Exploring the NSA through world expert on cryptology

Famed spy historian-author David Kahn donates his collection to the NSA's National Cryptologic Museum

  • Some of the boxes still not catalogued are filled with folders of papers.
Some of the boxes still not catalogued are filled with folders… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
November 14, 2010|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

As recently as the late 1960s, the very existence of the National Security Agency — the Fort Meade-based defense organization that gathers intelligence from foreign countries — was such a closely held secret that insiders jokingly called the place "No Such Agency."

So when a New York newspaper reporter named David Kahn stood ready to illuminate it in a big new book in 1967, the government was less than pleased.

"According to my editor [at Macmillan Publishers], the NSA director flew up to New York to say it would be dangerous to national security, and unpatriotic, to publish it," says Kahn of his book "The Codebreakers," the 1,200-page blockbuster that would establish him as the world's leading expert on the history of cryptology, the art and science of making and breaking codes.

Kahn, now 80, has only expanded on that reputation, and he hasn't slowed down much, let alone retired. But he has decided to downsize, and when it came time to decide where to leave the research materials he has amassed over the years, he chose the agency he once hauled into the light.

Last month, the NSA announced it had added the David Kahn Collection — complete with more than 130,000 pages of original interview notes and 28,000 books — to the library of its public anteroom, the National Cryptologic Museum. The gift nearly doubles its capacity as a research site.

"For those who care about cryptology — what it is, how it works, where it fits into world history and culture — at some point, [they'd] want to look at the Kahn collection," says curator Patrick Weadon, who took part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony in October. "It's an eclectic cornucopia of all things cryptological."

To Kahn, his decision was no more ironic than the nature of his work. It's odd, if you think about it, spending a career spotlighting the work of professionals to whom secrets matter more than anything — odder still if you can gain their respect along the way. But then, Kahn has always been a little bit different.

Strange birds

It isn't everyone who can pinpoint the moment his or her life took its future shape. Kahn can. It happened when he was 13, strolling past the public library in his hometown of Great Neck, N.Y.

A book lay in a display case, and the title caught his eye. " 'Secret and Urgent!' Did that draw me in!" he says in a phone interview from Great Neck, where he still lives.

Kahn devoured the breezy work (its subtitle: "The Story of Codes and Ciphers"), his mind reeling at how the author, a man named Fletcher Pratt, laid out some of the classic processes for breaking ciphers.

He loved the subject — he joined the American Cryptogram Association, even wrote letters to the so-called father of American cryptology, an Army pioneer named William H. Friedman — but never guessed it could be big enough to give rise to a career. "I'm lucky," he says. "I never had to grow up."

His love became requited in 1960, when Kahn was a reporter for Newsday, the Long Island-based daily, and a sensational story broke. Two young codebreakers for the then-ultra-secret National Security Agency, William Hamilton Martin and Bernon Mitchell, decided they opposed U.S. spying policies and defected to the Soviet Union.

Kahn contacted editors of the New York Times Magazine to propose a "backgrounder" — a freelance piece that would shed light on the event, including a longer look at the NSA. The article ran in 1961, and three publishers contacted him with offers of a book contract.

Kahn wrote 160 pages, he says, before he realized he hadn't finished his first chapter. He spent much of the next six years compiling a history of codes and codebreaking that reached as far back as the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, incorporated the American Civil War, and used exhaustive interviews with analysts to illuminate the world of spying from both sides of World War II and the Cold War.

His notes from that book alone might have made a contribution to history. It was the first time anyone had attempted such a comprehensive look at a topic that had seemed shadowy and hard to follow.

"David made the critically important subjects of cryptography and cryptanalysis [code-making and code-breaking, respectively] understandable, interesting and even compelling," William Crowell, a former deputy director of NSA, told Newsday in 2004. "Before he came along, the best you could do was buy an explanatory book that usually was too technical and terribly dull."

"The Codebreakers" became an international best-seller, was considered for a Pulitzer Prize and was translated into others languages, including Arabic to Serbo-Croatian. It also landed Kahn on "The Tonight Show," where his jocular appearance helped catapult his subject into the mainstream.

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