Old hands disclose once-secret tales as NSA opens exhibit on Korean War

Early mistakes taught useful lessons, chief says

September 20, 2000|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

For 50 years, former cryptologist Milton Zaslow kept memories of his experiences during the Korean War a secret.

But as part of the National Security Agency's program to declassify records from the war, Zaslow and several agency historians told a spellbound crowd Monday night previously classified stories drawn from newly released records and, in some cases, their own accounts.

"I have been waiting a long, long time to talk about this," Zaslow said, after the unveiling of the new Korean War exhibit in the agency's museum at Fort Meade. Among the interesting revelations were cryptologists' efforts early in the war that helped save soldiers trapped on the Pusan Perimeter in August 1950 - while working with little equipment and the two Korean linguists they could find on staff.

Code-breakers were able to unscramble several intercepted North Korean messages, giving Gen. Walton H. Walker key information about the direction of the attack.

NSA's director, Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, speaking publicly about these aspects of the war for the first time, said the agency - then the Armed Forces Security Agency - was poorly organized and unprepared for war in Korea, largely due to the nation's focus on Russia and China. "There was so much more that could have been done if we had been organized and smart," he said. "It was a real important lesson."

Hayden said the creation in 1952 of the NSA, which replaced the armed forces agency and others, was a direct result of their blunders in the Korean War.

Zaslow was posted in China before North Korea's invasion, where he was assigned to read the thousands of plain text messages sent over commercial telegraph.

Several months before the invasion, Zaslow said, his three-person team began to notice a number of messages that said, "Father died. Come at once," or "Mother ill. Come home."

Zaslow said they figured out that the Chinese army was calling soldiers on leave back to their army units - which enabled Zaslow and his team to track four army divisions' movements and to determine that the army was movM-W ing toward the Korean border.

Some U.S. officials have said that they would not have supported the Korean War had they known of China's pending involvement, which greatly increased the war's intensity and scope. But Zaslow and several agency historians contended last night that most high-ranking officials did know, including supreme commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur, based largely on intelligence reports from as early as May.

"MacArthur knew," Zaslow said. "But he said, 'Well, maybe they're not coming anyway, so maybe we can win the war.'"

The museum exhibit includes copies of the declassified reports and photos from agency archives. Part of the display is devoted to the work of fighter pilots who used intelligence information to locate bombing targets.

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