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Remembrances of VENONA
National Security Agency ^ | 11 July 1995 | Mr. William P. Crowell

Posted on 05/06/2003 8:39:27 AM PDT by ckilmer

Remembrances of VENONA


National Cryptologic Museum

NSA Home Page

Note: The following are the remarks made by Mr. William P. Crowell, Deputy Director of NSA when the declassification of the VENONA project was announced at CIA Headquarters on 11 July 1995. Mr. Crowell retired from NSA on 12 September 1997.

In the early 1960's, shortly after joining NSA, I was one of a small but fortunate group of agency employees invited to a meeting with Frank Rowlett, one of the eminent NSA cryptologists who had been so successful during World War II. For over an hour Frank told us stories about the successful exploitation of codes and ciphers during the war. He spoke about how those successes had helped U.S. military leaders and the forces under their command win crucial battles and make strategic choices. But, he was very careful to avoid claiming that cryptography had won any battles. That distinction---between providing information that can make a difference---and using information to make a difference is still an important one and certainly applies to the results that were achieved in the successful breaking of the codes and ciphers known as VENONA.

Twelve years later I was assigned as a manager in an NSA division that included the VENONA project. In a very short time I came to appreciate that VENONA was an absolutely fascinating story of the personal determination and dedication of a small group of cryptanalysts. It was, in addition, a brilliantly intellectual cryptanalysis effort. Lastly, VENONA was a model of outstanding interagency cooperation.

I also realized it was a story of considerable historical moment and that someday, when the need and responsibility to protect the sources and methods involved was diminished, it would be made public. That time has now come and today we give the first of the over 2200 VENONA translations to historians to judge. But, as we make this release, I think it is most appropriate that we recognize the extraordinary people who did the work.

The story of the efforts to attack Soviet KGB and GRU traffic began in February 1943 when a young woman, Miss Gene Grabeel, was assigned to organize, characterize, and analyze thousands of encrypted Soviet diplomatic messages. Through nearly a decade following, a number of analysts, by dint of their dogged determination, slowly made headway against a family of extremely sophisticated, double-encrypted cryptographic systems. They painstakingly extracted information, a word or two at a time, from one of the most challenging systems that had ever been exploited.

The first and most significant breakthroughs against the VENONA cryptosystems were made without even the most rudimentary computers or other sophisticated tools which we are accustomed to using today.

While the Soviet traffic that was ultimately read under the VENONA project spanned the years 1942-46, efforts to exploit it continued for decades. This was due to the agonizingly slow and difficult process in which sometimes only one or two words at a time were wrenched grudgingly from the code. Each new recovery came with the elation akin to finding a pearl in an oyster. But each recovery also led to renewed work as each message had to be reviewed to see if that code group was present and, if it was, then the enlarged context was checked and scrutinized to see if it provided clues to other unrecovered code groups. Similarly, as counterintelligence information based on the decrypts was passed to the FBI and the FBI investigated the leads, new information was developed which sometimes enabled new breaks into the code. Then the process would begin all over again.

People continued to work on VENONA so long as the possibility remained that counterintelligence information might be developed that could possibly reveal new agents or espionage activities that might still be active. When it was no longer reasonable to expect that those named in 1942-45 might still be alive or active in an espionage role, then ongoing efforts to continue to break the VENONA cryptosystems was terminated.

From the early days of WWII, Arlington Hall assembled teams of gifted linguists and cryptographers of the highest intellectual caliber to work against the German and Japanese codes and subsequently on the VENONA project. These were linguists like the brilliant and dedicated bookbreaker, Meredith Gardner who came with outstanding credentials in six or seven languages and who made some of the first, really vital breakthroughs against the VENONA systems -- like 1st LT Ferdinand Coudert who came with a BA and an MA from Harvard in Slavic studies, a law degree from Columbia University, and a working knowledge of French, German, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, and Japanese -- and like CAPT William B.S. Smith, a contemporary of Coudert's from Harvard who knew French and Breton and who had been an editor at the prestigious Columbia University Press. It included cryptographers like Genevieve Feinstein, Gene Grabeel, Cecil Phillips, and Dr. Richard Leibler, just to name a few. They and their colleagues brought a fearsome intellectual firepower to bear on various aspects of the VENONA puzzle with astounding, but hard won success.

