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38th Parallel into the south, launching the Korean War. Once again, as
with Pearl Harbor, America was caught by surprise.
A year before the attack, the Army, Navy, and Air Force code-breaking
organizations had been combined into a single unit, AFSA. But instead of
establishing a strong, centralized organization to manage the growing
worldwide signals intelligence operations, each service was allowed to
retain control of both intercept and codebreaking activities. That left little
for the director of AFSA to direct. Nor could he even issue assignments to
field units. They would first have to pass through each of the services,
which could then accept them, change them, or simply ignore them.
Herbert L. Conley, who was in charge of Russian traffic analysis at AFSA


23
in the late forties, and later headed up Russian code-breaking at NSA,
likened the organization to a "three-headed monster." "He couldn't
control anything outside of the buildings that were occupied," he said of
the director.
In the weeks leading up to the attack, Korea barely registered as a
Sigint target for AFSA. Out of two priority lists, North Korea was number
fifteen on the secondary list. From listening posts at Kamiseya, Japan,
and several other locations, most of the intercept activity was directed at
Russia. Communist China was also a high priority, with eighty-seven
intercept operators and analysts focused on it. But because AFSA had
not broken any important Chinese cipher systems, most personnel
concentrated on traffic analysis, the examination of the message's
"external indicators," such as its date and "to" and "from" lines. North
Korea, on the other hand, was targeted by just two intercept operators at
the time the war broke out. In all, they had collected a paltry two
hundred messages, and none of those had been processed. "AFSA had no
Korean linguists, no Korean dictionaries, no traffic analytic aids, and no
Korean typewriters," said a later NSA analysis.
Despite the limited resources, clues were there. Buried in stacks of
intercepted Soviet traffic as far back as February were messages pointing
to large shipments of medical supplies going from Russia to Korea. Other
messages, about the same time, revealed a sudden and dramatic switch
toward targets in South Korea by Soviet radio direction-finding units.
Suddenly, at 3:30 on the morning of June 25, 1950, Joseph Darrigo,
a U.S. Army captain and the only American on the 38th Parallel, was
jarred awake by the teeth-rattling roar of artillery fire. At that moment
North Korean ground forces, led by 150 Soviet T-34 tanks, began their
massive push into South Korea. Darrigo managed to escape just ahead of
the advancing troops and spread the alarm. "AFSA (along with everyone
else) was looking the other way when the war started," said a recent,
highly secret NSA review. The first word to reach Washington came from
a news account by a reporter in Seoul.
Within days, the North Korean Army had captured Seoul and
continued to steamroll south, seeking to unify the peninsula under the
flag of communism. In response, American troops were quickly
dispatched to provide assistance to South Korea as part of a United
Nations force. By the end of the first week, 40,000 South Korean soldiers
had been killed, captured, or declared missing in action.
Following the attack, AFSA began a quick push to beef up its ranks.
The number of intercept positions targeting North Korean traffic jumped
from two to twelve. Any signals even remotely North Korean were
transmitted back to AFSA headquarters in Washington, arriving ten to
twelve hours after intercept. Soon, new messages were arriving hourly



24
and lights were burning around the clock.
Nevertheless, cryptanalysis was virtually nonexistent. In fact, the first
few decrypts of enciphered North Korean air traffic were produced not by
professional codebreakers but by an uncleared U.S. Army chaplain using
captured codebooks. Seconded into Sigint duty, Father Harold Henry had
spent a number of years in Korea, where he learned the language. Most
analysts instead concentrated on traffic analysis and plaintext
intercepts”highly useful because of poor communications security by
the North Koreans during the early part of the war. Among the messages
sent in the clear were secret battle plans.
Adding to the problems, it was three months before a small advanced
Sigint unit actually arrived on the Korean peninsula. Radio direction
finding was greatly hampered by the mountainous terrain. Then there
were the supply shortages, outmoded gear, difficulties in determining
good intercept sites, equipment ill-suited to frequent movement over
rough terrain, and a significant lack of translators.
From the beginning, the ground war went badly. By the end of July,
the Eighth Army, led by General Walton H. Walker, had been forced into
a boxlike area known as the Pusan Perimeter, so named because it
surrounded the southeastern port of Pusan. "When we got into the . . .
Perimeter, you never saw a more beat-up bunch of soldiers," recalled
former PFC Leonard Korgie. "The North Koreans had hellish numbers
and equipment. We were very, very thin in both."
Walker's one advantage was a constant supply of Sigint, which
provided him with such vital information as the exact locations of North
Korean positions. Armed with this intelligence, he was able to maximize
his limited men and resources by constantly moving them to where new
attacks were planned. Finally, following MacArthur's daring amphibious
landing at Inchon, a port located behind enemy lines, Walker's men
broke out of their box and joined in the attack, putting North Korea on
the defensive.
In one sense, Sigint in Korea was like a scene from Back to the Future.
After planting a number of sound-detecting devices forward of their
bunkers to give warning of approaching troops, ASA soldiers discovered
that the devices also picked up telephone calls. So they began using
them for intercept”a practice common during World War I but long
forgotten. This "ground-return intercept," using the principle of
induction, enabled the ASA to collect some Chinese and Korean
telephone traffic. The downside, however, was that in order to pick up
the signals the intercept operator had to get much closer to enemy lines
than normal, sometimes as close as thirty-five yards.*
"One of our problems in Korea was linguists, there were so few," said
Paul Odonovich, an NSA official who served in Korea with the Army


