Code Name: Venona


Smithsonian Magazine - - Somario - By Liza Mundy

The un­told story of the crack team of women code break­ers whose top-se­cret work dur­ing the Cold War led to the ar­rests of Julius and Ethel Rosen­berg and other Soviet spies

Num­bers came eas­ily to An­ge­line Nanni. As a girl of 12 in ru­ral Penn­syl­va­nia dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion, she kept the books in her fa­ther’s gro­cery store. In high school, she took all the ac­count­ing classes on of­fer. En­rolled in beauty school af­ter grad­u­a­tion—cos­me­tol­ogy be­ing one of the few fields open to women in the 1940s—Angie fo­cused on the busi­ness side while her sis­ters, Mimi and Vir­ginia, learned to style hair. Be­fore the war, the three Nanni sis­ters had opened a beauty par­lor in Blairsville, Penn­syl­va­nia, and Angie ran it. So yes, num­bers were her call­ing. But the num­bers on this test were like noth­ing she had ever seen. Angie—in­tent, grace­ful, un­flap­pable—was seated in a small class­room in a large, ill-built tem­po­rary struc­ture. The year was 1945, and World War II was over. The Nanni sis­ters had moved to Wash­ing­ton, D.C. to take jobs in the war ef­fort, but now the beauty shop in Blairsville beck­oned. Angie, though, wanted to stay. This test would de­ter­mine whether she could.

It was be­ing ad­min­is­tered at a se­cret gov­ern­ment fa­cil­ity in Ar­ling­ton, Vir­ginia. Around Angie were eight or nine other women, all con­tem­plat­ing the same set of num­bers, wear­ing var­i­ous ex­pres­sions of alarm. Most, Angie thought ner­vously, had at­tended col­lege. She had not. On a piece of pa­per be­fore her were ten sets of num­bers, ar­ranged in five-digit groups. The num­bers rep­re­sented a coded mes­sage. Each five-digit group had a se­cret mean­ing. Be­low that row of 50 num­bers was an­other row of 50, ar­ranged in sim­i­lar groups. The su­per­vi­sor told them to sub­tract the en­tire bot­tom row from the top row, in se­quence. She said some­thing about “non-car­ry­ing.”

Angie had never heard the word “non-car­ry­ing” be­fore, but as she looked at the streams of dig­its, some­thing hap­pened in her brain. She in-

tu­ited that the digit 4, mi­nus the digit 9, equaled 5, be­cause you just bor­rowed an in­vis­i­ble 1 to go be­side the top num­ber. Sim­ple! Angie Nanni raced through, strip­ping out the su­per­flu­ous fig­ures to get down to the heart of the mes­sage.

“I don’t know how I did it,” says Angie, who was 99 years old when we talked in March. “I just said, ‘Oh, that’s go­ing to be easy.’ ” The su­per­vi­sor came around and saw that she had fin­ished be­fore any­body else. “That’s right, Angie! That’s right!” she cried. Then she ran out of the room to tell her su­pe­ri­ors they had a new can­di­date for the Rus­sian code-break­ing project.

That mo­ment—and Angie Nanni’s in­stinc­tive grasp of an un­usual form of math called non-car­ry­ing ad­di­tion and sub­trac­tion—changed the tra­jec­tory of her life. It also helped seal the fate of other Amer­i­cans, such as Julius and Ethel Rosen­berg, ex­e­cuted in 1953 for pass­ing atomic se­crets to the Soviet Union. Their con­vic­tion was based in part on the work of An­ge­line Nanni and a group of other ex­tra­or­di­nary Amer­i­can women.

Their per­sis­tence and tal­ent brought about one of the great­est counterespionage tri­umphs of the Cold War: Venona, the top-se­cret U.S. ef­fort to break en­crypted Soviet spy com­mu­ni­ca­tions. For nearly 40 years, Angie and sev­eral dozen col­leagues helped iden­tify those who passed Amer­i­can and Al­lied se­crets to the Soviet Union dur­ing and af­ter World War II. Their work un­masked such in­fa­mous spies as the Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer Kim Philby, the Bri­tish diplo­mat Don­ald Maclean, the Ger­man-born sci­en­tist Klaus Fuchs and many oth­ers. They pro­vided vi­tal in­tel­li­gence about Soviet trade­craft. Their work was so highly clas­si­fied that Pres­i­dent Harry Tru­man likely did not know about it.

