Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Intelligence Disclosure in the Interwar Period: "The Room 40 Compromise"

The National Security Agency (NSA) revealed a remarkable bit of intelligence history last year, in The Room 40 Compromise.  The implications foreshadow long-term effects of the Edward Snowden case.

Written by the Agency in 1960 and declassified in 2012, the document highlights unexpected results when a large cache of sensitive documents is revealed.

Source: The Enemy Within, Henry Landau, 1937
"Amos J. Peaslee, Legal Ferret"
Similar to Snowden, American Attorney Amos Peaslee used trickery and guile to gain access to the documents. The comparison ends there, though, as Peaslee used the information for the benefit of the U.S. Government to seek restitution from Germany.  Just the same, Peaslee used dubious means to access decrypted German messages from Britain's code-breakers produced by "Room 40" of the Old Building at Whitehall.  Peaslee did not defect, but published the sensitive documents outright as evidence before the court.  While some legal restitution came as a result of Peaslee's lawsuit, the author of  NSA's Room 40 Compromise asserts the leaks spurred German innovation in cryptology.

Amos Peaslee, 1925
Edward Snowden, 2013
Well-connected New York attorney, former Army Officer, Ambassador to  Australia
NSA contractor, computer systems analyst
What Was Leaked
Decrypted German diplomatic cables from “Room 40”, Britain’s Naval Code-breaking Centre
Collection program details ; other TBD
Provided To
Stated Purpose
Prosecute “Black Tom” legal case vs. WWI German saboteurs
Reveal sources; ideological challenge to government
Damage cited
Highlighted German encryption flaws; contributed to urgency for Germany to improve their encryption methods

Typical one-time-pad
The 45-page history, published in NSA's Cryptologic Heritage archive, highlights the unintended consequences from disclosure of encoded national security information.  From the Abstract:

"In 1925 a file of over 10,000 sensitive highly secret decrypts from World War I Room 40 cryptanalysis were compromised in London to an American lawyer. He took several hundred of the decrypts out of Britain and in 1927 turned them over to the German government, in a lawsuit.  Within weeks the German Army and German Foreign Office embarked on intensive and urgent programs to improve their cryptography. The steckered Enigma, and greatly increased production and use of [the] one-time pad were the direct results of these programs.  The decrypts contained extremely derogatory information about German biowar and covert operations in neutral countries during World War I.  The decrypts and associated lawsuit were widely publicized, and occupied the highest levels of the German government including Hitler and Goering, and the affair was cause célèbre for over 12 years --- all because their cipher failures were exposed.  This had a sinister effect on German cryptography before and during World War II."
 The American attorney,  Amos Peaslee, no doubt felt a right to support his clients and gain restitution for German espionage agents' attack on Jersey City's "Black Tom" pier.  "The Enemy Within" tells the entire story, with detail and intrigue:

Who would not feel the same rush as did Peaslee, upon discovering explicit evidence of German saboteurs in the United States? ... enough justification in his mind, it seems, to override British government strictures about revealing sources and methods, to prosecute his case.

However, counter to NSA's claim in The Room 40 Compromise, it is equally likely German improvements to the Enigma machine were inevitable, based on other leaks such as the Zimmerman Telegram

Looking forward to 2014 and beyond, it is likely that judicial and legislative changes to electronic collection programs will occur.  Still, with many thousands of sensitive documents yet to be revealed by Snowden, the future impact is difficult to describe.  So, looking to lessons of the past, what can be learned from this observation in the Room 40 Compromise?
"The central point of the story is simple but unpleasant: disclosing decrypts or other cryptologic secrets is immensely damaging to future intelligence and warfighting capability." 

Books related to the Room 40 Decrypts

No comments:

Post a Comment