25
Security Agency. Odonovich commanded a company of intercept
operators on the front lines. Sitting in antenna-bedecked vans, they
would mostly eavesdrop on North Korean "voice Morse," an unusual
procedure whereby the North Korean military would read the Morse code
over the communications channels rather than tap it out with a key.
"They used the singsong 'dit-dot-dit-dit' business," said Odonovich.
Other units conducting low-level voice intercept (LLVI), as it was
known, operated out of jeeps and bunkers close to the front lines. The
intelligence was then disseminated directly to combat units. By the end
of the war, twenty-two LLVI teams were in operation. Air Force intercept
operators also had some successes. Operating from small islands off
North Korea, Sigint units were able to intercept North Korean, Chinese,
and Soviet instructions to their pilots. The intercept operators would
then disguise the intelligence as "radar plots" and pass them on in near-
real time to U.S. pilots operating over North Korean territory. Once they
received the information, their "kill ratio" increased significantly.
After the battle began, the most important question was whether
China would intervene. Since the end of World War II, Army Sigint
specialists had engaged in a haphazard attack on Chinese
communications. In 1945, General George Marshall attempted to bring
Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and Communist boss Mao Tse-tung
to the negotiating table. At Marshall's request, a small group of intercept
operators eavesdropped on both sides during the talks.
But the operation was less than a success. A team set up in Nanjing
to intercept Nationalist communications was hampered by unreliable
electrical power. Another, which targeted Communist links from a
listening post in Seoul, was plagued with "poor hearability." Ironically, as
the United States struggled, the British had been secretly listening to
Chinese Communist communications for years. From 1943 until 1947,
the Government Code and Cypher School successfully monitored a link
between Moscow and Mao's headquarters in Yan'an, China. But because
the link was part of a clandestine Soviet network, the decision was made
to keep the Americans in the dark until March 1946.
Nevertheless, from the messages that the United States was able to
intercept, it was clear that the two groups preferred to settle their
differences on the battlefield rather than at the conference table. As a
result, the Marshall mission was withdrawn in 1946. Thereafter, ASA
dropped its study of Chinese Communist military ciphers and
communications and turned its attention almost exclusively toward
Russia. It would prove a serious mistake. Three years later, in 1949, Mao
triumphed and Chiang fled to the island of Formosa.
About the same time, a small team of Chinese linguists led by Milton
Zaslow began eavesdropping on and analyzing Chinese civilian



26
communications”private telephone calls and telegrams. Unencrypted
government messages would also travel over these lines. Beginning in
early summer 1950, AFSA began developing "clear and convincing
evidence" that Chinese troops were massing north of the Yalu River.
In May and June, Sigint reports noted that some 70,000 Chinese
troops were moving down the Yangtze River in ships toward the city of
Wuhan. The next month a message intercepted from Shanghai indicated
that General Lin Piao, the commander of Chinese army forces, would
intervene in Korea. Later reports noted that rail hubs in central China
were jammed with soldiers on their way to Manchuria. By September,
AFSA had identified six field armies in Manchuria, near the Korean
border, and ferries on the Yalu River were being reserved for military use.
All of these reports were fully available to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the
White House, and to General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of the
UN forces. Nevertheless, when asked by President Truman on October 15
about the chances of Chinese intervention, MacArthur replied, "Very
little."
The indications continued. On October 21, AFSA issued a Sigint
report stating that twenty troop trains were heading toward Manchuria
from Shanghai. Then, on November 7, AFSA intercepted a radio-
telephone call made by an East European in Beijing. He reported that
orders had been issued allowing every Chinese soldier to volunteer to
fight in Korea, saying, "We are already at war here." That same month,
intercept operators picked up an unencrypted order for 30,000 maps of
Korea to be sent from Shanghai to the forces in Manchuria.
Finally, intercepts during the first three weeks of November revealed
that Beijing was in a state of emergency, with authorities sponsoring
mass demonstrations demanding intervention, imposing more stringent
censorship, improving air defense, and commanding that any soldier or
officer could volunteer to serve in Korea. A medical headquarters
urgently ordered troops in Manchuria to receive immunizations for
diseases that were prevalent in North Korea”smallpox, cholera, and
typhoid fever. AFSA reports demonstrated clearly that the Chinese were
making extensive preparations for war.
But despite the many Sigint clues, U.S. and South Korean forces were
once again caught by surprise. Early on the bitter-cold morning of
November 26, with trumpets braying, thirty Chinese divisions surged
across the North Korean border and forced U.S. and South Korean
armies to make a precipitous retreat southward, costing the lives of
many American soldiers.
"No one who received Comint product, including MacArthur's own G-2
[intelligence chief] in Tokyo, should have been surprised by the PRC
intervention in the Korean War," said a recent, highly classified NSA