In 1995, when Venona was de­clas­si­fied, the pub­lic face of the project was male. The most cel­e­brated name was that of a man, Mered­ith Gard­ner, a lin­guist who de­ci­phered names and words, work­ing closely with FBI agent Robert J. Lam­phere. But in the crypt­an­a­lytic unit—where the tough an­a­lytic math was done, where the mes­sages were pre­pared and matched, where the break­throughs hap­pened, where the num­bers were so painstak­ingly stripped—the face of Venona was dif­fer­ent: “Most of the peo­ple work­ing on it were women,” says Robert L. Ben­son, a re­tired his­to­rian for the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency.

The story of Venona’s fe­male code break­ers has never been pub­licly told in full.

Ben­son in­ter­viewed some

of them for a clas­si­fied in­ter­nal his­tory of Venona, only por­tions of which have been de­clas­si­fied and re­leased on­line. More im­por­tant, while the ex­ploits of Gard­ner and other men have been the fo­cus of en­tire books, the women them­selves did not talk about their work—not to their friends, not to their fam­i­lies, hardly to each other. Most took the se­cret to their graves. This ar­ti­cle is based on exclusive in­ter­views with Nanni, the last liv­ing mem­ber of the orig­i­nal team of Venona women; rel­a­tives of code break­ers who are no longer alive; and NSA and CIA publi­ca­tions that de­tail how the project un­folded. It marks the first time that any of the fe­male Venona code break­ers has given an in­ter­view to a re­porter.

Even now, talk­ing about her ca­reer makes Angie Nanni ner­vous: “I still don’t if I can help it,” she says. She and her col­leagues—young women from ru­ral towns— were privy to some of the most closely held se­crets of Cold War es­pi­onage. In the 1950s and ’60s, as the So­vi­ets at­tempted to learn about U.S. weapons and Amer­ica was con­vulsed by the toxic chaos of McCarthy­ism, these women were among a tiny hand­ful of Amer­i­cans who knew the truth.

They were Glo­ria Forbes, Mil­dred Hayes, Car­rie Berry, Jo Miller Deafen­baugh, Joan Malone Cal­la­han, Gene Grabeel and oth­ers. Any­body who saw the women to­gether could eas­ily mis­take them for a sub­ur­ban gar­den club. They wore shift dresses, big hair, fish­bowl glasses. They car­ried hand­bags. They liked to pic­nic, shop, play bridge, bowl to­gether. Most started out as school­teach­ers. They had fe­ro­cious in­tel­lects, a pow­er­ful com­mand of lan­guages and math, a steely com­mit­ment to pub­lic ser­vice and an al­most fa­mil­ial de­vo­tion to one an­other. Like Angie Nanni, most of them came to Wash­ing­ton dur­ing the war and never left.

“We were mostly sin­gle women,” Angie says. Bach­e­lor­hood kind of came with the ter­ri­tory: “We were afraid to meet other peo­ple be­cause at that time, we didn’t know who we were go­ing to meet.” It might be a Soviet plant. “I was even afraid to join a church.” Her fam­ily her­itage is Ital­ian; trim and el­e­gant, she still has per­fect pos­ture; a cheru­bic face; alert, amused eyes with thin pen­ciled eye­brows. She dresses in la bella figura tra­di­tion, with star­tlingly bril­liant gold jew­elry and bright, well-tai­lored cloth­ing. She still cooks for her­self; gro­cery shops; walks ev­ery day. And she still lives

in the same down­town apart­ment, ex­ot­i­cally dec­o­rated with knick­knacks she picked up on trav­els and at an­tiques stores. Ges­tur­ing to­ward her win­dow, in the di­rec­tion of some town­houses where Soviet diplo­mats used to live, she con­jures what Cold War Wash­ing­ton felt like for an un­mar­ried woman who knew some of the gov­ern­ment’s most sen­si­tive se­crets.

The Venona mes­sages were en­coded in a fiendishly com­plex sys­tem, so dif­fi­cult to crack that the women mined the same trove for decades, end­lessly go­ing over code groups, dig­ging out names, go­ing back and back as new in­for­ma­tion came to light. At the peak of the Cold War—which was also the peak of the baby boom, an era when Amer­i­can women were urged to spend their lives as homemak­ers—it was women who started Venona. It was women who kept Venona go­ing, and women who rolled Venona up.

To try to break wartime Soviet mes­sages was an act of re­mark­able op­ti­mism, if not hubris. The Rus­sians had a well-earned rep­u­ta­tion for cre­at­ing un­break­able codes, and U.S. code break­ers al­ready had their hands full in de­ci­pher­ing Ja­panese, Ger­man and other en­emy mes­sages. In ad­di­tion, Amer­i­can lead­ers were squea­mish about read­ing al­lies’ com­mu­ni­ca­tions. But the So­vi­ets were un­pre­dictable, and it would be vi­tal to know their in­ten­tions in a post­war world. So, on Fe­bru­ary 1, 1943, the Sig­nal In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice—the Army’s code-break­ing branch, and a fore­run­ner of the NSA—qui­etly set up a pro­gram to break en­coded tele­grams sent to Moscow by Soviet diplo­mats sta­tioned around the world.

