Code-breaking -- an ungentlemanly art

March 21, 2004|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Sun Staff

The Reader of Gentlemen's Mail: Herbert O. Yardley and the Birth of American Codebreaking, by David Kahn. Yale University Press. 368 pages. $32.50.

When a former British cabinet minister revealed in February that U.S. and British spies had tapped United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan's telephone, the flap that followed revealed the paradox at the heart of such eavesdropping.

In principle, everybody disapproves of it. The United States, like other Western powers, professes high regard for the sanctity of diplomatic communications and has signed international conventions guaranteeing it. In practice, everybody does it. American spies, like those of every country that can afford it, routinely intercept foreign officials' phone calls, faxes and e-mails. What else did anyone imagine the 20,000-plus eavesdroppers off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway at the National Security Agency were doing with our tax dollars?

This contradiction dates to the career of one of the most colorful figures in intelligence history, Herbert O. Yardley. Breaker of codes, international espionage consultant, writer of potboilers and world-class womanizer and poker strategist, Yardley is an iconic name inside the spy world. Now his story is brought to a larger audience in this lively, judicious biography by David Kahn.

Born in Indiana in 1889, 1st Lt. Yardley landed in Washington just as the first World War prompted the Army to create a modest enterprise to snatch and read foreign communications. MI-8 -- section 8 of military intelligence -- initially was squeezed onto a library balcony at the War College.

"It had barely enough space for Yardley and a clerk or two," writes Kahn. "No walls or partitions set it apart. The floor was a grating. This was the cradle of American cryptology. Rocking it was its father, Herbert Yardley."

As able an organizer as he was a code breaker, Yardley quickly built this new branch of spying into a valuable enterprise that outlasted the war, achieving particular success against Japanese codes. When he and his crew of linguists and puzzle addicts got stuck, they would have U.S. officials ask Japanese diplomats about some distinctive name, knowing the query would be cabled on to Tokyo. Then the code breakers would grab the cable and use the planted name as a clue to the code.

But in 1929, when a New York lawyer named Henry L. Stimson became Herbert Hoover's secretary of state, he was appalled to learn what Yardley's operation was up to -- swiping foreign code books, bribing cable clerks, prying into foreign secrets. He ordered the agency closed, famously declaring: "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail."

Yardley took revenge in 1931 by publishing a tell-all memoir called The American Black Chamber. An international bestseller, Yardley's somewhat exaggerated account of his work introduced the public to the dark arts of the spy trade and permanently alienated him from the U.S. government. To survive, Yardley tried to cash in on his spying experiences by turning them into fiction and film and later by peddling his expertise to China and Canada.

Kahn, author of the monumental history The Codebreakers, has meticulously researched the story and tells it with powder-dry wit, never absolving Yardley from his often sleazy conduct, nor missing his charm and importance. By World War II, U.S. code breakers would shrug off Stimson's qualms and play a crucial role in defeating Germany and Japan, in part because of Yardley's legacy.

Scott Shane, a reporter for The Sun for 20 years, served as Moscow correspondent and wrote Dismantling Utopia, an account of the Soviet collapse. He was co-author of a 1995 series of articles on the National Security Agency and often writes about intelligence.

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