Code Warriors: A Trusty Timeline of the Untrustworthy NSA

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that spies don’t care a whit for truths, universally acknowledged or not.

MI5/MI6 agent-turned-author John le Carré frequently called himself a liar, “born a liar, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living.” British Secret Service agent Malcolm Muggeridge said intelligence work “necessarily involves such cheating, lying, and betraying that it has a deleterious effect on the character.”

Stephen Budiansky, author of Code Warriors, agrees: “Spies are professional, if not congenital, liars.” Naturally, this makes writing the history of spy agencies a tricky affair. But where smoke and mirrors of American intelligence might deter some authors, Budiansky — a cryptologist and author of Blackett’s War — gleefully slipped in with an investigator’s eye for detail and knack for stone-turning.

While we may never know even a fraction of the furtive actions in our intelligence community, Budiansky has gone further than most in Code Warriors to chronicle what we do know. Below, Budiansky offers a sample of his exhaustive research, marking major milestones in the long, tight-lipped history of the NSA and the decades-long war they waged with the Soviet Union.

The ’40s

August 1942: The British liaison officer at the US Army’s codebreaking center at Arlington Hall, outside of Washington, picks up hints that the US is intercepting Soviet coded messages—even though the nations are now allies fighting Hitler. “Sooner or later they will inevitably try to break this since they do not trust the Russians further than they can throw a steam-roller,” he reports.

February 1945: Cecil Phillips, a 19-year-old codebreaker at Arlington Hall, discovers that some one-time pads used by the Soviets to safeguard their messages have been reused on more than one message—making this unbreakable system theoretically vulnerable to decryption via massive data searches.

May 22, 1945: British and American code experts sent to Germany unearth a hidden cache of radio gear used by the Nazis to collect Soviet teleprinter signals. Two weeks later the equipment is on its way to England, where it is successfully put into operation.

Arlington Hall, 1943

March 1, 1946: Arlington Hall begins breaking Soviet Far East military traffic encoded with a Russian version of the Hagelin cipher machine. In the following months British and American codebreakers crack the Soviets’ teleprinter encryption systems.

December 1946: Arlington Hall’s codebreakers read a KGB message sent in 1944 indicating that Soviet spies penetrated the American atomic bomb program.

November 1, 1948: The Soviets institute a sweeping, coordinated change of all of their military code systems: an event that will go down in NSA history as “Black Friday.” Washington briefly fears the action indicates imminent war, but later strongly suspects the Soviets have been tipped off to American codebreaking successes. All of the new Soviet codes will resist the best efforts of US cryptanalysts for much of the Cold War.

The ’50s

May 1950: Arlington Hall suspends William Weisband, a Russian linguist who worked directly on the KGB messages, after he is identified to the FBI as a Soviet spy. Four decades later, the KGB archives confirm that he was the source of the leaks that prompted the Soviets’ Black Friday code changes.

July–October 1950: Spotting a large number of uncoded telegrams sent by Chinese soldiers to their families, analysts at Arlington Hall warn of a massive movement of Chinese forces toward the North Korean border. General Douglas MacArthur, commanding UN forces, ignores the warnings, insisting that “we are no longer fearful of their intervention” in the Korean War. The Chinese attack on October 25 with four full armies.


April 1951: Arlington Hall cracks a 1944 KGB message from New York to Moscow that pinpoints the identity of a major spy in the British government: Donald Maclean, one of the “Cambridge Five.”

October 24, 1952: Responding to the bureaucratic chaos and duplication of separate Army, Navy, and Air Force code agencies, President Truman orders the consolidation of all cryptanalytic work in a new organization, the National Security Agency.

1955: Fifteen special-purpose computers built for NSA finish five years of nonstop searches through one million messages encoded using the Soviets’ Albatross machine; the project ends in failure. An NSA panel of computer experts concludes that the best hope for cracking Albatross is “the direct approach”: stealing one.

The ’60s and Beyond

September 6, 1960: NSA defectors William Martin and Bernon Mitchell appear at a Moscow press conference and reveal comprehensive details about NSA’s organization and activities for the first time.

October 23, 1962: Though still unable to break most Soviet codes, analysts at NSA use plain-language intercepts and direction-finding fixes to provide the crucial information during the Cuban Missile Crisis, reporting that Russian freighters have turned back and will not challenge President Kennedy’s announced “quarantine” of the island; the crisis ends four days later with the Soviets agreeing to remove their nuclear missiles.

August 4, 1964: NSA analysts incorrectly conclude that North Vietnamese ships in the Tonkin Gulf have launched a second attack on a US destroyer, following a confirmed attack two days earlier; President Johnson orders airstrikes in retaliation, beginning America’s massive escalation in the Vietnam War. In the following days NSA will destroy and cover up evidence of its mistake.

LBJ McNamara

January 23, 1968: A US Navy signal collection trawler, the USS Pueblo, with a poorly trained crew and no escort or air cover, is seized in international waters by North Korean torpedo boats. Captured US coding equipment will be passed to the Soviets, contributing to one of the most serious US signals security lapses of the Cold War.

January 25, 1968: NSA reports that signals intelligence points to a “coordinated attack” being planned by Communist forces throughout South Vietnam; General William Westmoreland, convinced the strike will come only in the northern part of the country, is caught be surprise by the Tet Offensive six days later.

December 25, 1979: NSA achieves the high point of its Cold War cryptanalytic success, employing the Cray-1 supercomputer and high-level mathematical analyses to produce a major flow of decrypted Soviet military traffic during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan that begins Christmas Day.