The col­lec­tion of in­ter­cepts had be­gun ear­lier, and some­what by ac­ci­dent: Start­ing in 1939, Soviet com­mu­ni­ca­tions were vac­u­umed up as part of a mas­sive Al­lied ef­fort to in­ter­cept trans­mis­sions sent by the Ger­mans, Ja­panese and other Axis na­tions. When the United States abruptly en­tered the war on De­cem­ber 8, 1941, the Of­fice of Cen­sor­ship be­gan to re­ceive a copy of ev­ery in­ter­na­tional cable. En­coded ca­bles were sent to the Sig­nal In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice, which by late 1942 was up and run­ning in Ar­ling­ton Hall, a for­mer girls’ school in Ar­ling­ton, whose gra­cious grounds had been trans­formed with barbed wire and mas­sive tem­po­rary build­ings.

There, the Soviet mes­sages ac­cu­mu­lated in a wooden file cabi­net, and then an­other, and an­other. No­body knew what to do with them, but no crack­er­jack code-break­ing op­er­a­tion throws any mes­sage away. By early 1943, the head of Army in­tel­li­gence, Carter Clarke, had come to dis­trust the So­vi­ets, ally or not. If they were plan­ning to bro­ker a sep­a­rate peace with Ger­many, Clarke wanted to be able to warn his bosses. So he made what is, in the an­nals of code-break­ing, a pretty com­mon de­ci­sion—to try to pen­e­trate an ally’s se­cret com­mu­ni­ca­tions. He launched a pro­gram to read Joe Stalin’s mail.

At about the same time, a bright young home eco­nom­ics teacher was be­com­ing dis­con­tented with the charms of ru­ral south­west Vir­ginia. Gene Grabeel, 23, had grown up in Lee County. Her home­town, Rose Hill, had 300 peo­ple, a gro­cery, a church and a ser­vice sta­tion. Her mother raised chick­ens and sold eggs, and her fa­ther farmed to­bacco and worked a va­ri­ety of jobs. The Grabeels had a tra­di­tion of send­ing their girls to col­lege. Gene went to Mars Hill, a two-year school in North Carolina, then to State Teach­ers Col­lege (later called Long­wood) in Far­mville, Vir­ginia.

At the time, the only job a fe­male col­lege grad­u­ate could re­li­ably ex­pect was teach­ing school, and Gene taught home eco­nom­ics to teenage girls in Madison Heights, Vir­ginia. When she told her fa­ther she hated it, he urged her to find work that made her happy. At a hol­i­day dance in her home­town dur­ing the Christ­mas sea­son in 1942, she chat­ted with a child­hood ac­quain­tance, Frank Rowlett, who was now a top of­fi­cial in the Sig­nal In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice. Rowlett con­fided that there was bet­ter work in Wash­ing­ton.

By that time, the Army had sent a hand­ful of of­fi­cers out to seek re­cruits for its code-break­ing op­er­a­tion. Since most of the men were off fight­ing, the re­cruiters fo­cused on women. (Ninety per­cent of Ar­ling­ton Hall code break­ers would be women.) Grabeel trav­eled to the post of­fice in Lynch­burg to hand her ap­pli­ca­tion for war work to a re­cruiter named Paavo Carl­son. He of­fered her a job—do­ing what, he could not say, be­cause no­body had told him, ei­ther—and asked her to head for the cap­i­tal as soon as she could. Grabeel’s fa­ther agreed she would be hap­pier in Wash­ing­ton “shuf­fling pa­per” for six months—her likely task, they both as­sumed—so she took the job. On Sun­day, De­cem­ber 28, 1942, she ar­rived by train and took a cab to Ar­ling­ton Hall, where she was given hasty train­ing in the art and sci­ence of break­ing codes.