27
review. The review then pointed a finger of blame for the disaster directly
at MacArthur. "During the Second World War, MacArthur had
disregarded Comint that contradicted his plans," it said. "MacArthur's
zeal [to press ahead] to the Yalu probably caused him to minimize the
Comint indicators of massive PRC intervention just as he had earlier
minimized 'inconvenient' Comint reports about the Japanese. He thus
drove his command to great defeat in Korea."
By mid-1951, with the 38th Parallel roughly dividing the two sides,
ASA headquarters was established in the western suburbs of Seoul, on
the campus of Ewha College, the largest women's school in Asia. There,
traffic analysts put together a nearly complete Chinese army order of
battle. Also, when truce negotiations began in July 1951, ASA units
eavesdropped on meetings among the North Korean negotiating team.
But that same month, the earphones of most of the intercept operators
went silent as the North Koreans switched much of their radio
communications to the security of landlines. NSA later attributed this
caution to secrets allegedly passed to the Russians by former AFSA
employee William Weisband.
Toward the end of the war, there were some tactical successes. By
1952, AFSA had broken a number of Chinese cipher systems. "The . . .
last three major pushes that the Chinese had against us, we got those
lock, stock, and barrel, cold," recalled Odonovich. "So that when the
Chinese made their advances on our positions they were dead ducks . . .
we had the code broken and everything."
But critical high-level communication between and among the
Chinese and North Koreans was beyond the AFSA codebreakers' reach.
Gone was the well-oiled machine that had helped win World War II. In its
place was a confusing assortment of special-interest groups, each looking
upon the other as the enemy; no one had the power to bring them
together. "It has become apparent," complained General James Van
Fleet, commander of the U.S. Eighth Army in June 1952, "that during
the between-wars interim we have lost, through neglect, disinterest and
possibly jealousy, much of the effectiveness in intelligence work that we
acquired so painfully in World War II. Today, our intelligence operations
in Korea have not yet approached the standards that we reached in the
final year of the last war." A year later NSA director Ralph Canine, an
Army lieutenant general, concurred with Van Fleet's observation.
So bad was the situation that in December 1951 the director of the
CIA, Walter Bedell Smith, brought the problem to the attention of the
National Security Council. In his memorandum, Smith warned that he
was "gravely concerned as to the security and effectiveness with which
the Communications Intelligence activities of the Government are being
conducted." He complained that American Sigint had become
"ineffective," as a result of the "system of divided authorities and multiple


28
responsibilities."
Smith then discreetly referred to the mammoth security breach,
blamed on Weisband, that had led the Soviets to change their systems.
"In recent years," he said, "a number of losses have occurred which it is
difficult to attribute to coincidence." To preserve what he called "this
invaluable intelligence source"”Sigint”Smith called on Truman to ask
Secretary of Defense Robert A. Lovett and Secretary of State Dean G.
Acheson to conduct a "thorough investigation" of the agency. Three days
later, on December 13, 1951, Truman ordered the investigation.
Appointed to head the probe was George Abbott Brownell, a fifty-
three-year-old New York attorney and former special assistant to the
secretary of the Air Force. Over six months, Brownell and his committee
of distinguished citizens took AFSA apart and put it together again. In
the end, they viewed AFSA as a "step backward." By June 13, 1952,
when he turned his report over to Lovett and Acheson, Brownell had a
blueprint for a strong, centralized new agency with a director more akin
to a czar than to the wrestling referee the post resembled. Both
secretaries approved and welcomed the independent review and set
about carrying out its recommendations.
Four months later on October 24, Lovett, David K. Bruce from the
State Department, and Everett Gleason of the NSC entered the Oval
Office for a 3:30 off-the-record meeting with the president. There,
Truman issued a highly secret order scrapping AFSA and creating in its

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