Herbert O. Yardley and the Birth of American Codebreaking
April 22, 2005 8:47 AM   Subscribe

The Reader of Gentlemen's Mail In the spring of 1919, when the father of American cryptography, Herbert O. Yardley, drew up a plan for a permanent State Department codebreaking organization — a "black chamber — he estimated that a modest $100,000 a year would buy a chief (Yardley) and fifty clerks and cryptanalysts. Yardley rented a three-story building in New York City: on East 38th Street just off Fifth Avenue, he put two dozen people to work under civilian cover—as the Code Compiling Company. His summary dismissal happened in 1929 at the hand of incoming Secretary of State Henry Stimson, who closed down the Cipher Bureau with the casual observation that "gentlemen do not read each other's mail". The son of a railroad telegrapher, a man with a lively Jazz Age interest in money, good-looking women, and drinks at five, Yardley not only taught his country how to read other people's mail but wrote two of the enduring American books—the memoir The American Black Chamber (1931), and The Education of a Poker Player (1957).
posted by matteo (6 comments total)
In 1999, the father of the $100,000-a-year codebreaking organization was included posthumously in the Hall of Honor of the NSA, an agency whose budget is larger than the CIA's (the sum spent for electricity alone exceeds US$21 million per year).
posted by matteo at 8:54 AM on April 22, 2005

Strangely enough, I often play poker on 38th street, just off 5th ave.
posted by bashos_frog at 10:53 AM on April 22, 2005

well, you may probably gather intelligence as good as the NSA does playing poker there. from the main link:
Has the globe-encircling NSA done better than Yardley's tiny bucket shop on East 38th Street? Have the billions spent on satellite collection systems and computer programs like Echelon delivered value for money? Have they made America safer? Intelligence professionals whisper about seldom-touted successes and ((author)) Patrick Keefe concedes in effect that even a blind hog will find the occasional acorn. But his final judgment is harsh: "Chatter is, as it turns out, a perfect word for the conversations culled from the airwaves: fickle, misleading, most often inconsequential." September 11 was the test. No matter how success is defined by the intelligence world, the Anglophone countries and their listening posts fell short. Comint, Keefe states bluntly, "had its day and failed."

About the failure everyone now agrees. But what was the problem? And what should be done to make us safe? Keefe has no idea. Sounding a little dispirited after his years of research and writing, he urges Americans to think hard about where to draw the line between liberty and security, but it's an odd note on which to conclude. It wasn't respect for the Constitution that kept the NSA from reading the "Tomorrow is zero hour" message until the day after the disaster. It was lack of translators. To meet that kind of problem, the Comint professionals have a default solution: more. Not just more Arab linguists but more of everything—more analysts, more polygraph examiners and security guards, more freedom to listen in on more people, more listening posts, more coverage, more secrecy. Is more what we really need? In my opinion not. Ordinary reporters scooped Yardley in 1921, and ordinary spies—human agents, run by case officers in the field —are most likely to penetrate the heart of terrorist circles now. But running spies is not the NSA's job. Listening is, and more listening is what the NSA knows how to organize, more is what Congress is ready to support and fund, more is what the President wants, and more is what we are going to get.
posted by matteo at 11:06 AM on April 22, 2005

Awesome stuff. Thanks.
posted by yerfatma at 1:34 PM on April 22, 2005

The American Black Chamber is a tremendous read. It's Yardley's first person account of creating and operating the codebreaking organization, and it is absolutely breathtaking. Far from the cerebral procedural you'd expect, it's filled with suspense and intrigue, and while he stops just a little short of a very few revelations there's still a wealth of information that makes you wonder how it ever got published. Certainly no equivalent book could be published today. It exists on the cusp between an old world and a new one, and has some fascinating details on circa-WWI geopolitics that read like something from another century -- which of course they are. It's not limited merely to cryptography but covers the gamut of secret communication as it was evolving in the day. A truly remarkable document, I know of little else to compare it to.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:12 PM on April 22, 2005

I just got his Education of a Poker Player, and at least the first chapter is pretty good stuff.
posted by bashos_frog at 11:26 AM on April 23, 2005

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