At Ar­ling­ton Hall, most work fo­cused on Ja­panese Army codes, but Grabeel, four weeks af­ter ar­riv­ing, was di­rected to at­tack the Soviet in­ter­cepts, an im­mensely se­cret and sen­si­tive task even in that se­cret and sen­si­tive place. It’s likely she was cho­sen be­cause Rowlett knew her as a solid cit­i­zen with an unim­peach­able fam­ily back­ground. Her code-break­ing part­ner was Se­cond Lt. Leonard Zubko, a 1942 Rut­gers grad­u­ate fresh out of in­fantry school at Fort Ben­ning. Ea­ger to com­mand troops, Zubko later fig­ured he got this desk job be­cause he knew Rus­sian. He did not en­joy it. He and Grabeel were seated in one cor­ner of a room and told to speak only in whis­pers. The other oc­cu­pant was a Bri­tish li­ai­son of­fi­cer—an odd al­lot­ment of of­fice space, as the Bri­tish were not to know what was go­ing on.

And so Venona be­gan: two ju­nior an­a­lysts la­bor­ing at a ta­ble in a build­ing that was al­ter­na­tively hot and cold and al­ways crowded, with huge open bays oc­cu­pied by teams work­ing on other projects. The first thing Grabeel and Zubko did was try to get a grip on what, ex­actly, they had. They be­gan sort­ing the tan­gle of mes­sages by date as well as by “lane,” the com­mu­ni­ca­tions cir­cuit over which they had been sent. Be­fore long, Zubko was re­placed. Other men came and went. Grabeel stayed put.

As of­ten hap­pens in code-break­ing, en­emy coun­tries be­came an odd sort of ally. Code break­ers in Fin- land—which the So­vi­ets in­vaded in 1939—had iden­ti­fied in Soviet mes­sages em­bed­ded “in­di­ca­tors,” or spe­cial num­bers that give clues to how a code sys­tem works and what kind of re­sources (such as code books) have been used to com­pile it. The Finns passed this tip to the Ja­panese. And since Ar­ling­ton Hall was read­ing Ja­panese mes­sages, the Fin­nish glean­ings were passed to Grabeel.

Us­ing these few hints, the for­mer home ec teacher and her col­leagues di­vined that Ar­ling­ton Hall had mes­sages pass­ing along five dif­fer­ent Soviet com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tems. One, the most vo­lu­mi­nous, had to do with trade—of­ten about ma­te­ri­als be­ing sent from the U.S. to Rus­sia through the Lend-Lease pro­gram. An­other car­ried reg­u­lar diplo­matic com­mu­ni­ca­tions. In time, the code break­ers dis­cerned that the other three were spy sys­tems: GRU, or mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence; naval in­tel­li­gence; and the NKVD, the fore­run­ner of the KGB.

The So­vi­ets’ code sys­tem was widely con­sid­ered un­break­able be­cause it had so many lay­ers. To en­code a mes­sage, a clerk would con­sult a code book, a kind of dic­tionary that pro­vided a four-digit code group. Each code group stood for a word or let­ter. To make snoop­ing much more dif­fi­cult, those num­bers were con­verted into five-digit fig­ures (see “How to Cipher Like a Soviet,” p. 33) and then en­ci­phered by adding a se­cond set of num­bers, known as “key” or “ad­di­tive.” (This is where the non-car­ry­ing arith­metic came in.) The So­vi­ets drew their ad­di­tives from a “one-time pad”: pads of pages, each con­tain­ing about 50 ran­dom ad­di­tives, each page never to be reused.

The one-time pad was be­lieved to make the sys­tem wa­ter­tight. That’s be­cause break­ing a com­pli­cated code re­quires “depth,” which is the term for lots of mes­sages en­ci­phered us­ing the same page from an ad­di­tive book. It is depth that en­ables code break­ers to lo­cate pat­terns and find a way in. With a one-time pad, there is no depth, no abil­ity to com­pare.

But Ar­ling­ton Hall had such huge suc­cess break­ing Ja­panese and Ger­man codes that of­fi­cials were op­ti­mistic. Over the sum­mer of 1943, they fun­neled fresh re­cruits into the tiny Rus­sian unit.

Josephine Miller ar­rived in late May. Car­rie Berry and Mary Boake came in mid-July, He­len Bradley

in Au­gust, Glo­ria Forbes in

Septem­ber. Vir­tu­ally all were for­mer ed­u­ca­tors. Berry later re­called that the salary was

$1,800 a year, plus a bonus for

Satur­day work—twice what she had been mak­ing teach­ing school. She was an af­fa­ble and opin­ion­ated Texan, ad­ven­tur­ous and warm and out­go­ing—a con­trast to her great friend Gene Grabeel, who was tidy and tiny and quiet and stylish (“She al­ways looked like she stepped out of a band­box,” her sis­ter-in-law Eleanor Grabeel re­calls), a mem­ber of the Colo­nial Dames of Amer­ica and the Daugh­ters of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion and, later, a devo­tee of Univer­sity of Vir­ginia bas­ket­ball. By fall of 1943, the group also in­cluded Doris John­son, Ruby Roland, Juanita McCutcheon and Rosa Brown. These newly fledged an­a­lysts were re­ceiv­ing 2,500 in­ter­cepts a week, and the num­ber of file cab­i­nets was in­creas­ing. A sur­vey quoted John­son say­ing that ef­fi­ciency was good, “no idle­ness and few com­plaints or griev­ances arise.” Ex­cept that, de­spite all their fig­ur­ing and match­ing, the work “has been neg­a­tive in re­sults.”

