American Thriller


I chuckled at the naiveté of Edward Snowden. It was while I was watching a documentary on Amazon Prime Video titled Breaking The Codes, I came across this title. It’s The American Black Chamber, and it’s by Herbert O. Yardley, widely considered the father of modern American cryptology. I have the Kindle edition.

Yardley’s history is startling, if not unique. He began work as telegraph operator at the Department of State at the age of 24 in 1913, and three years later he submitted a proposal that would shake world affairs and set him on an amazing career that was to last only 13 more years. It came about this way.

His job involved processing highly sensitive messages between the United States government and its agents abroad. It was a new era. Radio telegraphy had come into universal use, and sensitive material was being thrown into the atmosphere for everybody to read. Codes and ciphers were a must to maintain security. The casual atmosphere of the Department code room alarmed Yardley, and he formulated a plan for a special office that would bring the best of intellect and technology to bear. His proposal, which was accepted, was a department that deciphered military and diplomatic transmissions from foreign countries. Thus was formed the American Black Chamber, named after a comparable British institution. Yardley was inducted into the Army as an officer and was put in charge. Funding was mostly from the Department of State, but there was also Justice Department and War Department funding, a factor that was subsequently to prove problematic. For reasons of discretion, the facility was moved to New York City, completely severed from public association with the United States government. Plausible deniability was the aim.

It was not just radio transmissions that were handled by the Black Chamber. The government had no compunction regarding pilfering cable correspondence from foreign sources. The Black Chamber also acquired outstanding capability in the processing of secret writing, including techniques for opening sealed dispatches that had been pilfered secretly. They developed the fine art of forging post marks and diplomatic seals. Spies were also employed:

“I’ve got a job for you, Captain. I____”

“What for?”

“I’m not going to tell you what for. I want a Washington society girl who—”

“I don’t deal in society girls.”

“You ought to. This girl must speak Spanish like a native. She must have not only culture and charm, but also brains. She must be a conversationalist. She must have as her background the nationalistic traditions of the Navy, or the Army, or the diplomatic corps. Her age must be close to thirty. All these requirements she absolutely must have. As for beauty— I’ll let you be the judge. But I want to see her here to-morrow afternoon.”

He hesitated a moment before replying. Then, “If you would tell me what it is all about it would help.”

“I can’t tell you.”

“All right. I’ll go see Mrs. Blakeslee.* She rules the society roster in Washington. I’ll give you a buzz when your lady friend shows up.”

Yardley, Herbert O.. The American Black Chamber (Bluejacket Books) (Kindle Locations 2181-2191). Naval Institute Press. Kindle Edition.

The lady was, indeed, striking, and she cozied up to the right people and the following day delivered the name of the Spanish diplomatic secretary in charge of their code books. That is all that was required. No hanky-panky. She got friendly with one of the staff at the Spanish embassy, and eventually the name dropped out. It was Gomez.

1916 was a touchy year in American politics. Europeans had been killing each other in a World War for two years, and the United States was finding it difficult to stay out. Telegraphy between the American and European continents had been first established in 1866, and 50 years later communication was routine and reliable. The problem was that cable traffic between the United States and England was not secure. A German submarine could lay out a length of cable adjacent to the telegraph cable and pick up the dots and dashes. Conversely, one of the first things England did at the start of the war was to sever all German trans-Atlantic links, which of necessity passed through the British Isles. The Brits were not then, and perhaps not now, so keen on the 4th Amendment. In fact, they possibly never had one. Cable companies were required to copy the government on all pertinent communications.

A distressing observation of Yardley’s was that none of the Allies, neither the British nor the French were willing to give an inch in sharing their methods. He traveled to England and France during the War and received the cold shoulder from intelligence agencies in both countries. In France he did hook up with Captain Georges Painvin and immediately recognized him as the foremost cryptanalyst of the day.

Tragically, Yardley observed that, while the Black Chamber was demonstrating its ability to crack every code and cipher that came its way from foreign sources, American cryptologists made no use of the obvious. Yardley’s team was able to crack all the American codes without benefit of inside knowledge. That meant the Germans, no slouch in the field, were reading all American battle plans sent over the air. For the duration of the Black Chamber, American codes and ciphers never approached any measure of security.

A famous code breaking case of the time, and one that had historical implications, was one that never came the way of the Black Chamber. This was the famous Zimmerman cable message. At the time, Mexico was still smarting from General Pershing’s punitive raid into Mexican territory, and General Carranza, the President of Mexico decided to throw in his lot with the Germans:

The reader will recall the sensational Zimmermann-Carranza note which the President read before Congress just before we entered the war, the note in which Zimmermann, German Minister for Foreign Affairs, promised Mexico financial aid and the states of New Mexico, Texas and Arizona if she declared war against the United States. This telegram was deciphered by the British Cryptographic Bureau early in 1917, just before we entered the war.

Yardley, Herbert O.. The American Black Chamber (Bluejacket Books) (Kindle Locations 1606-1609). Naval Institute Press. Kindle Edition.

