Code Warriors: NSA's Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union

Image of Code Warriors: NSA's Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union
Release Date: 
June 13, 2016
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Code Warriors is an informative, well balanced, and eye-opening history of the NSA.”

Code Warriors is an Informative, well balanced, and eye-opening history of the NSA enjoyable for non-specialists and crypto-experts alike.

The timeline of Code Warriors spans the 1940s through the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. The prologue begins in 1949 with the British disembarking Latvian nationals, former Nazi collaborationists, who are now spies for the West behind Russian lines in the Baltic territories—deposited by way of former Nazi E-boats piloted by former Nazi West German naval officers. With the British success, the CIA gets into the game by use of unmarked C-47 cargo planes piloted by Czechs, dropping spies by parachute into the Ukraine. Only thin information is ever returned.

Not until 1951 do the spies’ handlers realize their operation was blown—blown from the start. Though not until 1956 was the operation was turned off. Of the 100 agents sent by e-boat and the 150 agents delivered by parachute, all were killed or turned; a failure rate of 100%.

Not an auspicious start to the Cold War. Yet America’s spying on the Soviet Union actually began years earlier. Access to Soviet coded traffic started in 1943 before the creation of the NSA, after Russia became an ally in WWII. During WWII code breaking was called “Signals Intelligence” and handled by the U.S. Army and the Navy. The Army Signals Intelligence Service (SIS) branch was housed at Arlington Hall in Virginia, where 100 copies of Turing’s “bombe” were built to break German Naval codes.

The difficulty in breaking Soviet codes was due to the Soviets using “one-time pads,” a code considered unbreakable when the key (the “pad”) is the length of the message and used only one time. One-time pads aren’t actual “pads” but at that time were paper tapes fed into Teletype machines onto which operators typed clear-text messages. Due to poor “operator discipline” (i.e. not following the rules) Soviet pads were sometimes used more than once, allowing an “in” toward code breaking.

The end of the war saw a rush to capture German code breakers to see what they’d learned about Russian codes. A team of U.S. cryptologists was sent to Germany at war’s end similar to the Monument Men. The TICOM team (Target Intelligence Committee) met with success, recovering in one cache four tons of documents in 29 waterproof containers from the bottom of a lake—the complete archives of the German high command’s cipher bureau. In another cache, TICOM retrieved Soviet one-time pads from the Finns who were fighting the Russians in 1941.

The end of the war also saw the U.S. transition from wartime to peacetime spying. There was both a need to rebuild staff, as mathematician/soldiers were eager to leave the military, and a need to put the spying on a legal basis, something not necessary during wartime.

Despite the slowdown on the American side, spying did continue. In September 1945, three days after the end of WWII, Soviet code clerk Igor Gouzenko defected in Canada, providing the revelation that the Soviets had penetrated the U.S. atomic bomb program. Gouzenko implicated a dozen Canadian scientists and provided information helpful to breaking Soviet codes, an “in” that led to catching more spies. And though Soviet duplicate one-time pad use ended with the end of the war, U.S. cryptologists were kept busy decoding wartime messages until 1980.

Budiansky explains the big picture revealed the Soviets to be good at spying, counter espionage, and counter surveillance. “The NKGB was playing the long game, for keeps.” He provides historical background for the Cold War, describing the roles of George Kennan, the Marshall plan, Senator McCarthy and FBI loyalty checks, and the creation of the CIA.

Although the Soviets improved their cipher security, and the ability to crack their codes became more difficult, the Soviet Union still transmitted internal civil radio messages in the clear. “For several years, the plan-language effort would . . . be one of the primary sources of information about the Soviet atomic program and one of the few means to monitor warning signs that might indicate mobilization for war.” And because their transmissions were sent in the clear, in 1950 the U.S. was able to process one million messages per month, the NSA’s first plunge into massive data collection.

Signals intelligence through the capture of electronics emissions (ELINT) also assumed greater importance. The author describes “Ferret missions,” signals intelligence surveillance flights to listen in to the Soviet Union’s radio and radar transmitters. Of these flights, thirteen U.S. surveillance planes were shot down leading to the deaths of more than 90 Americans. The shoot downs were kept secret by both sides.