In Oc­to­ber 1943 the code break­ers be­gan do­ing “ma­chine runs” un­der the su­per­vi­sion of Mary Joe Dun­ning, a stu­dious, short-haired woman who had been work­ing for the Army code-break­ing op­er­a­tion since the late 1930s and knew every­thing there was to know about how ma­chines could sim­plify and has­ten even the most daunt­ing code-break­ing chal­lenge. At this early, la­bo­ri­ous, “brute­force” stage, they used IBM punch-card ma­chines to com­pare early code groups in thou­sands of mes­sages that had been sent over trade chan­nels. Thanks to this repet­i­tive, painstak­ing anal­y­sis, the team be­gan to re­al­ize that there was, in fact, a tan­ta­liz­ing trace of “depth”: Some pairs of mes­sages ap­peared to have been en­ci­phered us­ing the same pad. This in­sight was the core achieve­ment of Venona: The So­vi­ets had used some of their one-time pads twice.

How could the So­vi­ets, so ex­pert at es­pi­onage, have com­mit­ted such a ba­sic blun­der? Af­ter the Ger­mans in­vaded Rus­sia on June 22, 1941, en­tire fac­to­ries’ worth of equip­ment were packed up in Moscow and put on trains to the Urals. Amid the chaos, re­sources be­came scant. In des­per­a­tion, some­one de­cided to man­u­fac­ture, briefly, some du­pli­cate sets of pads. Soviet spy­mas­ters tried to mitigate this weak­ness by dis­pers­ing the du­pli­cate pads.

One set might be used by the NKVD unit that was se­cretly op­er­at­ing out of New York; the se­cond might be used by the Soviet Gov­ern­ment Pur­chas­ing Com­mis­sion in Wash­ing­ton. Developing the nee­dle-in-a-haystack abil­ity to match mes­sages trav­el­ing through two dis­tinct chan­nels was cru­cial: If the team could de­ter­mine that a cer­tain pad used for rou­tine trade mes­sages had also been used by the NKVD, then a so-called “depth of two” ex­isted, and they could be­gin to com­pare the two. To be sure, two mes­sages wasn’t much when it came to depth: Among code-break­ing ex­perts, it had al­ways been as­sumed that a depth of three—at least—was needed to break a sys­tem. But this was a uniquely gifted team.

It was Angie Nanni who did this vi­tal match­ing work, look­ing for buried in­di­ca­tors to fig­ure out which mes­sages—trav­el­ing in dif­fer­ent chan­nels—might have used the same pad.

As they raced to build an un­der­stand­ing of the sys­tems, other breaks were made—some­times by men, of­ten by women. Sa­muel Chew, a for­mer English pro­fes­sor at the Ci­tadel, rec­og­nized that the trade mes­sages tended to use cer­tain words re­peat­edly and in the same or­der, usu­ally words hav­ing to do with the way com­modi­ties and ship­ment amounts were listed; this greatly helped an­tic­i­pate what a code group might stand for. Marie Meyer, a Rus­sian lin­guist, was par­tic­u­larly good at di­vin­ing code-group mean­ings. An­other big ad­vance came when Genevieve Grot­jan Fe­in­stein, who had made a ma­jor break in a Ja­panese sys­tem in 1940, saw that some open­ing groups likely re­vealed which ad­di­tive page had been used twice. This care­ful col­lec­tive la­bor en­abled the team to break the Venona mes­sages us­ing only their an­a­lytic pow­ers, un­aided by cap­tured code books or sup­ple­men­tary ma­te­rial. It re­mains one of the great­est feats in the his­tory of U.S. cryp­tol­ogy.

By now the unit had moved into an open area in the back of a tem­po­rary build­ing, sep­a­rated by wooden screens from a team read­ing weather-re­lated Ja­panese mes­sages. The code break­ers sat in cast-off chairs at a cou­ple of desks and wooden ta­bles. They had a few reg­u­lar type­writ­ers and one that typed Cyril­lic. At the end of the day, they un­pinned their maps of the Soviet Union from the wall and locked up their Rus­sian text­books. No­body else at Ar­ling­ton Hall—which at its height had 8,000 work­ers—was to know that the Soviet code sys­tems were be­ing at­tacked.

