Archive for the ‘Cryptology’ Category

velvaleedickinsonVelvalee Dickinson (1893-1980) sounds like a name more befitting a Wisconsin cheese heiress than a WWII spy, but a spy she was and her undercover monicker of “The Doll Woman” is highly appropriate for this broad’s shenanigans.

Velvalee was born in Sacremento, California and educated at Stanford University. In the mid 1920’s, Velvalee went to work at a brokerage company in San Francisco where she met future husband, Lee. Velvalee became involved in social work which brought her into close contact with the Japanese community there. She became a member of the Japanese-American Society (fees paid by a Japanese Attache, thank you), well-entrenched with visiting members of the Japanese military and government, and hosted numerous soirees in her home for said same folks.

The Dickinsons moved to New York City in 1937 where Velvalee opened a doll shop specializing in rare and antique dolls. It was here, well under radar, that Velvalee conducted her treasonous activities.

dickinson_store1Velvalee used her doll shop as a front to send secret communiques, more specifically, steganographic messages, around the globe reporting on military activities and position. And example of an actual message: “Doll in a hula skirt is in the hospital and doctors are working around the clock”, which translated to “Light cruiser USS Honolulu is badly damaged and in Seattle undergoing around the clock repairs.”

The language of dolls apparently served up a myriad of ways certain activities could be discussed in front a casual observer without drawing too much attention. However, this was WWII. The government had a cadre of cryptanalysts on payroll examining the mail of everyday citizens and this is what led to Velvalee’s discovery.

The dame was busted by a piece of returned mail.

velvaleedickinsonfeb221942letterYup, she sent one her “letters” to Buenos Aires, but the intended recipient had moved on and the letter was returned to the US where it was intercepted by wartime censors. Thinking the correspondence was a little fishy, the censors passed it along to the FBI where it ended up in the capable hands of our favorite cryptanalyst, Elizebeth Friedman, and the rest is history.

The subsequent investigation uncovered all sorts of correspondence that had been bouncing around the country under a variety of different names in dozens of cities, but all traced their way back to Velvalee. The FBI uncovered her connections to the Japanese government in San Francisco and New York, about $25 thousand in payments made to Velvalee, and then they really went to town.

Velvaless was indicted in 1944 under a number of various charges and like the stand-up gal she was, she promptly blamed it all on her late husband who has passed away in 1942. However, medical records proved her husband’s lacked the mental faculties at the time in question due to a prolonged illness, and then the gig was up.

Maintaining her innocence until the end, Velvalee was sentenced to a ridiculously short amount of time in federal prison and was released in 1951, disappears from radar in 1954, and all we’re left with in the end is her date of death in 1980.


320px-elizebeth-friedman1Elizebeth Friedman (1892-1980), in three words: What A Broad.

Elizebeth was one-half of the Dynamic Duo of Friedman and Freidman. Although married to the reknowned cryptographer William F. Friedman, Elizebeth was quite the crypto-dame in her own right and is often to referred to as the America’s first female cryptanalyst.

Let me first say that I could spend this entire entry musing about the type of love letters the Friedmans sent to each other (D197%6 B9G#!& = Dearest Billy), but it’s time to get to work:

Elizebeth was born the youngest of nine children in a Quaker family. She graduated college with a degree in English Literature although she dabbled in quite a varied amount of other subjects. She was fluent in German, Latin and Greek.

After graduating college and trying to find herself via the public education system, Elizebeth was to drawn to a job at the Newberry Library in Chicago presumably for its Shakespeare collection of which Elizebeth was quite the aficionado.

However, a brilliant secretary performing the initial interview for the job, directed Elizebeth instead toward George Fabyan. Fabyan is credited with having the first private think tank dedicated to cryptology in the nation. He immediately hired Elizebeth to work at his facility Riverbank, in Geneva, Illinois, where Elizebeth worked on a project attempting to prove Sir Francis Bacon as the true author of “Shakespearean” work. The belief was that Bacon enciphered the work and by decoding the works, one could discover the Bacon’s identity.

Interesting sure, but hardly the good stuff. It was during Elizebeth’s five years at Riverbank that she met and eventually married her husband, William, a fellow and brilliant cryptographer. However, the outbreak of WWI and the creation of MI-8, the US Army’s Cipher Bureau, inspired the Friedmans to jump ship and head to Washington. DC proved to suit Elizebeth well.  She worked for US Naval intelligence which led to a stint at the Treasury Department and it was there that Elizebeth really began to shine.

Remember that the 1920’s were the time of Prohibition. Elizebeth put her smarts to the task of deciphering communiques, via both written and radio-communicated messages, between smuggling rings. During her tenure our gal-pal was responsible for solving over 12,000 messages. All done by training a cadre of cryptanalysts and by staying abreast of improved deciphering techniques and the subsequent hardware that was being developed which kept her one step ahead of the game.

But her career wasn’t all busting rum-runners and smugglers. Among her many exploits, Elizebeth created a security system for the International Monetary Fund, was responsible for breaking the code on notorious American spy Velvalee Dickinson (more on that dame later), and broke Chinese codes for the Canadian government despite the fact she didn’t even know the language. That’s one hell of a career right there.

But not the end of Elizebeth’s story. After retiring from government work, Elizebeth and William returned to their work on Shakespeare eventually publishing the definitive book arguing against the idea of Sir Francis Bacon being the real author of the works.

William passed on in 1969 and Elizebeth set to work compiling their career worth of papers into a stunning collection of cryptographical works. She passed along herself in 1980 in New Jersey.

Maureen Baginski is a distinguished member of this Agent’s favorite tribe of dames: cryptologists. After a long and successful career at the NSA, Baginski left to take on the world of domestic intelligence clean-up at the FBI as the first Executive Assistant Director of Intelligence.

