On December 8, 1981, the correspondent from Toronto, John Honderich filed what he thought was a routine story. A document stamped “Confidential” and sent from the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC to Ottawa, saying that the U.S. was cancelling a Canadian-U.S. deal involving Lockheed’s anti-submarine plane, the “Aurora,” which had been in the works. Since so few military deals had been pending between the U.S. and Canada, Canada appeared to have been singled out for persecution by the Pentagon. Anyway, that was the slant that Honderich’s decided that his story was to take. The story went out.
But then Honderich got a call from a long-time source who told him that, “You have much more here than you think.” The document that had been leaked, complete with special numbers, security designations, route markings, was a U.S. electronic intercept. It meant that the top U.S. code-breaking outfit, the NSA, had cracked Canada’s unbreakable” code. It meant that America had been caught reading it ally’s mail. But Honderich didn’t seem to know what he had. When I talked to him, he said he had never heard of the NSA. But he had started calling Canadian officials before any publicity could harden them into silence. In reply to Honderich, the Canadian Exterior Affairs Minister (the equivalent of the U.S. Secretary of State, said that Canada’s computerized diplomatic code was “very nearly fool-proof and only rarely does it not fit our purpose.”
A very polite brush off.
I kept talking to Honderich, while making calls to find out if NSA could break an ally’s code. I learned that Canada and the United States truly have a “special relationship” (not the UK,) and there existed more secret treaties and secret understanding between the US and Canada than any other U.S. ally.
With encouragement from me, Honderich kept pressing on with his calls, and odd things began to happen. Lockheed called and asked him for a copy of the document. I called around until I got a U.S. congressional source who said that they didn’t’ understand what the excitement over the story since the cable was “a routine intercept.” A ROUTINE INTERCEPT?? But the source didn’t say more. Honderich had heard the same thing. By then Canadian officials were telling the reporter that the document was “hand delivered” but behind the scenes the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in charge of such matters, and they were making inquiries of Lockheed in Ottawa, a story I confirmed.
I soon was talking to a senior CIA source. “The fact is that we’ve been doing it for years,” he said. As early as World War II, the U.S. was able to break “significant number almost all,” of its allies' codes, including France, Canada and Britain, plus the codes of every important exile group. Some of the intercepts are in an office in Washington, (he told me which one,) and can be viewed if proper arrangements were made.
Canadian officials I talked to said that their code is “changed every day, and that is a binary code with “an infinite number of random numerical variations,” and therefore was “foolproof.” The machine was made by Control Data Corp of Minneapolis, and it was manufactured jointly by Swiss-American companies. You could sense the picture that was forming. How many people were reading cables marked “Confidential?”
I was told by the agency fellow that the NSA “collects less intelligence than the CIA but it is of a “higher grade.” This clearly was a colossal misstatement, but I didn’t know better at the time. I was told that the chief customers are DOD, the Department of State, and the CIA. He was told there was a NSA “Black Book,” which contains crucial NSA intercepts which are placed on the President’s desk each morning by his military aide. (So much for the gibberish that claims that President Obama didn’t know we were spying in Germany. We spy on them, but they also spy on us.)
I continued to plod, making more calls. I knew that in July of 1980, as President Carter was secretly massing U.S. forces for an October invasion of Iran to free the hostages (we were going to drop the 82nd Airborne on Teheran’s airport,), the Soviets were aware of the build up on their northern border, and the NSA was aware that the Soviets knew of U.S. preparations because of recent intercepts of their intercepts. I was working on the story of the Carter invasion not realizing that Jack Anderson was also working on it, and he published first, a narrow political piece. I kept working on my broader story which included accounts of helicopter operations in the Middle West, when I got a call asking me to delay publication of the story since the intercepts were considered so sensitive.
Other NSA achievements were equally impressive. Thanks to Americans who defected to Moscow, we came to know that 40 countries whose codes had been cracked including Turkey, Yugoslavia, Canada and France among others. AT the time of the Suez crisis of 1956, the NSA had broken the codes of Britain, France and Israel and so had prior knowledge of their invasion plans. The codes were cracked by the United States Air Force Research and Development Command at Griffis Air Force Base, Rome, NY.
At the time, in February 1982, I wrote, “Two questions remain. How did the U.S. break the codes? One expert suggested that Canada’s system, built in America, had a “trap door” – a secret route of access built in it by the manufacturer and by which the code be read. Another source said that any computer that uses micro chips produces a certain amount of radiation. When the chips are used repeatedly – redundancies – the patterns of the language which enable us to understand it – begin to produce a pattern and the NSA can fix on the repeated radiation levels and gain access to the code. That’s one theory.
“The other theory was this. The intercept leaked to the Toronto Star was a low level Embassy routine cable , prompting the questions, was the leak a warning to Ottawa that if America can do this, then the Soviet Union, which was able to break the code in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, had probably done the same thing. Canada’s communications were no longer secret. I was about to publish my story when the Canadian Mounted Police acknowledged that they had made inquiries of Lockheed, and a Canadian official acknowledged that the Toronto Star document was indeed an electronic intercept and that there had been others.
Another State Department official derided my efforts.”You had a non-story.” He sniffed. He was wrong. Not only was it not a non-story, it would soon burst in the new with a very big bang.”