minister, Winston Churchill, supported a crypt analysis group at Bletchley Park. Aided by Polish and French sources, Alan Turing led the British effort to crack the Enigma. By late April 1940, Bletchley Park had a machine based on the Poles' "Bombe". The electrical circuits of the eight-foot-high machine imitated the Enigma's rotors. The Bombe decrypted Enigma transmissions recorded by England's intercept stations. Information gleaned from decrypted Nazi messages helped the Allies to win the war.

The U.S. ability to exploit Japan’s diplomatic communications in the early 1940s gave it a distinct advantage in the negotiations of that period. However, by 1941 U.S. Army and Navy cryptanalysts had not solved the military code systems used by the Japanese. Thus, despite high-quality secret information about Japan, the U.S. did not learn in advance that a Japanese Navy task force had been sent to bomb American installations on Hawaii. The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor and other installations on December 7, 1941, propelled the United States into another world war. In the months immediately after the Pearl Harbor disaster, the U.S. Navy made important breakthroughs in a high-level Japanese Navy code known to the Americans as JN-25. The solution to this system enabled the U.S. to read Japanese planning and operational messages throughout the Pacific War. With this inside knowledge, the U.S. was able to position itself to turn back a Japanese naval thrust into the Coral Sea near Australia, and, in May 1942, handed the Japanese Navy a resounding defeat at the island of Midway.

General George S. Patton, the legendary commander of World War II, became an astute consumer of communications intelligence (COMINT); he learned its worth in the drive across Western Europe after D-Day and used it well. For example, in mid-August 1944, while Patton’s Third Army was located near the French city of Le Mans, the general and about 40 of his officers attended daily intelligence briefings. Here they would hear regular briefings by the G-2 (Intelligence) and G-3 (Operations), situation reports, and a news report from radio broadcasts. Following each meeting, all but seven officers were dismissed, and the rest stayed for a briefing on the enemy situation as seen in COMINT. This source proved valuable for the Third Army: ULTRA (the codeword assigned to COMINT derived from decryption of high-level German ciphers) material alone predicted a drive by five German Panzer divisions against the Third Army at Avaranches. In another instance, when Third Army headquarters moved near Chalons, an ULTRA message arrived at 0100 hours showing the German order for an attack at 0300. Patton had described the U.S. troops in the attack areas as spread out as “thin as the skin on an egg.” He found means to alert the defending divisions without jeopardizing the security of ULTRA, and the German attack was repulsed. One member of Patton’s staff wrote about the value of ULTRA to Patton’s army stating that, “An army has never moved as fast and as far as the Third Army in its drive across France, and ULTRA was invaluable every mile of the way.”

The US military did not abandon code concealments during WWII. The Army and the Marine Corp recruited Native Americans who would communicate in their traditional language. These Code Talkers overcame the basic flaw of codes; they did not need codebooks. Historians credit the Code Talkers with never making a mistake in transmission and for using a technique that the enemy never broke.

Cryptology did not win the war. The war was won by the brave soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who risked their lives in combat with the enemy. However, the ability to read the enemy’s most secret messages allowed American and British commanders to make wise decisions about the use of their troops; this shortened the time of war and saved countless thousands of Allied lives. The ironclad protection of U.S. high-level communications prevented the enemy’s intelligence personnel from exploiting these messages; this superior communications security effort also saved an untold number of lives and contributed greatly to the success of Allied operations.

Despite the historic achievements of American cryptology during World War II, the Army and Navy emerged from the war as disunited rivals in the business. In 1947, the Air Force became a third competitor for funding, equipment, and personnel. At the same time, the technology of cryptology had become much more sophisticated through the use of powerful machines and rudimentary computers and, hence, much more expensive. Several forward-looking leaders recognized the necessity to merge the efforts of both services to attack increasingly sophisticated targets. Joseph Wenger, one of Laurance Safford’s earliest recruits to OP-20-G, urged more cooperation with the Army. After several unsuccessful attempts to achieve economy and compatibility of operations through plans for coordination, in 1949 the Secretary of Defense established a central cryptologic institution, the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA). Under the Joint Chiefs of Staff, AFSA was intended to be the unifying organization, but it lacked the enforcement powers to make it dominant. What resulted from good intentions was yet a fourth cryptologic contender, which had to compete with the other three service agencies for resources.

President Truman in 1952 impaneled a high-level committee chaired by George Brownell, a New York lawyer, after hearing reports from the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Walter Bedell Smith, and the Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, that AFSA was not working. The Brownell Committee, concluding that cryptology was a “national asset,” recommended that cryptology be taken from control of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and resubordinated to the Secretary of Defense. The Secretary was made the Executive Agent for SIGINT for the government. Truman established NSA with nothing more than a signature in November 1952.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, concerned about Soviet strategic capabilities, cast about for information regarding this threat. Until CIA U-2s began flying in 1956, virtually nothing definite was available about the USSR except from SIGINT. In fact, a panel in 1954 judged that 90 percent of America’s warning information would come from SIGJNT. Under the Eisenhower administration, NSA began expanding and enhancing its capabilities. Worried about timely warning, the president supported development of communications for critical information. In the early 1950s, SIGINT sites began sprouting up in Europe to warn the U.S. and NATO of a possible Soviet attack.

A U-2 flight on October 14, 1962, discovered the presence of Soviet offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba. Although photography provided the early information, all intelligence sources, including SIGINT, were tasked to find more information. NSA’s most effective response was to send a SIGINT collection vessel, the Oxford, to Cuban waters to monitor Cuban and Soviet communications. During the tense moments following President Kennedy’s imposition of a naval quarantine around Cuba, SIGINT provided the first indication that Soviet vessels had stopped in the mid-Atlantic, awaiting further instructions. It was the first clue that the Soviets might not challenge the American forces arrayed around the island. SIGINT also provided indications when the Soviets ended the period of crisis. Although photographic intelligence raised the initial warning, SIGINT provided much of the operational intelligence to President Kennedy and other military and civilian decision-makers during the crisis.

As in America’s previous wars, U.S. SIGINT capabilities supported American troops during combat operations in the field during the Vietnam War — but not without tragic losses. Davis Station, first occupied in 1961, was named for SP4 James T. Davis, who arrived with the first Army Security Agency (ASA) contingent to Vietnam. Davis was on a direction finding (DF) mission when his truck was ambushed by Viet Cong south of Saigon. Ten of the eleven on the truck, including Davis, were killed. Davis was the first American serviceman killed in action during the Vietnam conflict.

Vietnam was not the last war in which cryptology supported American forces. After Desert Storm, the desert campaign to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi aggression, there was appreciation for cryptologic support. The dedicated cryptologists were “unsung heroes.” Although the story of American cryptology has had to remain secret for decades, the ability to protect U.S. official communications and the ability to exploit the communications of enemies or potential enemies helped keep the United States out of war, shortened the time of war when combat was inevitable, and saved tens of thousands of American and Allied lives.

Jay Robert Nash. Spies: A Narrative Encyclopedia of Dirty Tricks and Double Dealing from Biblical Times to Today.. M. Evans and Company, Inc., New York. 1997.


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