e-t-a-o-n-r-i Spy and the F.B.I.

The following story by Les Earnest is one of my favorite pieces of writing on codes and cryptography – and is worth repeating for the uninitiated. Les Earnest has also written a number of other interesting accounts of early computer systems and organizational dyfunctionalities associated therewith – but let’s start with this one:


Newsgroups: comp.risks
X-issue: 6.54
Date: 01 Apr 88 1620 PST
From: Les Earnest
Subject: The “previous account” referred to in RISKS-6.51
e-t-a-o-n-r-i Spy and the F.B.I.

Reading a book got me into early trouble — I had an F.B.I. record by age twelve. This bizarre incident caused a problem much later when I needed a security clearance. I learned that I could obtain one only by concealing my sordid past.

A friend named Bob and I read the book “Secret and Urgent,” by Fletcher Pratt [Blue Ribbon Books; Garden City, NY; 1942] which was an early popular account of codes and ciphers. Pratt showed how to use letter frequencies to break ciphers and reported that the most frequently occurring letters in typical English text are e-t-a-o-n-r-i, in that order. (The letter frequency order of the story you are now reading is e-t-a-i-o-n-r. The higher frequency of “i” probably reflects the fact that _I_ use the first person singular a lot.) Pratt’s book also treated more advanced cryptographic schemes.

Bob and I decided that we needed to have a secure way to communicate with each other, so we put together a rather elaborate jargon code based on the principles described in the book. I don’t remember exactly why we thought we needed it — we spent much of our time outside of school together, so there was ample time to talk privately. Still, you never could tell when you might need to send a secret message!

We made two copies of the code key (a description of how to encrypt and decrypt our messages) in the form of a single typewritten sheet. We each took a copy and carried it on our persons at all times when we were wearing clothes.

I actually didn’t wear clothes much. I spent nearly all my time outside school wearing just a baggy pair of maroon swimming trunks. That wasn’t considered too weird in San Diego.

I had recently been given glasses to wear but generally kept them in a hard case in the pocket of the trousers that I wore to school. I figured that this was a good place to hide my copy of the code key, so I carefully folded it to one-eighth of its original size and stuck it at the bottom of the case, under my glasses.

Every chance I got, I went body surfing at Old Mission Beach. I usually went by streetcar and, since I had to transfer Downtown, I wore clothes. Unfortunately, while I was riding the trolley home from the beach one Saturday, the case carrying my glasses slipped out of my pocket unnoticed. I reported the loss to my mother that night. She chastised me and later called the streetcar company. They said that the glasses hadn’t been turned in.

After a few weeks of waiting in vain for the glasses to turn up, we began to lose hope. My mother didn’t rush getting replacement glasses in view of the fact that I hadn’t worn them much and they cost about $8, a large sum at that time. (To me, $8 represented 40 round trips to the beach by streetcar, or 80 admission fees to the movies.)

Unknown to us, the case had been found by a patriotic citizen who opened it, discovered the code key, recognized that it must belong to a Japanese spy and turned it over to the F.B.I. This was in 1943, just after citizens of Japanese descent had been forced off their property and taken away to concentration camps. I remember hearing that a local grocer was secretly a Colonel in the Japanese Army and had hidden his uniform in the back of his store. A lot of people actually believed these things.

About six weeks later, when I happened to be off on another escapade, my mother was visited by a man who identified himself as an investigator from the F.B.I. (She was a school administrator, but happened to be at home working on her Ph.D. dissertation.) She noticed that there were two more men waiting in a car outside. The agent asked a number of questions about me, including my occupation. He reportedly was quite disappointed when he learned that I was only 12 years old.

He eventually revealed why I was being investigated, showed my mother the glasses and the code key and asked her if she knew where it came from. She didn’t, of course. She asked if we could get the glasses back and he agreed.

My mother told the investigator how glad she was to get them back, considering that they cost $8. He did a slow burn, then said “Lady, this case has cost the government thousands of dollars. It has been the top priority in our office for the last six weeks. We traced the glasses to your son from the prescription by examining the files of nearly every optometrist in San Diego.” It apparently didn’t occur to them that if I were a REAL Japanese spy, I might have brought the glasses with me from headquarters.

The F.B.I. agent gave back the glasses but kept the code key “for our records.” They apparently were not fully convinced that they were dealing just with kids.

Since our communication scheme had been compromised, Bob and I devised a new key. I started carrying it in my wallet, which I thought was more secure. I don’t remember ever exchanging any cryptographic messages. I was always ready, though.
A few years later when I was in college, I got a summer job at the Naval Electronics Lab, which required a security clearance. One of the questions on the application form was “Have you ever been investigated by the F.B.I.” Naturally, I checked “Yes.” The next question was, “If so, describe the circumstances.” There was very little space on the form, so I answered simply and honestly, “I was suspected of being a Japanese spy.”

When I handed the form in to the security officer, he scanned it quickly, looked me over slowly, then said, “Explain this” — pointing at the F.B.I. question. I described what had happened. He got very agitated, picked up my form, tore it in pieces, and threw it in the waste basket.

He then got out a blank form and handed it to me, saying “Here, fill it out again and don’t mention that. If you do, I’ll make sure that you NEVER get a security clearance.”

I did as he directed and was shortly granted the clearance. I never again disclosed that incident on security clearance forms.

On another occasion much later, I learned by chance that putting certain provocative information on a security clearance form can greatly speed up the clearance process. But that is another story.
Les Earnest

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2 thoughts on “e-t-a-o-n-r-i Spy and the F.B.I.

  1. Gadgetopia

    The 12-Year-Old Spy

    e-t-a-o-n-r-i Spy and the F.B.I.: This is a pretty funny story about a kid, a secret code, and the FBI. About six weeks later, when I happened to be off on another escapade, my mother was visited by a man…

  2. Jokes

    The CIA had an opening for an assassin. After all of the background checks, interviews, and testing were done there were three finalists – two men and one woman. For the final test, the CIA agents took one of the men to a large metal door and handed him a gun.
    “We must know that you will follow your instructions, no matter what the circumstances. Inside this room you will find your wife sitting in a chair. You have to kill her.” The first man said. “You cant be serious. I could never shoot my wife!”The agent replies, “Then you?re not the right man for this job.”
    The second man was given the same instructions. He took the gun and went into the room. All was quiet for about five minutes. Then the agent came out with tears in his eyes. “I tried, but I cant kill my wife.” The agent replies, “You dont have what it takes. Take your wife and go home.”
    Finally, it was the womans turn. Only she was told to kill her husband. She took the gun and went into the room. Shots were heard, one shot after another. They heard screaming, crashing, banging on the walls. After a few minutes, all was quiet. The door opened slowly and there stood the woman. She wiped the sweat from her brow and said, “You guys didnt tell me the gun was loaded with blanks. So I had to beat him to death with the chair.”

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