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The now-declassified story Juanita Moody and the Cuban missile crisis

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David Woman writes in Smithsonian:

On the morning of Sunday, October 14, 1962, Juanita Moody exited the headquarters of the National Security Agency, at Fort Meade, Maryland, and walked the short distance to her car, parked in one of the front-row spaces reserved for top leadership. The sky was a crystalline blue, “a most beautiful day,” she recalled later. Moody had just learned that the U.S. Air Force was sending a U-2 spy plane over Cuba to take high-altitude photographs of military installations across the island. Moody was worried for the pilot—twice already in the past two years a U-2 spy plane had been shot out of the sky, once over the Soviet Union and once over China. She was also worried for the country. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were worsening by the day. President John F. Kennedy, American military leaders and the intelligence community believed that the Soviet military was up to something in Cuba. Exactly what, no one could say. “I went out and got into my old convertible at the precise moment I had been told this pilot was going to get into his plane,” Moody said.

What unfolded over the next two weeks was arguably the most dangerous period in the history of civilization. Close to 60 years later, the Cuban Missile Crisis is still considered a nearly catastrophic failure on the part of America’s national security apparatus. How America’s top agents, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence analysts and elected officials failed to anticipate and uncover the buildup of a nuclear arsenal on America’s doorstep, less than 100 miles off the coast, is still being studied and debated. At best, the story of American intelligence activities before and during the crisis is far from complete. One of the most extraordinary omissions to date is the central role played by Moody, a 38-year-old code-breaking whiz and the head of the NSA’s Cuba desk during the perilous fall of 1962. Even today her name is largely unknown outside the agency, and the details of her contributions to the nation’s security remain closely guarded.

Of medium height, with lightly curled brown hair and a round face, Moody was not a spy in the secret agent sense. Her world was signals intelligence, or “sigint”—radio messages, radar data, electronic communications, weapons systems readings, shipping manifests and anything else that could be surreptitiously intercepted from friends and foes alike. Her only brief turn in the spotlight came more than a decade after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when she found herself caught up in the domestic surveillance scandals that engulfed Washington after Watergate. But who was this woman? I’ve spent several years trying to find out, digging through government archives and reviewing formerly classified documents, including internal NSA reports and performance reviews obtained using the Freedom of Information Act, as well as interviewing historians, current and former NSA staff and Moody’s surviving relatives, who provided personal letters and photographs. Now the story of this spy service pioneer and key figure in the nation’s response to Soviet encroachment in the Western Hemisphere can be told for the first time.

* * *

Juanita Moody (Née morris) was born on May 29, 1924, the first of nine children. Her father, Joseph, was a railroad worker turned cotton-and-soybean farmer, and her mother, Mary Elizabeth, a homemaker. The family lived in the hamlet of Morven, North Carolina, in a rented house with no bathroom, no electricity and no running water.

Moody was a leader from an early age. “I felt I had to do what Juanita said,” her sister Virginia “Dare” Marsh, 90, told me on a call last spring. To her siblings, Juanita’s authority was on a par with that of their parents, yet her brothers and sisters didn’t resent her. “She was always sweet lovin’ and fair to me,” Marsh said. There was also a sense that Juanita was special. “I felt at times like my parents looked up to her as well.” The school superintendent in Morven saw a spark in her, too, and recommended her for Western Carolina Teachers College, in Cullowhee.

Juanita borrowed money and enrolled, but then came the war. “All of the sudden there were practically no men left on the campus,” Moody recalled later, in one of a series of interviews with NSA historians that were declassified in 2016. “I felt that it was wrong to be spending my time in this beautiful place—clear blue skies, going around campus and studying and going to classes at leisure, when my country was in a war.” At the Army recruiting office in Charlotte, she said she wanted to volunteer. “What do you want to do?” the recruiter asked. “I’d like to get into intelligence work,” she said.

It was spring 1943. Moody took a few tests and was sent to Arlington Hall, in Virginia, headquarters of the Signal Intelligence Service, the precursor to the NSA. She was trained quickly in what was known as “cryptanalysis,” and was soon part of a group that used ciphers to crack encrypted Nazi communications. When she finished work for the day, she and a few other obsessives stayed late into the night, working illicitly on an unsolved “one-time pad,” a code that could only be cracked with a key provided to the message’s recipient ahead of time. She recalled working “every waking moment” and subsisting on buns made by a sympathetic local baker who left them for her to pick up on her way home in the middle of the night.

The painstaking nature of code breaking in those days, when teams of analysts sifted through piles of intercepted texts and tabulated and computed possible interpretations using pencil and paper, made a deep impression on Moody. Eventually, she and a colleague, a linguist and mathematician who had worked at Bletchley Park, Britain’s code-breaking headquarters, persuaded agency engineers to custom-build a machine for the one-time pad problem based on Alan Turing’s work that could generate cipher keys automatically, using the agents’ inputs. “It was a very clumsy thing,” Moody recalled. But it worked, helping the Americans decode secret messages sent to Berlin from the German ambassador in Tokyo. It was the first of many times in her long career that Moody, who would herself become a familiar face at Bletchley Park and at the IBM campus in New York, helped advance intelligence work by pushing for an ambitious and innovative use of new technologies.

After Japan’s surrender, Moody told her superior at the SIS that, with the war done, she planned to return to college. Although he himself had earned a PhD, he told her that she was making a big mistake. “This is your cup of tea, and there are going to be other targets”—other secrets to uncover in defense of the nation. “This effort is not going to stop today. This is just the beginning.”

Moody stayed with the SIS, as a staff cryptanalyst focused on signals collection in Eastern Europe. In 1947, she was promoted to chief of the Yugoslavia section. Five years later, on October 24, 1952, President Harry Truman signed a secret memorandum, and the National Security Agency was born. Since the NSA’s inception, its role was unambiguous: snoop, scoop, filter, deliver. The agency’s responsibility ended at gathering information. Analysis was the purview of the brains at CIA.

During the 1950s, Moody took on several new leadership roles at the NSA—chief of European satellites, chief of Russian manual systems, chief of Russian and East European high-grade manual systems. She also fretted over technical inefficiencies. At a time when computing technology was advancing quickly, she viewed the NSA’s use of handwritten decryptions, memos and top-secret communications as anachronistic. Where she excelled was not high-level mathematics or engineering but the application of new technologies to distill huge amounts of data and make it available to decision makers as quickly as possible. She was an advocate for using big data long before the concept had taken hold, and she pushed the agency to adopt the latest tools—Teletype, Flexowriter, early IBM computers, an intranet precursor and a searchable database called Solis.

She managed whole teams of people—her “troops,” as she called them. As a leader, she was impolitic by her own measure, occasionally calling meetings to order by whacking a hockey stick on the table. She established a system she called “Show and Tell.” Each morning, while she sipped her coffee, the division heads under her command would come by her office one by one to present highlights from the previous day’s intelligence haul. Moody would then grill them about when the intercepts were made and when the information had been sent to the NSA’s “customers”—the White House, congressional leadership, military brass, the other intelligence agencies. When she judged the lag time to be substantial, she said so. “You people are doing a tremendous job producing beautiful history,” she’d tell them. “You’re not producing intelligence.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

23 March 2021 at 11:18 am

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