With the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb test in 1949 the Soviet Union became the top priority for U.S. signals intelligence. As North Korea was not on the list of SIS strategic concerns, North Korea’s advance into South Korea was not detected before it began.

The North Koreans’ early military transmissions were initially unencrypted though the U.S. had few Korean translators. Decrypts of later North Korean transmissions revealed the when and where of attacks, allowing the U.S. to prepare defenses and preemptively counter attack.

U.S. radio interception of North Korean communications remained poor throughout the war as the Soviet Union remained the primary target. The U.S. initially thought the North Korean attack was a prelude to a Soviet attack, though the Soviet Union, too, was surprised by the North Korean attack.

After the U.S. retook the Korean peninsula from Inchon and threatens the border of China, Budiansky describes General McArthur as increasingly out-of-touch and out of control. Though McArthur discounted the looming Chinese counterattack, SIS knew different because Chinese radio transmissions were sent in the clear.

North Koreans switched to one-time pads in 1951, but Soviet voice transmissions of ground control in support of Russian fighter pilots operating in North Korea were sent in the clear. Because the U.S. employed a large number of Russian translators the messages were quickly translated, and the superiority of U.S. fighter jets over their Soviet counterparts was due to better intelligence. The fact that U.S. fighter pilots were fighting Soviet fighter pilots over North Korea was kept secret until the late 1970s.

President Truman had little say over the priority of what was decrypted, and as the SIS was a military branch, it unsurprisingly prioritized decrypting Soviet military over Soviet government messages. Lack of control plus bureaucratic infighting (Army vs. Navy) over funding signal intelligence led President Truman to create the NSA in 1952. A “civilian” NSA would be under the president’s direct control.

The spy scandals of the 1950s are covered, including British double agents Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and the atomic secrets spy Klaus Fuchs. The Soviet “Venona” messages decoded in 1950 uncovered the cover names of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, American spies who acquired American atomic bomb secrets for the Russians. Not all the American successes were in catching spies. The U.S. secretly dug a tunnel under Berlin to tap long distance phone lines between East Germany and Moscow. The existence of the tap was soon revealed by a double agent, but the discovery was kept quiet by the Russians because KGB lines didn’t go through the tunnel and the KGB was on unfriendly terms with the Stasi, their East Germany counterparts.

One can’t discuss cryptography without talking about the machines that do encryption and decryption, and Code Warriors provides some of the early history of these machines. On the decryption side, through the 1950s, computers were not powerful enough to crack one-time pads. On the encryption side, Crypto AG, a European crypto company made a deal with the NSA to insert weaknesses into machines that were sold to third-world countries. Budiansky adds a caution, “Anything that made it easier for NSA to read traffic also made it easier for others to do the same, endangering the security of at least some commercial and government communications that the United States and its allies had an interest in protecting.”

From 1947 to 1952, the backlog of Soviet message traffic kept increasing while only 138 messages had been decrypted. By 1957 only 3% of Soviet traffic was exploitable. The Baker panel report prepared for President Eisenhower on the state of signals intelligence in 1958 concluded, “Today, volume of intercept is out of proportion with the value of its content.” It also reported the NSA was falling behind in theoretic work in communication theory, linguistic structure, and higher-order language statistics, and the “NSA was becoming a Frankenstein-like monster.”

The 1960s saw the defection of NSA agents William H. Martin and Bernon F. Mitchell to Russia, and the shoot down of the U2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers. Believing the pilot to be dead and the plane destroyed, President Eisenhower lied about spy plane’s true purpose, claiming the plane was on a weather mission and flew off course. Soviet President Khrushchev, who held a live Powers in jail, canceled a peace conference, a move that set U.S.-Soviet détente back 15 years. Eisenhower later acknowledged his mistake, “I didn’t realize how high a price we were going to pay for that lie. And if I had to do it over again, we would have kept our mouths shut.”

The 1960s saw the first spy U.S. satellites; however, they were limited in capability. The U.S. detected Soviet missiles sites being built in Cuba from photographs by U2 overflights, not from Soviet decrypts. Budiansky notes that the inability of the U.S. to decrypt any high-level Soviet cryptographic systems “marked the most significant failure of SIGINT to warn national leaders since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.”