Throughout the War the Black Chamber was heavily invested in deciphering German-Mexican communications.

Yardley employed 165 people in the Black Chamber at the height of its existence, all funded, salaries, rents, equipment, expenses, in secret. It paid for itself in one magnificent effort up to and during the First Armament Conference of 1921 – 1922. The United States was determined to challenge Japanese naval strength in the Pacific, holding Japan to six tons of warship to every American ten. The Americans needed to crack the Japanese codes to gain what bargaining advantage was possible. To this end Yardley had to obtain a loyal American, fluent in both verbal and written Japanese, the two being widely divergent. American missionaries were reluctant, because they rightly figured the first missionary cooperating with the American government would be the last to be allowed into the country. A retired fellow, very agreeable and a pleasure to work with, volunteered. He was assigned the job of teaching the Japanese language to one Charles Mundy in two years. After six months, the elderly missionary chanced to translate a message implying grave consequences, and his conscience would not allow him to continue in the spy business. Fortunately, Yardley had chosen well in Mundy, for that chap had mastered Japanese in those six months and subsequently proved to be a linguistic magician. The cracking of the Japanese codes proceeded:

I shall not of course attempt to give all the details of the decipherment of the Japanese codes, for these would be of interest only to the cryptographer, but when I tell the reader that the Black Chamber sent to Washington, during the Washington Armament Conference held two years later, some five thousand deciphered Japanese messages which contained the secret instructions of the Japanese Delegates, I am sure he will wish to know how it was possible for the Black Chamber to take such an important part in the making of history. Let the reader therefore, for the moment at least, put aside his natural desire to listen to the whisperings of foreign diplomats as they lean closer together to reveal their secrets, and I shall try to tell a few of the tremendous discouragements that I had to overcome in the decipherment of this code, written in the most difficult of all languages, Japanese.

Yardley, Herbert O.. The American Black Chamber (Bluejacket Books) (Kindle Locations 3103-3109). Naval Institute Press. Kindle Edition.

The consequence of this success was the Americans learned the Japanese were in collusion with America’s allies, France and England, who were willing to be soft on Japanese naval parity. The Americans also learned the Japanese negotiator in Washington was told to give in to the 6:10 parity if bluffing failed against the Americans. America prevailed in this first armament conference, and the Japanese felt stymied. Later, when the cracking of their codes became public, Japanese pride was challenged, and the Empire redoubled its aggressive stance. This latter occurred after the closure of the Black Chamber in 1939 and is not included in the book.

Not all intrigues were completely foreign:

“Now, Yardley, I have a most unusual story to tell you. Yesterday morning, a few moments after this message arrived, the Secretary took it over to show it to the President. The President glanced at your decipherment, then, handing it back to the Secretary, said, ‘Yes, the Attorney-General showed that to me a few moments ago. He just left.’”

He paused and eyed me furtively. He waited for some comment. I made none, for I knew now what was coming.

At last he said very slowly and deliberately: “Now, tell me if you can, how did the Attorney-General get a copy of this message?” He said this as if he were exploding a bomb.

Some one, perhaps the Secretary, had tramped on his toes, for he was very angry by now.

“That’s easily explained,” I answered, “though you may not yourself appreciate the explanation. You see, during the war the department that I organized was the central Code and Cipher and Secret-Ink Bureau for the War, Navy, State and Justice Departments. At that time the Department of Justice had on their pay-roll an agent who had dabbled in ciphers. The Department of Justice contributed his services when we asked for him. He became expert. So after the war, when we moved to New York and organized as a civilian bureau on secret pay-roll, though we severed relations with the Navy Department, we took him with us. But he remained on the Justice Department pay-roll. Your predecessor knew of this and concurred. Am I clear?”

“Yes. Go on.”

“Now, he must have an excuse for being on their pay-roll. So now and then I permit him to send to the Attorney-General a message that____”

“But of all messages, why this one?” he demanded.

“Well,” I said, “in the first place I happened to turn this particular message over to him for decipherment. In the second place this looked to me like a Justice Department case.”

“A Justice Department case!” he exclaimed. “The activity of an Ambassador is never a Department of Justice case.”

Yardley, Herbert O.. The American Black Chamber (Bluejacket Books) (Kindle Locations 4371-4390). Naval Institute Press. Kindle Edition.

What went on in Washington 90 years ago is pretty much what goes on in Washington today.

Toward the end of the Black Chamber, Yardley was called down to Washington and allowed to give a frank appraisal of American codes and ciphers. The news was grim. When presented with evidence of a weakness, the cryptologists’ response was simply to fix the weakness and not scratch around for additional weaknesses, of which there always were many. We can only assume the Nazis and the Japanese read American transmissions well into the commencement of hostilities.

The Black Chamber came to an abrupt end with a change in administration:

In 1929, the State Department withdrew its share of the funding, the Army declined to bear the entire load, and the Black Chamber closed down. New Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson made this decision, and years later in his memoirs made the oft-quoted comment: “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” Stimson’s ethical reservations about cryptanalysis focused on the targeting of diplomats from America’s close allies, not on spying in general. Once he became Secretary of War during World War II, he and the entire US command structure relied heavily on decrypted enemy communications.

