Q&A with Jason Fagone, Author of The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies

image of Jason Fagone, a white man in his 40s
Jason Fagone is the author of the new book The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies. It is the extraordinary and compelling story of Elizebeth Smith, whose mad codebreaking skills are the foundation of the modern science of cryptology.

What I really want to do is spoil this entire story for you, because it is so amazing, but I won't! Instead, I'm going to let Jason tell you exactly as much — or as little — as he wants to tell about his book and the remarkable woman at its center.

Jason and I had lunch one day to discuss The Woman Who Smashed Codes, telling women's stories in the age of Trump, and other things. We met at a retro diner which felt like a suitable venue to talk about how we're not making America great again, over burgers.

MELISSA McEWAN: The Woman Who Smashed Codes is an absolutely thrilling story. On the one hand, it's unbelievable that I've never before heard of Elizebeth Smith. On the other hand, it's entirely expected, given the way women are so often written out of history. Were you looking to tell a woman's story for your next book?

JASON FAGONE: I guess I was looking for any story that would work as a book and justify the time it takes to write anything good at book-length. There aren't so many stories like that. You have to keep your eyes open, hope for some luck.

MM: How did you come to discover Elizebeth's story?

JF: The start of this for me was Edward Snowden, his decision in 2013 to reveal secrets about NSA's surveillance programs. Huge story that blew up everywhere and left me disoriented. I didn't know much about NSA. I started reading about the history of the agency. And when you read about the history of NSA, all roads lead to this guy William Friedman, a famous American codebreaker who solved the Japanese "Purple" machine in World War Two. He's like the godfather of NSA.

Anyway, in reading about William, I noticed that his wife, Elizebeth, was also a codebreaker. How many husband-and-wife codebreakers can there be, you know? I thought it was interesting. I went looking for more info about Elizebeth, and there wasn't much, no biography, not a lot on the Internet. So I decided to visit the place that holds her personal archive, a private library in Lexington, Virginia. She donated 22 boxes of letters and diaries to that library before she died. And on my first day at the library, I started reading those letters and had one of those holy-shit moments that you get sometimes as a journalist, where you realize you're looking an amazing story in the face. At that point, it was all about the dopamine rush of reporting. One of the best feelings. Finding documents, starting to write, trying to do justice to the story as it unfolded.

MM: What is the thing you found most surprising about Elizebeth's life during your extensive research?

JF: Probably how astonishingly prolific she was. How she shaped American intelligence in all sorts of ways I had never heard anything about. She pops up in so many places, at so many key moments in U.S. history, sometimes behind the scenes but sometimes in very public ways, on the front pages of newspapers. It actually starts to seem kind of ridiculous. A hundred years ago, when she was 23, she was present at the birth of the NSA, working for this eccentric tycoon named George Fabyan, who ran a bizarre institution called Riverbank Laboratories that broke military codes for the U.S. government during World War One.

While working for this eccentric tycoon and breaking German messages, Elizebeth helped invent the modern science of cryptology, along with William Friedman. She was an uncredited co-author on many of his pioneering papers, which were her papers too. Then, after the war, when she and William moved to Washington, she became she secret weapon of the U.S. Treasury Department in its war against rum-running. She used her codebreaking skills to perform sophisticated counterintelligence investigations, mapping these underworld networks. She testified against gangsters, against Al Capone's men, at risk to her life. These were spectacular public trials, and newspapermen called her "the pretty little woman who protects the United States."

And that's not even getting into World War Two! What I mentioned so far is only what I found in her papers in the private library. There was nothing about the years 1939 to 1945. I had to go hunting for those records, and it took me two years to find them, and when I did — well, it was another holy-shit moment, because it turns out that Elizebeth spent World War Two hunting Nazi spies and destroying Nazi spy rings. She had created and built this team of elite codebreakers at the U.S. Coast Guard, and they were the technical firepower behind the hunt for Nazi spies in the Western Hemisphere. They gave their solved messages to J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Then after the war Hoover took credit for all of it and erased Elizebeth from the story.