In 1945, the Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence estab­lish­ment be­gan to grasp the scope of Soviet spy­ing against the United States. Igor Gouzenko, a Soviet code clerk work­ing the GRU sys­tem, de­fected and told Cana­dian au­thor­i­ties that the So­vi­ets had pen­e­trated the Man­hat­tan Project. Un­der in­ter­ro­ga­tion by the FBI, Whit­taker Cham­bers, a for­mer GRU agent, named Amer­i­cans spy­ing for the So­vi­ets. By Novem­ber the Tru­man ad­min­is­tra­tion knew of al­le­ga­tions against Lauch­lin Cur­rie, a White House aide; Dun­can Lee, ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tant at the Of­fice of Strate­gic Ser­vices, fore­run­ner of the CIA; and as­sis­tant trea­sury sec­re­tary Harry Dex­ter White. Around the same time, a for­mer Soviet agent, El­iz­a­beth Bent­ley, gave the FBI a stun­ning 107-page state­ment de­tail­ing spies in the State and Trea­sury de­part­ments, the OSS, the Pen­tagon, even the White House.

The prob­lem was that Bent­ley had a lot to say, but no doc­u­men­ta­tion to back it up. That is where Venona came in.

By the time Angie Nanni was brought on in the fall of 1945— one of the few non-col­lege-ed­u­cated staffers—the sec­tion was in high gear. The Rus­sian unit com­prised a traf­fic sec­tion, two “read­ing” sec­tions and a “back room,” a high-level trou­bleshoot- ing sec­tion where Gene Grabeel was now one of the most ex­pe­ri­enced work­ers. “We all loved Gene,” says Angie, who worked in traf­fic. “She was very nice—very quiet. . . . A lot of times, if we weren’t sure about some­thing, we felt free enough to go to her.”

Not ev­ery­one was so con­ge­nial. A mem­ber of the Women’s Army Corps—one Lt. Hunter—ini­tially tried to keep Nanni out of the unit be­cause she lacked a de­gree. But af­ter Nanni proved her met­tle—it didn’t take long—she en­coun­tered Lt. Hunter in the ladies’ room. “I owe you an apol­ogy,” the of­fi­cer said as they were wash­ing their hands.

“Apol­ogy ac­cepted,” Nanni said, mean­ing it, and walked out.

She started sort­ing traf­fic but then was as­signed to lo­cate mes­sages that had in­volved the re­use of a one-time pad. She would feed cer­tain mes­sages into the key punch ma­chines and hunt for rep­e­ti­tions. When­ever she found one, the en­tire unit jumped: “If you would find a match, you know what I mean, every­thing would just hus­tle-bus­tle.”

By 1946, the team had laid the ground­work so that Gard­ner, a lin­guist who had taught at the Univer­sity of Akron, could look at code groups to di­vine what they meant. This was called book-break­ing, and Gard­ner was a mas­ter. He not only broke words; he broke the “spell ta­bles” used for en­cod­ing English let­ters. Soon enough he found him­self read­ing a mes­sage from 1944 that iden­ti­fied prom­i­nent atomic sci­en­tists, in­clud­ing sev­eral with the Man­hat­tan Project, who were pass­ing se­crets. He read dozens of mes­sages sent be­tween Moscow and New York in 1944 and 1945.

Thanks to the spell ta­ble, cover names emerged— dozens, even hun­dreds of aliases used to iden­tify spies as well as pub­lic fig­ures and projects. Gard­ner found that Franklin Roo­sevelt was KAP­I­TAN. The U.S. War Depart­ment was ARSE­NAL, the State Depart­ment THE BANK. The Man­hat­tan Project was ENORMOZ. El­iz­a­beth Bent­ley was GOOD GIRL.

In Septem­ber 1947, Clarke’s mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence unit qui­etly shared these suc­cesses with the FBI; Gard­ner be­gan a richly pro­duc­tive li­ai­son with FBI agent Robert Lam­phere, who used the Venona ma­te­rial for his in­ves­ti­ga­tion, then re­cip­ro­cated by pro­vid­ing in­for­ma­tion that sent the Venona team back to read old code groups in the light of new find­ings.

