Elizebeth Friedman, Cryptographer

Elizebeth Smith Friedman. Courtesy NSA Photo Gallery at https://www.nsa.gov/about/photo_gallery/

Elizebeth Smith Friedman. Courtesy NSA Photo Gallery.

In 1999 the National Security Agency induced William F. Friedman and Elizebeth S. Friedman into the agency’s Cryptologic Hall of Honor. Husband and wife, William and Elizebeth were two of America’s leading cryptanalysts – code-breakers* – for almost forty years. They were rarely a husband and wife team: respect for the security restrictions that surrounded code-making and code-breaking meant they could almost never discuss their professional work. US Army public affairs describes William as “a legend in the cryptology world – his painstaking work, prolific writings, and brilliant accomplishments set a standard in the field that has yet to be challenged.” One of the early leaders of the Army’s Signals Intelligence Service and then of the NSA, Friedman’s work was recognized with the Medal of Merit by President Truman and the National Security Medal by President Eisenhower.

Though much of her work was a matter of public record long before that of her husband’s was declassified, Elizebeth Friedman never received the same recognition during her lifetime. Her own path as a code-breaker was far more unusual and circuitous.

First Steps
A graduate of Hillsdale College in Michigan, Elizebeth Smith Friedman was introduced to both cryptography and her future husband when she was hired by Colonel George Fabyan to work at Riverbank Laboratories, an eclectic research center Fabyan operated on his estate. Fabyan believed that Shakespeare’s plays had been written not by William Shakespeare but by Sir Frances Bacon, and so – alongside other, more practical pursuits – Riverbank employed several researchers searching for codes within the texts that would prove Baconian authorship. Elizebeth was one of them, and while William had been hired to work on other projects for Fabyan he soon became involved as well.

During the First World War, the cryptographers at Riverbank were used by the US military to break enemy codes and teach cryptography and William was commissioned into the US Army. Having soured on Fabyan’s approach to the Baconian question he left Riverbank after the war and moved to Washington and to Army’s code and cipher unit. Elizebeth moved with him. After a year working for the Army and another working for the Navy, Friedman resigned to stay home. Her daughter Barbara was born in 1923 and her son John in 1926 (see his birth announcement here). A year later, in 1927, she went back to full-time government work.

Fighting the Rum War
Until the post-Second World War centralization of signals intelligence, any agency involved in law enforcement, national defense, or international affairs might hire its own code-breakers. At the Department of the Treasury, the need was driven by the demands of Prohibition and the fight against the illegal liquor trade. Under the Volstead Act of 1920 it had become illegal to make, import, or sell alcohol in the United States. In response, rum-runners began to smuggle alcohol in from Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, and the French islands of St Pierre and Miquelon. The rum-runners’ ships were fast and many of them were well-organized in substantial syndicates such as the Consolidated Exporters Corporation of Vancouver, BC. US Customs, the Coast Guard, and the Bureau of Prohibition – all agencies of the Treasury – worked together in an attempt to stem the tide.

In 1925 the Coast Guard began intercepting radio transmissions between rum-running vessels and their organization. With only the help of one part-time decoder, the number of undecoded messages quickly began to build up. Elizebeth Friedman began working on the messages in 1926 and the next year the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Prohibition hired her as a full-time consultant, or special agent. As a consultant, Friedman did not need to conform to standard office hours. Instead, she could collect messages and information from the Coast Guard’s Washington headquarters and take them home to solve the codes.

In 1928 she moved to the Bureau of Customs, then in 1930 to the Coast Guard to form a permanent cryptographic unit for the Treasury. Between 1927 and 1930, Friedman not only decrypted messages sent by the rum-runners but also taught code-breaking to Coast Guard personnel as the agency’s intelligence department expanded from two officers to a well-staffed operation with regional offices in New York and on the Pacific and Gulf Coasts.

