Tag Archives: FBI

‘The Woman Who Smashed Codes’ taught her biographer cryptology after her death

Journalist Jason Fagon, when he set out to write a biography of the extraordinary Elizebeth Friedman, America’s chief codebreaker during World War II, had an obstacle to overcome that most biographers don’t face: He had to learn cryptology, the art and science of secret writing.

Fortunately, Fagon had a good teacher: Elizebeth Friedman herself.

Friedman had been dead for more than two decades when Fagon began his research — she died in 1980 — but she had left much of her work in papers given to the George C. Marshall Research Library in Lexington, Virginia.

Fagon started by reading about cryptology and trying to get an idea of how it happened. He admitted in an interview with Fortune magazine that he didn’t feel he had gotten very far.

But then this lucky thing happened, and I discovered a codebreaking manual written by Elizebeth herself, left behind in her personal archive. It’s an unpublished manuscript of a book she wrote for young adults, explaining how to break common types of codes and ciphers with a pencil and paper, in this very clear and encouraging and witty style. The spirit of the book is like: You can do it! Jump in! Have fun! It’s a game! Don’t be afraid! And it was perfect for me, as an amateur. That’s how I learned the basics of cryptanalysis, by reading Elizebeth’s own book and stepping through some of the example problems that she laid out. Elizebeth Smith Friedman: ‘The Woman Who Smashed Codes’

Besides his willingness to dig into cryptology, Fagon had another advantage as a biographer: he had a spectacular and important subject that few people knew anything about. Friedman’s life defies a short description.

She stumbled into cryptology after being asked by an eccentric millionaire to help prove that Sir Francis Bacon had written the plays of William Shakespeare. (He didn’t, according to a book she and her husband wrote many years later.) This job led her to her working for the government during Prohibition, breaking codes of smugglers and testifying against them in court.

When World War II broke out for America in 1941, she became America’s chief cryptanalyst, breaking Nazi and Japanese codes and helping the FBI track down Nazi spies throughout North and South America. Because her work was often classified and because she was a woman, and a modest one at that,  FBI director J. Edgar Hoover never gave her the credit she deserved for her work.

Fagon’s book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, published in 2017, has helped to correct that injustice. The book has become a best-seller and was named as a National Public Radio Best Book of the Year. Stuart Smith’s biography, A Life in Code: Pioneer Cryptanalyst Elizebeth Smith Friedman, is available at WorldCat at this link.


RecentReads: Subversives: A sad, enraging tale

Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power is a sad, depressing and ultimately enraging story.

First, many thanks to Rosenfeld and the attorneys who worked with him to bring us this information. It took more than 30 years and repeated suits against the Federal Bureau of Investigation to pry this information out of the bureau. They stuck with it and got the story — at least, a good part of it.

The story here is that J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan betrayed the nation. They weren’t agents of a foreign power. Instead, they became what they said they were fighting — subversives. They (and many others with them) actively undermined the laws and values of America to advance their own political agendas and to gain and maintain their political power.

In the 40 years since Hoover’s death, much has been revealed about how he used his considerable power and the resources of the FBI to spy on American citizens, conduct “black-bag jobs,” such as illegal break-ins and wiretaps, and spread false information — all to discredit people he perceived to be “enemies.” Hoover’s administration of the FBI has been thoroughly discredited.

What this book reveals is how much Ronald Reagan cooperated with the FBI from the time in the 1950s when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild to when he became governor and declared war on the Free Speech Movement at the University of California in Berkeley. Reagan was so obsessed with the idea of a “Communist conspiracy” that was subverting American life he became a first class snitch for the FBI, willing to inform on them at any time and for any reason (including the fact that they disagreed with him about Guild policies.

The Free Speech Movement, with its fuzzy-headed appearance, goals and excesses, was made to order for someone with the attitudes and ethics of Reagan, and Hoover rarely hesitated to help him out.

It is little wonder that the FBI so vigorously resisted — and continues to resist — revealing this information. The “subversives” of the title refers not to people like Mario Savio, leader of the Movement, or Clark Kerr, chancellor of the University (and a favorite target of both Reagan and Hoover). Rather, the true subversives are the people were our leaders.

I have two quibbles about this book, both having to do with photography. First, the jacket design is terrible – both confusing and somewhat misleading. Second, there are not enough pictures in the book, and those that are included are of terrible quality. The publisher owed this book and its fine author more attention.