The re­sults were star­tling. For ex­am­ple: An agent was men­tioned in the dis­patches first by the code name AN­TENNA, then, be­gin­ning in Septem­ber 1944, by LIB­ERAL. In June 1950, the FBI dis­cerned that in­for­ma­tion about this agent matched known facts about New York en­gi­neer Julius Rosen­berg. His wife, Ethel, was im­pli­cated in two of the mes­sages. Other trans­la­tions cor­rob­o­rated what Bent­ley and Cham­bers had said. In June 1950, the FBI de­ter­mined that ALES was State Depart­ment aide Al­ger Hiss, then serv­ing a sen­tence for per­jury. JU­RIST

was Harry Dex­ter White, who had died two years ear­lier.

Prose­cu­tions were dif­fi­cult—the crypt­an­a­lytic break­throughs were so sen­si­tive, they were with­held as ev­i­dence. But some­times the FBI could pro­duce cor­rob­o­rat­ing in­for­ma­tion to dis­guise where the data had orig­i­nated. This set the pat­tern for two years of in­ves­ti­ga­tions and prose­cu­tions.

Even as Sen. Joseph McCarthy was smear­ing many in­no­cent Amer­i­cans, some of the charges he made were true. Like­wise, Pres­i­dent Tru­man played down some al­le­ga­tions that were, in fact, on the mark. (There is no de­fin­i­tive ev­i­dence that he was ever told about Venona; coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials wor­ried that there were spies in the White House.) While the na­tion erupted in fin­ger-point­ing and de­nials, the women in the back rooms of the Venona project knew what was what and who was who. When­ever a cover name was iden­ti­fied or a ma­jor spy op­er­a­tion un­cov­ered, “we would all be happy about it and every­thing,” Angie Nanni re­calls. But: “It was all in a day’s work.”

Her non­cha­lance is re­mark­able. The work was enor­mously stress­ful—po­ten­tially world-chang­ing and crush­ingly te­dious. Many code break­ers suf­fered break­downs. Gard­ner be­came an al­co­holic. Not so the Venona women. “Once I walked out of those gates, I would for­get about Ar­ling­ton Hall,” Nanni says. “That’s the only way I could do it. When we would go out and eat and every­thing, we never dis­cussed work.”

The ex­tent to which the Venona code break­ers were quar­an­tined stood out even in the top-se­cret en­vi­ron­ment of Ar­ling­ton Hall and, later, the NSA build­ing in Fort Meade. No one was per­mit­ted to en­ter the Rus­sian unit ex­cept for those who worked there. And even that level of se­cu­rity wasn’t enough.

Wil­liam Weis­band, a na­tive Rus­sian speaker who had be­come a U.S. cit­i­zen, worked as a “lin­guis­tic ad­viser” to the unit. He had a ten­dency to look over his col­leagues’ shoul­ders. “When I saw him com­ing, I would put things over any­thing” she was work­ing on, Nanni says. “He stopped at my desk, and I said, ‘May I help you?’ He took off.”

Her sus­pi­cion was well founded: Weis­band was, in fact, an NKVD agent. He was iden­ti­fied and sus­pended in 1950—but never pros­e­cuted for es­pi­onage, to pre­serve what was left of Venona’s se­crecy. He sold in­sur­ance un­til he died, in 1967.

But even once the So­vi­ets knew that the Amer­i­cans had cracked Venona, there was noth­ing they could do about the wartime mes­sages the Amer­i­cans al­ready pos­sessed. More names were iden­ti­fied over the next two decades as the FBI pro­vided new leads and the women went back to old ma­te­rial. In 1953, the CIA was briefed and be­gan to as­sist in coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence, en­abling more mes­sage-min­ing. The two decades be­tween 1960 and 1980 pro­duced hun­dreds of trans­la­tions of mes­sages sent in the early 1940s.

The Venona women strove for se­crecy at the of­fice and anonymity on the town, but they did not make up a to­tally closed so­ci­ety. With most of them de­clin­ing to marry and raise chil­dren, they ba­si­cally adopted the chil­dren in their ex­tended fam­i­lies, for whom they were fig­ures of fas­ci­na­tion—ex­otic crea­tures who lived in the big city and did mys­te­ri­ous work.

“I think Gene was just an in­de­pen­dent per­son that didn’t want the re­spon­si­bil­ity of a mar­riage,” Grabeel’s sis­ter-in-law, Eleanor Grabeel, told me not long af­ter Gene died, in Jan­uary 2015, at the age of 94. Gene dated men, and men tended to like her very much, but “I just don’t think she was in­ter­ested in get­ting mar­ried.”