Unlike code-breaking for the military or intelligence services, Friedman’s work for law enforcement often came into the public eye. Friedman was frequently called upon to testify in court as an expert on codes and ciphers, in at least one case using a blackboard to offer an impromptu lesson in cryptography to demonstrate how the bootlegger’s cipher functioned. These appearances also led to unwelcome media attention, much of it – Friedman later complained – plain wrong. Her memoirs show a deep distaste for much of the newspaper coverage of her appearances, and particularly for sensationalism and inaccuracy.

CG-100, one of the "Six-Bitters, 15 Feb. 1928. USCG Photo No. 34363 by Joseph N. Pearce.

CG-100, one of the “Six-Bitters, 15 Feb. 1928. USCG Photo No. 34363 by Joseph N. Pearce.

Coast Guard intelligence did not restrict itself to using shore stations to intercept and decode the radio messages being sent by the rum runners. Starting in 1930, the agency also experimented with intercept operations afloat. William Friedman was seconded for two weeks from the War Department Signal Intelligence Division, where he now worked, to the Coast Guard cutter CG-210. A fast 75-foot patrol boat built to chase rum-runners, CG-210 was equipped not only to intercept coded transmissions but also to take direction-finding fixes on the transmitters. While he was aboard, William could provide real time intelligence on the rum-runners’ operations. The operation was successful and soon the Coast Guard equipped six of these fast ships, known as “six bitters,” with intercept and direction-finding gear. Signals intelligence was on its way to becoming, in the words of the Coast Guard Commandant, “the most important single item combating rum [running].”

The Life as an Itinerant Code-Breaker
Compared to her husband, hired by the War Department in 1921 and employed continuously there or at the NSA until his death in 1969, Elizebeth Friedman’s code-breaking career was far more intermittent and circuitous. Though all Civil Service classifications were open to women after 1920, most were in low status positions. The employment of spouses in the Civil Service would become more tenuous when the Economy Act of 1932 prioritized the spouses of Civil Service employees for dismissal in case of cutbacks.

Cryptography, on the other hand, was a wide-open field – there were no formal schools, no professional standards, and no existing hierarchies that might keep Elizebeth out. The area was so new,and so irregular that she could even take her work home. In the field, she was recognized as a leader. Writing in her later years, Friedman recalled that:

with one exception, all of the men younger or older who have worked for me and under me and with me, have been true colleagues and have never been obstructionists in any way … It was likewise true of the court officials and attaches, the judges and the United States Attorneys, the Customs Officials, and numerous other officials with whom I came into contact at the times I was called as an expert witness, that I have never received anything but the utmost courtesy and in many cases often admiration. Their astonishment at the work I had been able to bring to a conclusion which was a powerful means of supporting the battle they were fighting was, I think, the greater, because I was a woman (from her unpublished memoir, page 66)

Beyond the Rum War
The end of Prohibition in 1933 was not an end to the Coast Guard cryptanalysis unit or to Friedman’s career. Though the staff shrunk again to a low of five in 1937, Elizebeth and her colleagues continued to work against alcohol and narcotics smuggling. The start of the Second World War in Europe in 1939 brought fresh responsibilities for preserving American neutrality – and the beginning of a new phase in Friedman’s cryptographic career.

* Strictly speaking, a code obscures the plain text by substituting full words while a cipher substitutes individual letters (or bi- or trigrams), but I’m not being precise in my use of the two words. Likewise for cryptography (the creation of codes or ciphers) and cryptanalysis (the breaking of codes or ciphers).

Part Two of this, on Friedman’s Second World War career, is here.

Source Note: Elizebeth Friedman’s memoirs and numerous photos have been put online by the George C. Marshall Foundation, who also hold her husband’s voluminous papers. Intelligence operations against the rumrunners are discussed in an NSA historical pamphlet and a book published by National Intelligence University Press. The details of Elizebeth Friedman’s career differ between the three; in trying to reconcile them I’ve tended to follow Friedman’s memoir but I make no claims to my correctness.


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