As I mentioned, VENONA also was characterized by unprecedented interagency cooperation. First and foremost was the cooperation between the intelligence and law enforcement communities. This cooperation began with Wes Reynolds, the FBI liaison to Arlington Hall, and is typified by the close, cooperative efforts of Bob Lamphere who became the FBI's direct link to VENONA. There is no clearer example of synergism in the early days than these cooperative relationships. VENONA also included cooperation with HUMINT collectors and international intelligence partners in prosecuting counterintelligence leads.

A word about the VENONA cryptosystems---they should have been impossible to read. They consisted of a code book in which letters, words, and phrases were equated to numbers. So a code clerk would take a plain text message and encode the message using numbers from the codebook. This would have presented a significant challenge itself depending on how long the code book was used. However, the messages were further modified, in other words double-encrypted, by use of a one time pad. The use of a one time pad effectively randomizes the code and renders it unreadable. The key to the VENONA success was that mistakes were made in the construction and use of the one time pads---a fact that was discovered only through brute force and analysis of the message traffic.

Once sufficient breakthroughs had occurred, it became clear that the Soviet diplomatic traffic was encrypted in several similar systems and that it included KGB and GRU espionage traffic in addition to diplomatic and trade messages. Gradually a picture of a massive Soviet espionage effort began to emerge from the work of the VENONA team.

In deciding to declassify and release the VENONA translations, we gave the utmost consideration to the appropriate protection of individuals' privacy rights. It is not our desire or our responsibility to further interpret the VENONA translations---they will speak for themselves and the historians will help us understand and put them in context. But today, it is also our privilege to recognize the efforts and sacrifices of the VENONA team members publicly for the first time. Seldom do intelligence officers get the chance to talk about successes. The VENONA project is one of the best, and I am proud to have had a small part in telling the story.

TOPICS: Culture/Society; Extended News; Foreign Affairs; Miscellaneous
KEYWORDS: hiss; manhattanproject; mcarthy; mccarthy; nsa; rosenberg; spies; spy; venona
Books on the venona: The Venona Secrets: Exposing Soviet Espionage and America's Traitors

Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America

The really interesting thing that venona shows is that there were a lot more russian communist spies than were actually arrested. In fact, McCarthy's numbers roughly correspond to the number spies that the Venona cables point to. So whether McCarthy knew about the Venona cables or not--he was essentially right.

1 posted on 05/06/2003 8:39:28 AM PDT by ckilmer
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Comment #2 Removed by Moderator

To: ckilmer
Ex-Crypto bump.


knews hound
3 posted on 05/06/2003 8:43:59 AM PDT by knews_hound (Anyone else play Day of Defeat?)
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To: ckilmer
I think it is now well known that J. Edgar Hoover was providing a lot of information to McCarthy.
4 posted on 05/06/2003 8:47:55 AM PDT by aristeides
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To: AlFuller781
this did not happen after WWII.

As a result the lies of the late 40's and early 50's are still with us. The lies are stuff of text books. That is the text books that the children read are full of lies about the McCarthy period. The Russian Communists of the 30's & 40's worked the US the way the Chinese communists worked the USA in the 1980's 90's. That is the spade work the russian communists did in the 1930's paid off in the 1940's. Similiarly the spade work the chinese communists did in the 1980's paid off in the 1990's.
5 posted on 05/06/2003 8:50:11 AM PDT by ckilmer
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To: aristeides
There is no actual proof that I have seen that J Edgar Hoover informed McCarthy of the Venona cables.