“She was awe­some,” says her great-nephew Jonathan Horton. “I loved to go visit her,” which he did of­ten when he was grow­ing up. (He’s now a pro­fes­sor of bi­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of North Carolina-Asheville.) “She and Car­rie [Berry] were al­ways trav­el­ing, al­ways talk­ing about where they had been.” Once, when she read aloud some Rus­sian words on a souvenir medal, her fam­ily was shocked to re­al­ize that she knew the lan­guage. “We all had crazy the­o­ries about what she did,” Horton says.

Rel­a­tives tried to pump her for in­for­ma­tion. “We en­joyed do­ing that,” says Grabeel’s sis­ter, Vir­ginia Cole. “But she never told us any­thing.” Jonathan Horton and his fa­ther, Ed, tried to in­ter­view Gene in the 1990s, long af­ter she had re­tired, af­ter Venona had been de­clas­si­fied, and af­ter she had re­ceived a ma­jor award from the NSA. But “she would not talk about it, as much as my dad and I tried to pry,” Horton says. In Penn­syl­va­nia and its en­vi­rons, Angie Nanni is cher­ished by 20 dot­ing nieces and neph­ews, for whom she has al­ways been a sur­ro­gate mother, an im­por­tant in­flu­ence and in­spi­ra­tion. Her nephew Jim DeLuca moved to Wash­ing­ton for grad­u­ate school at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity in part be­cause Aunt Angie was there. Some­times he would drive her to work in Mary­land, to a big un­marked cam­pus with armed guards. She would go through the gate and dis­ap­pear into a dark build­ing. “You prob­a­bly thought I was go­ing to jail,” she teases him now. It was, of course, the NSA. By then, he knew bet­ter than to ask.

Not that he and his sib­lings hadn’t tried. When he was a




child, his fa­ther would slide him pep­per­oni sticks to in­duce him to quiz Aunt Angie about what she did. But she held fast—usu­ally. “My aunt can def­i­nitely stop a con­ver­sa­tion and change the sub­ject when she wants,” says her niece Mary Ann DeLuca. Though in the wan­ing days of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, some cousins were dis­cussing the ef­forts of the Rosen­bergs’ sons to ex­on­er­ate their mother, and some­body ex­pressed sym­pa­thy for their cause. “Oh, honey, they can’t,” Aunt Angie said. “We had them, they were guilty,” and walked away.

Into the 1970s, cer­tain key Soviet wartime agents re­mained uniden­ti­fied; even then, only se­lected por­tions of nearly 3,000 mes­sages had been read. Cus­tomer agen­cies—the CIA, the FBI and agen­cies in the U.K.—wanted the mes­sages mined as long as they might yield some­thing, but in 1978, the NSA eval­u­ated the like­li­hood of any more matches and de­cided to phase out the pro­gram within two years.

The NSA was mov­ing into the com­puter age. The Venona women were ar­ti­sans but also relics, and many chose to re­tire. Gene Grabeel re­tired at 58, in 1978. “She didn’t think she would want to or be able to switch into an­other project,” says Ed Horton; plus, her mother was ail­ing and needed Gene’s care. In 1980, it was Angie Nanni and Mil­dred Hayes who, along with a col­league, Jan­ice Cram, boxed up the fa­mil­iar work sheets and folders stored them away.

In 2001, six years af­ter Venona was de­clas­si­fied, Jim DeLuca was on­line when some­thing came into his news feed. He fol­lowed a link to a new NSA pub­li­ca­tion that re­counted the project’s his­tory and cited some of its key peo­ple. He was idly read­ing the names, Mered­ith Gard­ner and Gene Grabeel and the rest, when he saw: An­ge­line Nanni. Wait—what? Aunt Angie!? Venona?

He asked her about it. “Oh,” she said, “that was noth­ing.”

In the early 1950s, af­ter An­ge­line Nanni had es­tab­lishedher­self as a mem­ber of the Venona team, she sprang for a pro­fes­sionalpor­trait.

In the 1990s, note­books com­piled by ex-KGB of­fi­cer Alexan­derVas­siliev from agencydoc­u­ments cor­rob­o­rated the Venona team’swork.

Venona de­cryp­tions ex­posed Julius Rosen­berg (op­po­site) as a Soviet spy. Gene Grabeel (above, left) re­ceived a ci­ta­tion from the NSA for her work on Venona.

“LIB­ERAL rec­om­mended the wife of his wife’sbrother”: A Venona de­cryption of a 1944 cable im­pli­cated David and Ruth Green­glass with the Rosen­bergs.

In the spring of 2018, An­ge­line Nanni re­vis­ited Ar­ling­tonHall, where the Venona team got crack­ing. It is now on the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places.

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