Baginski (1953-), who graduated from college with degrees in Slavic Studies specializing in Russian literature, joined the NSA in 1979 in an effort to pay the bills. She began as a Russian language instructor at the National Cryptologic School and through the decades, was assigned to a good deal of management posts including the NSA’s 24-hour Watch Center.

Baginski is known for a career of calling it like it is and suggesting reform from within. In 2003, Robert Mueller of the FBI tapped Baginski to enter their ranks and reform the way the bureau handles domestic intelligence from top to bottom.

Now let’s all step back a moment and consider this. Reform the FBI. Baginski was a career NSA gal and while intelligence agencies have certain things in common, Baginski was moving over to an entity where she didn’t speak the proverbial language and had to learn and understand the culture right quick in order to be effective.

And of course the question is always posed: what does “culture” have to do with anything? Every business, school, neighborhood, or in this case, government entity, has its own unique culture unto itself. Culture being defined by a dictionary as: the behaviors and beliefs, characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group, or the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.

The FBI has operated as a law enforcement agency since its inception. It is a very male dominated, gun-loving place where intelligence analysis is a side dish of peas to the pot-roast of busting bad guys. To change the culture, the mindset of a nearly 100 year old institution, is no minor undertaking performed with one’s Easy-Bake Oven. To accomplish this task, Baginski is using nothing less than a Viking professional series range with dual fuel capacity…metaphorically speaking that is.

The end result? Well, that would be classfied now wouldn’t it? The old addage that successes go uncelebrated while screw-ups suffer very public indignities does apply. And in the five years since Baginski took the post, it’s been very quiet on the FBI homefront which I am sure we can all agree is very good thing.

Retired US Army Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy (1947-) probably accomplishes more by 6am than most people do all day.

Born in Germany and raised an Army brat, Kennedy graduated college in the US with a degree philosophy, and then went on to be commissioned in the US Army in 1969. She served in Germany, Korea, and focused her career on Intelligence and cryptology.

Kennedy climbed the ranks and was eventually promoted to Lt. Gen. in 1997 (a historical first) when she was also named the Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence (another historical first). Hoo-Yah.

So here’s where the career gets sticky. In 1999, Kennedy made a claim of sexual harassment against General Larry Smith. What makes it such a mess is that the harassment occurred years before. What makes it a spectacularly glorious mess is that Smith was in consideration for the post of Army Deputy Inspector General, aka “The Dude In Charge of Investigating Harassment Claims”.

Kennedy was greatly criticized for waiting 3 years before coming out with her charge against Smith, but this Agent has to admit, I see her side of things. The American Military Machine still has light years to go when it comes to its treatment of female personnel. Many friends of this Agent who serve in our military regular tell tales of what it takes to get along as a dame in uniform, and sometimes it means unfortunately keeping your yap shut when you’d like nothing more than to punch come clown in the nose. Heck, a slew of recent news reports shows the military to be about as female-friendly as a Misogyny Conference in Strip Club in Vegas. Kennedy, at the time, probably saw the incident as a no-harm/no-foul sort of situation and let it go. However, put the man in charge of investigating such behavior, and it becomes a whole new ballgame.

Like Kermit the Frog always says: It Aint Easy Being Green. Women pick and choose their battles all the time and Kennedy certainly chose hers.

Kennedy retired after 31 distinguished years in 2000. Since then, she has been an outspoken critic of the Bush Administration with regards to both the military and women’s treatment in the military, a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, and recently was thought to be on the short-list of potential VP candidates for Barack Obama. And she was also inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of fame.

And to end tie this all up with one pretty bow of a cliche: A woman’s work is never done.

Elizabeth Van Lew (1818-1900) was a Quaker educated daughter of a Virginia plantation owner who became a Union Military spy during the Civil War.

Aside from Elizabeth’s involvement in the Mary Elizabeth Bowser spying affair, Van Lew was openly Pro-Union, an abolitionist, openly provided food and clothing to Union POW’s (also helped a few escape as well), and used a great deal of her own fortune to finance her espionage activities for which, oddly, she was never arrested.

Many thought Elizabeth generally strange and she garnered the nickname “Crazy Bet”. Crazy or not, Van Lew operated a hugely successful spy ring that infiltrated both the Navy and Army War Department of the Confederacy. On the cheeky side, Van Lew communicated her intelligence to Ulysses Grant by sending him flowers wrapped in a Richmond, Virginia newspaper (because she developed a cipher system for the newspaper to be decoded), and even smuggled messages out of Virginia via hollow eggs.

Highly praised for her valuable intelligence work during the war, Van Lew was rewarded with, well, nothing. Her family fortune was spent on her intelligence activities and she was ostracized from her Richmond neighbors. She died penniless and was buried in an unmarked grave until the family of a Union soldier whom she aided donated a gravestone.

Like her fellow sister-in-the-know, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, Elizabeth Van Lew was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.

Genevieve Feinstein (1912-2006) was my kind of gal. A math-whiz with dreams of becoming a teacher, she was veered off course when she took an exam to be a government mathematician and decided to use her smarts for the common good.

Genevieve became a cryptanalyst for the US Signals Intelligence Service and in 1939, began work on decoding Japanese diplomatic messages. In 1940, Genevieve broke the code and her breakthrough allowed SIS to build a machine to decrypt the Japanese (US code name “Purple“) cipher machine. I don’t think I need to remind you how many lives this saved in the process.

After WWII, Genevieve continued working in cryptology and advancing cryptological research. Genevieve was one of the many women who worked as cryptanalysts on the Venona Project.