What we do know is that the NSA informed the FBI starting about 1948 about the information contained in the Venona cables but insisted that the FBI had to develop their own cases to convict the spies implicated in the cables. In any case J Edgar Hoover would have known about the Venona.

Also, the suicide Husband of the former Editor of the Washington Post--would have known about Venona
6 posted on 05/06/2003 8:53:34 AM PDT by ckilmer
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To: ckilmer
J. Edgar Hoover needn't have informed McCarthy about VENONA, only about spiea that had been identified in the government. And, once spies had been identified through VENONA, it would have been possible for the FBI to go ahead and develop its own cases against those thus identified.
7 posted on 05/06/2003 8:59:14 AM PDT by aristeides
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To: ckilmer
You should have heard the SCREAMS and HOWLS from the American Left when these transcripts were made public !!

It gave the lie to almost everything they had been saying for nearly fifty years, and , though it revealed only the tip of the Soviet/American Left iceberg, there was some devastating stuff !

The Left screamed : "Mis-translation ! Dis-information ! Right-wing propaganda !" to anyone who would listen; but the scarey part was this :

There was no widespread dissemination to the American public, and , at a guess, 99 out of 100 people are completely ignorant of the transcripts themselves - let alone what was revealed.

8 posted on 05/06/2003 9:03:02 AM PDT by genefromjersey (Gettin' too old to "play nice" !)
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To: All

FR power to the people

*** *** ***

50 years ago, a US Senator conducted closed and public hearings, condemned by many as mean-spirited and misguided, that sought to investigate and reveal communist infiltration of our government. The following links provide just released information gleaned from the National Archives.

Link to the Senate COMMITTEE ON GOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS / PERMANENT SUBCOMMITTEE ON INVESTIGATIONS page for information now being "disclosed".

WARNING -- These are big files!!!

9 posted on 05/06/2003 9:12:38 AM PDT by NormsRevenge (Semper Fi .. Support FRee Republic)
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To: ckilmer
Some more fun:
10 posted on 05/06/2003 9:23:45 AM PDT by Lonesome in Massachussets
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To: genefromjersey
This is actually a cause for mourning. Why? Because much of the left's brief against America was based on the assumption that the USA would do mass murders as the russians did. The assumption was that the McCarthy hearings were a show trial like the ones done in Russia at Stalin's behest. Those show trials Stalin used as a pretext for mass murder.

That was never in the cards. (But that did not stop the left from believing their vigorous opposition to McCarthy stopped a pogrom.)

That the full truth about the spies for russia did not come out at the time ie during the late 40's and early 50's --has caused the USA grievious harm.
11 posted on 05/06/2003 9:28:49 AM PDT by ckilmer
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To: genefromjersey; ckilmer
Ann Coulter references The Venona Project, a highly successful CIA/FBI code breaking project, in her book "TREASON" I was not aware of the "declassification" or of the project itself until I read her book. Wonder Why ;^)...rto

BTW, I'm just a 65 year old traditionalist_geezer, but very tuned_in and aware of what is and has been happening
12 posted on 08/03/2003 12:50:55 PM PDT by visitor (Thank God George Bush Won)
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To: visitor
I'm in the same age group, and well aware there was a LOT of communist activity. My oldest brother ( who sleeps in the arms of Lenin, no doubt ) was a dedicated Marxist, who had been " converted " by a party member living in our very conservative rural area.
13 posted on 08/03/2003 3:58:28 PM PDT by genefromjersey (So little time - so many FLAMES to light !!)
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To: visitor
a highly successful CIA/FBI code breaking project

Then she is misinformed. Venona was inaugurated by the ASA (Army Security Agency) which evolved into the NSA, during World War II, before the CIA ever came into existence and the FBI had naught to do with it.

14 posted on 06/14/2004 1:36:26 PM PDT by Lonesome in Massachussets (Ideas so stupid only an intellectual could believe them.)
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