And oh yeah, after Pearl Harbor she also set up the first cryptographic office for the organization that evolved into the CIA. That was basically side project that she completed in three and a half weeks, doing a favor for the spymaster "Wild" Bill Donovan. She thought he was an ass.

So: Elizebeth influenced the NSA, Treasury, the Coast Guard, the CIA, and the FBI. Like I said, it starts to seem ridiculous, but it's all there in the documents.

MM: It strikes me that Elizebeth's professional life as doing "the spy stuff," as she called it, and her personal life, e.g. throwing "cipher parties" with her husband William Friedman, bled back and forth into one another in a way I find really charming. What is your sense of how, or if, she found balance between her work life and her private life, doing such demanding and immersive work?

JF: I always come back to this sentence that Elizebeth wrote on an index card late in life: "WFF and ESF have always been fascinated by WORDS, even before we had need of them as 'tools of our trade.'" They just had this powerful love affair with words and languages and puzzles, and they integrated that passion into their marriage and their other relationships. When they were first falling in love, they included bits of cipher in their letters, speaking in a secret language that brought them closer. They taught their kids how to write letters to them in cipher from summer camp.

These "cipher parties" you mention — these were famous in their Washington circle of friends. You'd show up at the Friedmans' house, and Elizebeth would be there in a stunning gown, and she'd hand you an envelope with a cryptogram inside, and you had to solve the cryptogram to find the address of a restaurant somewhere in D.C. where the appetizer would be served, and then you'd go there and solve another cryptogram to find the main course. And the Friedmans really needed that private outlet, I think, because as years went on, their jobs for the government became more intense and stressful and secretive, and they couldn't talk about anything they did at work, even to each other. It was tough for them. William joked at one point that the Army wanted him and Elizebeth to sleep in separate beds for reasons of national security.

MM: Elizebeth also did a lot of emotional labor. She looked after William, who had profound and lasting depression, and also endeavored to conceal his illness, fearing the stigma would harm his career. That reminded me of the many accounts I've read of the wives of famous men — especially writers and politicians — who enable their work and help keep vulnerabilities away from public scrutiny. Would Elizebeth's career have looked different in any way, without this emotional labor?

JF: Yes. There were times for Elizebeth when caring for William and keeping the secret of his illness was like having a second full-time job. She would answer letters that arrived for him at the house, making up excuses for why he couldn't respond himself. At least once she even wrote a scholarly papers on cryptologic history that William had promised to some editor but couldn't deliver because he was ill. Some days he was so depressed he couldn't get out of bed, he was frozen, and she actually took him to work in the morning and placed a pencil in his hand and put her hand on top of his and started the lead moving across the page, and only then could he begin to work. The burden on Elizebeth only increased as William's illness worsened in the late 50s and 60s. And then, in the years before his death in 1969, and for some time after, Elizebeth was consumed with preparing and indexing William's massive archive of books and papers for donation to a research library.

It's hard to know what she could have done with that time. Probably she would have been a more prolific author than she already was. In her archive she left behind three mostly complete but never-published book manuscripts, including two children's books, one about the history of the alphabet and one about how to have fun breaking codes. These are just sitting in manila folders in Virginia, and I've read them, and they're wonderful. She was a great writer. She had a talent for explaining her passions to a popular audience.

MM: Elizebeth and William are essentially the parents of modern codebreaking and surveillance. What do you think they'd make of the vastness of the intelligence apparatus in the United States today?

JF: That's a great question. I can only speculate, but I think they'd find it both astounding and troubling. Toward the end of their lives the Friedmans were feeling fed up with the government and estranged from the very field they had helped to create. Everything in American codebreaking was getting a lot bigger. William felt that NSA was gathering too much intelligence, more than it could ever feasibly analyze, and that needles were bound to get lost in these huge haystacks, and also that too much information at NSA was being classified for reasons that didn't have anything to do with national security. Elizebeth didn't like that computers were starting to dominate the workflow — the Friedmans were the last of the pencil-and-paper heroes — and she complained that with computers you never got the thrill of seeing a message appear.