As for the NSA in the Vietnam War, by 1962 the NSA was able to break North Vietnam’s medium-level but not their high-level codes. Spying goes both ways. The U.S. Air Force used unencrypted voice communications—against NSA recommendations, and U.S. intelligence determined that North Vietnam knew about U.S. bombing missions before U.S. planes left their bases. When B52 bombers left their base on Guam, North Vietnam had as many as eight hours warning

President Johnson thought the Vietnam War would be over quickly, so there was no need to inform the American public. Budiansky recounts the details of the Gulf of Tonkin incident used by the President as pretense in 1964 for the escalation of the war. The NSA report on the Tonkin Incident was altered to support the administration’s findings. Budiansky writes, “Although there was never any evidence of direct orders from the White House to NSA to supply the confirmation it was looking for, there was no need.” In 2003 the NSA delayed declassifying and releasing the original unaltered report because “the agency was in too deep to admit it had been wrong . . . fearful that it might prompt uncomfortable comparisons with the flawed intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq.”

The NSA later suppressed its reports of North Vietnamese and Vietcong troop movements prior to their surprise attacks in January 1968—the Tet Offensive and the Siege of Khe Sanh. Budiansky surmises, “It was probably not so much a case of the NSA skewing findings to tell the commanders what they wanted to hear as a matter of focus on what they knew they were most interested in . . . But the effect was the same.”

Though Khe Sanh was a diversion for the Tet Offensive, and the Tet Offensive failed quickly, it took 76 days and a force of 20,000 allied troops to relieve the Americans at Khe Sanh. Because of these attacks, President Johnson decided not to run for reelection.

The year 1968 also saw the Pueblo incident where a slow moving American intelligence-gathering ship was captured by North Korea. The American crew was unable to destroy all the secret material on the ship. The captured documents revealed, according to NSA’s own report, “the full extent of the U.S. SIGINT information on North Korean armed forces’ communications activities and U.S. successes in the techniques of collection, analysis, exploitation and reporting . . .”

Arthur D. Little, a consultant group hired in the late 1970s to review the NSA’s management practices, reported that the NSA’s management was seriously dysfunctional, calling NSA’s management “paranoid, untrustworthy, and uncooperative.” Though the CIA was nominally in charge of the NSA, another 1970s internal memo shows the NSA answerable to no one but the president.

The NSA was almost directed by President Nixon to spy on his enemies, but the “Huston Plan” was stopped by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover who thought spying on Americans should only be done by the FBI. Public knowledge of the Huston Plan came out of the Watergate hearings though luckily the “NSA had largely succeeded in keeping its fingerprints off the Nixon White House’s more serious illegal operations.”

The NSA’s luck in avoiding scandal ran out in 1975, when the NSA agreed to give a full account of its illegal operations, including its long-running (started during WWII) arrangement with cable companies to copy every international telegram. The project, code-named Shamrock, directly tapped the cables, teleprinters, and other communications devices of 60 to 70 foreign embassies. Another illegal program, project Minaret, starting in 1962, kept a watch list of 1600 American citizens, including Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., boxer Muhammad Ali, historian of cryptography David Kahn, and humorist Art Buchwald.

A breakthrough in Soviet ciphers came about in 1979 that is still classified. With this breakthrough signals intelligence detected advance warning of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The breakthrough was given up to the Soviets by former NSA agent Ronald Pelton who was caught in 1986 and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. Pelton was released from jail last year.

The concluding chapter of Code Warriors sums up NSA’s Cold War efforts. Budiansky expresses his concerns over the ends justifying the means. “In the 1950s 75 percent of Americans said they trusted their government to do the right thing just about always or most of the time. The Cold War’s greatest casualty would be the Americans’ faith in their own government, which fell to 25 percent by the 1980s—in no small part because of the Machiavellian compromise with the truth that had been made part of the covert war against the Soviet Union.” The “ends” was NSA’s “ability to offer the minute-by-minute assurance that no Soviet tank regiment or warship could move and no nuclear-armed bomber or missile could take off without the President knowing about it.”

Code Warriors is an Informative, well balanced, and eye-opening history of the NSA. Author Stephen Budiansky writes in an exciting and forthright manner.