Cracking secret messages was grueling, and it took its toll on Yardley and others. Yardley describes the agony of pulling the innards out of the Japanese code:

The reader must not get the impression that I had given up all hope of deciphering the Japanese codes without aid. I had not. Nor were any of my plans fulfilled, for as we shall soon see I had no need of them. But I was preparing myself for failure. I might need assistance.

By now I had worked so long with these code telegrams that every telegram, every line, even every code word was indelibly printed in my brain. I could lie awake in bed and in the darkness make my investigations— trial and error, trial and error, over and over again.

Finally one night I wakened at midnight, for I had retired early, and out of the darkness came the conviction that a certain series of two-letter code words absolutely must equal Airurando (Ireland). Then other words danced before me in rapid succession: dokuritsu (independence), Doitsu (Germany), owari (stop). At last the great discovery! My heart stood still, and I dared not move. Was I dreaming? Was I awake? Was I losing my mind? A solution? At last— and after all these months!

I slipped out of bed and in my eagerness, for I knew I was awake now, I almost fell down the stairs. With trembling fingers I spun the dial and opened the safe. I grabbed my file of papers and rapidly began to make notes.

Yardley, Herbert O.. The American Black Chamber (Bluejacket Books) (Kindle Locations 3287-3297). Naval Institute Press. Kindle Edition.

After weeks of intense effort Yardley had unfolded the origami:


The impossible had been accomplished! I felt a terrible mental let-down. I was very tired.

I finally placed my papers in the safe, locked it and leaned back in my chair, checking up my blunders, and at the same time wondering what this would mean to the United States Government. What secrets did these messages hold? Churchill would want to know of my accomplishment. Should I telephone him at this hour? No, I would wait and dictate a letter.

I was unbelievably tired, and wearily climbed the stairs. My wife was awake.

“What’s the matter?” she asked.

“I’ve done it,” I replied.

“I knew you would.”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“You look dead.”

“I am. Get on your rags. Let’s go get drunk. We haven’t been out of this prison in months.”

Yardley, Herbert O.. The American Black Chamber (Bluejacket Books) (Kindle Locations 3316-3325). Naval Institute Press. Kindle Edition.

Yardley was nearly broken by the effort. He had to take a month off in Arizona for his health. Others were equally spent or more so. Some never recovered. Many put survival at a premium and quit the service.

The Black Chamber was dismantled almost overnight. Two years later Yardley wrote this book, a periscope into some of the darkest workings of the United States government. Snowden would have been distressed. Howls of protest rattled the Internet three years ago when it was revealed, after nearly 100 years, that our government read other countries’ mail. As mentioned, I was but amused. I wondered in what world these people had grown up. That tale is told elsewhere.

A game I play when reviewing Kindle books is picking out transcription errors. Obviously this book came out 40 years before the advent of computerized word processing. Missteps between hard and soft copy typically come from OCR failures. Here are some odd constructions I picked out:

but he was visibly anxious arid asked me repeatedly when I was leaving Paris.

Yardley, Herbert O.. The American Black Chamber (Bluejacket Books) (Kindle Location 2825). Naval Institute Press. Kindle Edition.

after my cable, thif new code was in my hands.

Yardley, Herbert O.. The American Black Chamber (Bluejacket Books) (Kindle Location 2887). Naval Institute Press. Kindle Edition.

This edition, as with many Kindle editions, lacks page numbers. This is particularly troubling when the text references a page number, such as here:

The illustration facing page 313 also shows a thoroughly mixed code in use by the British Foreign Office during the Washington Armament Conference.

Yardley, Herbert O.. The American Black Chamber (Bluejacket Books) (Kindle Locations 4309-4310). Naval Institute Press. Kindle Edition.

A casual reader will detect Yardley wrote this from a lingering fit of pique. Although he identifies co-workers and superiors of admirable character and capability, many references are to individuals and methods beyond redemption. In any event, he had the last word. He lived until 1980, about which time the Data Encryption Standard was well established, the Diffie-Hellman paper had been published four years previous, and Pretty Good Privacy was eleven years in the future. These days we conduct video conferences incorporating both video and audio being transmitted live with “secure” encryption. America’s entry began with a telegraph operator working in Washington, D.C. 100 years ago.


2 thoughts on “American Thriller

  1. Great read, John. One of your best. I would have commented on the page itself but have been turned off by all the frustrations involved in doing that.


    On Sat, Sep 17, 2016 at 9:57 AM, Skeptical Analysis wrote:

    > John Blanton posted: ” I chuckled at the naiveté of Edward Snowden. It was > while I was watching a documentary on Amazon Prime Video titled Breaking > The Codes, I came across this title. It’s The American Black Chamber, and > it’s by Herbert O. Yardley, widely considered the fa” >

  2. Pingback: Turning Point | Skeptical Analysis

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