If you peel back these complaints a bit, I think what you find is the inner educator in Elizebeth, and same with William. They weren't just codebreaking experts and national-security professionals. They were also teachers, people who believed in sharing knowledge whenever possible, and it bothered them to see all of these high walls going up between the public and the experts. It wasn't how a democracy ought to work.

MM: You spent a lot of time with Elizebeth. What do you think her opinion would be of Donald Trump, as a president elected via foreign interference who bitterly feuds with the intelligence community?

JF: She wouldn't like him. I have zero doubt about that. He represents everything she stood against: wealth, contempt for science, contempt for women, power that wants to be unaccountable.

For her it would be like if George Fabyan somehow became president — Fabyan, the tycoon who dominated her life when she was in her twenties. I think she would find the lying especially repulsive.

This is a big part of why I admire the Friedmans. They were so committed to the importance of facts, and maybe more than that, the importance of science, because science is a way to know what's true without tricking yourself into seeing something that you really want to see, which happens all the time to the best of us. The Friedmans' personal credo was "Knowledge is Power." They had it carved it on their tombstone in Arlington National Cemetery.

MM: Elizebeth's story is one of a nontraditional route into a scientific pursuit. Do you think there is particular value to her story for girls and women whose aptitudes for science and creativity are often positioned as competing pursuits?

JF: Yes! Elizebeth never saw a difference between the creative and the technical in her work. It was all part of the same vocation, the same way of looking at the world that allowed her to solve these heinous puzzles over and over. There's no magic formula for breaking a code. Serendipity and intuition matter a lot. Even the Friedmans admitted that, and they were hardcore advocates of scientific rigor.

There's a famous story about the Friedmans from early in their careers. William had been struggling to identify a code word that would allow him to unlock a certain puzzle. After thrashing around for a bit and getting nowhere, he turned to Elizebeth. He asked her to relax in her seat, clear her mind, and say the first word that came to her. She said, "Machine." And that turned out to be the right answer. She was never able to explain how she did it.

MM: This feels like a very contemporary story to me, but I'm curious what you think most resonates about Elizebeth's story in today's world?

JF: Well, the whole episode where she's hunting Nazi spies in WWII feels very contemporary to me right now, because when you read about that, you're reading about a time when almost the entire country was unified behind the idea that Nazis were always bad, and this doesn't seem to be the case in 2017, and it's horrifying, absolutely horrifying, so now I'm going to give you a far less depressing answer, which is that Elizebeth's story shows that the truth always comes out eventually, as long as some kind of contemporary record is preserved.

Those of us who believe in facts and history and the free press — it's easy to feel right now that we’re getting our asses kicked, and nothing we do matters. But Elizebeth's story can now be told because she took small daily steps to preserve an unimpeachable archive of her life, half a century before she could have reasonably expected anyone to use it for anything, or to care. I think I describe her in the book as a "savage librarian." She left these little shards of glass in the stacks that still draw blood all these years later. And I love that. I love the idea that there's a reckoning that is preserved on paper, in a place that's protected from the daily shitstorm of whatever, and that over the really long run, 1,000 or 10,000 years from now, we'll be able to read and learn from these documents, if we're still around.

MM: In the title, Elizebeth is called — quite understandably, given the genesis of her journey — an "unlikely heroine." In this era of resistance, do you think we're going to see a lot of unlikely heroines emerge in defense of their nation?

JF: I think we already have. I mean, Elizebeth was someone who didn't set out for a career in public service. She was diverted onto that path through a series of accidents, the sweep of events in her time, and she rose to meet the moment. And I think a lot of women are there now, organizing and calling their reps and running for office, and speaking up about sexual assault and harassment, at personal risk. There are these core democratic values that float the whole America thing as we know it, and they turn out to be more fragile than we thought, and they really do need defending.

MM: Jason, thank you for your time. I am very glad to have had the opportunity to meet you and talk about your book before Trump blows up the planet.

JF: It looks like we made it. Anything that happens now is basically gravy.

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The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies is available for purchase now at your favorite bookseller.

[Image courtesy of Jason Fagone.]

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