Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

NSA Declassifies — Sort Of — Its Super-Secret Internal Magazine

Among the many interesting facts about the super-secret National Security Agency is the fact that, for decades, it has published its own in-house technical journal, written by and for agency employees.

Titled Cryptolog: The Journal of Technical Health, its existence has been known for years, having been mentioned in books about the agency by authors like James Bamford. But its contents, like so much else about the agency and its work, have remained a secret.

That changed today, when the NSA declassified about a quarter century of back issues of the publication running from 1974 to 1997. You can have a look at the results here.

In its first issue, the magazine explains its mission in a “Letter of Introduction” by Maj. Gen. Herbert E. Wolff, who in 1974 — a time when the NSA’s very existence was still a secret — was deputy director of operations, like so:

This is CRYPTOLOG — a new vehicle for the interchange of ideas on technical subjects in Operations.

Operations is a large organization: the skills and talents on which we depend are many, our workings widely scattered and often sequestered in compartments. These conditions argue for special efforts to keep us in touch with each other and with new problems as they arise and new solutions as they are developed.

In the summer of 1997, the most recent issue declassified, there’s a lengthy Q&A interview with an unnamed employee, known by the nickname “Ski,” who was retiring after 50 years of combined service with the NSA and as a military cryptologist. Asked about what it was like to work for the NSA in its early days in the 1950s, the bulk of his answer is: Censored.

And so it is with a lot of the contents of the “declassified” Cryptolog. For all the vaunted talk about declassification and transparency, there are still apparently a lot of secrets to protect.

At other times, Cryptolog reads like an amateur computer club newsletter. Consider this section of a review of the 1996 software textbook “Rapid Development” by Microsoft’s Steve McConnell from an NSA employee whose name has been (thankfully) censored: “I highly recommend this book as the next much-highlighted, marked-in-the-margins, dogeared, no-you-cannot-borrow-it-get-one-of-your-own books for every software developer, team leader and technical manager.”

Here’s the secret it has been hiding all these years: With its multibillion dollar budget, the NSA apparently couldn’t afford to hire an editor.

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