- - Monday, December 11, 2017


By Jason Fagone

Dey St. Books, $27.99, 464 pages

Of all the nonbattle technical accomplishments of World War II, perhaps the most important was the ability of the Allies to break coded messages of enemies and put the results to deadly use.

Foremost among those who solved the mysteries of foreign code was a remarkable American couple, Elizebeth and William Friedman. Elizebeth’s story is told in highly readable prose by Jason Fagone, who makes the complicated subject of codes comprehensible (more or less) to an ignorant layman.

Their shared lives began when they met (and soon married) on the estate of a wealthy — and eccentric — Chicago industrialist who was smitten with the notion that coded messages were embedded in Shakespeare’s plays.

America’s entrance into World War I put an end to such nonsense. As Elizebeth put it, she and William were among the “three or at most four persons” in the United States who knew the slightest thing about codes and ciphers. They joined a new code-breaking unit of the War Department.

The advent of radio-transmitted messages, rather than hand-carried communiques, opened a new field of espionage. But intercepted messages were a “raw block of babble,” which piled code atop code. One key to success was finding a pattern in the frequency of letters and making sense of seeming gibberish. Steps thereafter defy summarization.

One early success by Elizebeth involved messages the British intercepted but could not read. She did the job: The traffic was from Hindus living in New York who used German funds to send weapons to colleagues in India fighting British rule. Plot foiled.

At war’s end, William stayed with the military. Elizebeth took a two-baby break before joining the Treasury Department in 1925, tasked with intercepting radio traffic of Prohibition rum-runners.

Elizebeth dealt with up to 2,000 messages per month, and she frequently testified in court. She began with one clerk; eventually she gained the title of cryptanalyst-in-charge, U.S. Coast Guard.

World War II brought even more complex challenges — pushing William to the mental breaking point. Although their marriage was sound and loving (as revealed through their letters) professional strains took their toll. The emphasis on secrecy was such that they did not discuss their work, even in the privacy of bed.

One early rule was the need to keep secret that enemy codes were being broken. As William put it, a spy who unwittingly continues to use a broken code is “the goose that lays the golden egg. If you want to keep gathering the eggs, you must not frighten the goose.”

The main coding system used by Nazi German was known as Enigma. Luckily, the Allies managed to solve the basic workings of the device early on. But new varieties constantly appeared.

How complex was Enigma? Mr. Fagone writes that depending on the model, the possible combinations ranged into the trillions. Each key was capable of producing a unique set of 16,900 alphabets.

Perhaps Elizebeth’s most important wartime coup was foiling a plot by pro-Nazi politicians in a grouping of six South American countries, all with sizable German populations, to change sides.

The FBI had primary responsibility for intelligence in South America. Its agents got wind of the plot and arrested a ring leader in Brazil. The ensuing publicity caused the Nazi ring to shift to other countries, touching off a multination row over what was considered an FBI blunder. But Elizebeth persisted and the ring was smashed. (To her chagrin, the FBI took credit for her work.)

William, meanwhile, worked to protect U.S. codes from enemy eyes. His solution was a machine known as M-134, for which he obtained a patent. An advanced model, SIGABA, with multiple rotors, proved “inviolate,” and it became the “American Enigma.” But with one important difference: Enemies never broke into its messages.

The Army and Navy distributed 10,060 SIGABA machines worldwide. As William wrote, SIGABA “contributed materially to the successful outcome of the war.”

Postwar, the couple was instrumental in founding the National Security Agency, although Elizebeth’s role was seldom mentioned. Not until after her death was her name added to an auditorium that had been dedicated in honor of William.

Just what she did at NSA remains classified, but her earlier work gives her high marks at a pioneer in one of the most vital tools of modern intelligence.

Given that William was the subject of a 1976 biography, Mr. Fagone’s focus is on Elizebeth, whose papers, along with those of her husband, are at the George C. Marshall library at Virginia Military Institute. VMI professor Rose Mary Sheldon spent pro bono years organizing the massive collection, making the book possible.

A complicated read, to be sure, but a worthwhile one.

Joseph Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military affairs.

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