Tales From The Black Chambers


One of America’s most eminent public servants took such a view. Henry L. Stimson personally destroyed the only peacetime American black chamber that existed prior to the power politics of the late 1930’s. Known as MI-8, the black chamber was founded by the egocentric Herbert O. Yardley in 1917 and continued to do effective work until 1929, when Stimson moved into his office as the new Secretary of State. Almost immediately a batch of decoded and deciphered messages, intercepted from foreign governments, crossed his desk. The irate Stimson demanded to know where the messages came from, and was told of Yardley’s cryptographic bureau, which then operated out of a four-story brownstone in New York’s East Thirties. The new Secretary of State ordered such nefarious business stopped immediately and refused to allot one penny of the State Department’s budget for further activities of this type.

Perhaps in a fit of pique, Major Yardley wrote a self-oriented book titled The American Black Chamber (1931) and thus became one of the few cryptographers to tell tales outside the walls of his workroom. He described in detail the work of MI-8 for some twelve years. Proudly he revealed that during World War I, in addition to espionage messages, the bureau had read more than ten thousand diplomatic telegrams sent by Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Germany, Mexico, Panama, and Spain.

Further, he stated that prior to the Washington Naval Conference of 1922 he had personally undertaken the cracking of the Japanese diplomatic cipher and even described how he went about it. As a result of his success American negotiators were well aware during the conference that although the Japanese were pressing insistently fora naval ratio of 10 to 7, they had already decided they would settle for a ratio of 10 to 6 if necessary. The Americans and British only had to wait them out. As Yardley observed, it’s not very difficult to win at stud poker when you know your opponent’s hole card.

Another Secretary of State had an equally difficult time deciding what to do about enciphered messages, and as a result the United States still owes a bill of $23,000, not counting interest since 1866.

In that year the first successful transatlantic cable was completed (a previous cable had broken almost immediately) . It was laid by an international company with a British board of directors, and the president of the company promptly called on Secretary of State William Henry Seward. The purpose of his call was to urge the use of the cable by the United States government for sending diplomatic messages. With the government as a customer the company could more easily persuade American businessmen that the cable was an effective means of instant communication. As any salesman knows, there is a right time and a wrong time to make a call, and in this case, by coincidence, the president of the cable company chose precisely the right time, for Seward had an urgent message to transmit to the American embassy in Paris. Two years previously Napoleon III had established Maximilian on the throne of Mexico. The United States, embroiled to the point of exhaustion in the Civil War, could make no effective pro- test. Now Seward was determined to reassert the Monroe Doctrine. As a gesture that the United States meant business, fifty thousand veteran troops under General Phil Sheridan had been dispatched to the Texas-Mexico border. Seward wanted to instruct his ambassador in Paris to impress upon the French government that these troops were only a sample of the armed host that would move toward Mexico if the French troops did not leave the continent.

It was a message of power politics, and for that reason its contents had to be kept secret. Seward decided to entrust the message to the transatlantic cable but to transmit it in the American diplomatic cipher, although he failed to mention this to the president of the cable company. There was some haggling over price. Finally the businessman agreed to transmit urgent government messages for “a very reasonable figure” under the regular price, which was ten dollars per word.

Seward’s enciphered message to his ambassador consisted of approximately eleven hundred groups of three-, four-, and five-digit numbers. In Paris it was deciphered, and Napoleon III was informed of the United States government’s opposition to the French adventure, a determined opposition backed by the threat of power. Napoleon found it expedient to recall his troops.

However, the bill for the enciphered message was another matter. When it reached Seward’s desk, the Secretary of State exploded; it was for $23,000. He demanded that the president of the cable company appear in his office and asked him what kind of usury the company was attempting to practice against the United States government. The man stood his ground, insisting that the bill was reasonable. He pointed out that the British directors of the company felt there was something not quite ethical about transmitting messages in a secret cipher. Only the cable layer himself, Cyrus W. Field, had been able to persuade them to transmit the message. In order to discourage the use of secret codes and ciphers in the future, the company was billing for such messages at double the normal rate.