For greater context, be sure to listen to Podcast #168 The Case of the Hollow Nickel before listening to this portion of the interview.
Please note that the text below is an automated transcription. As a result, it may contain errors.
Steve Silverman 00:00:01
In the last episode of the Useless Information Podcast, I introduced you to 93-year-old Marvin Lautzenheiser who, in 1957, headed the FBI team that finally deciphered the hollowed-out nickel that contained a secret message to a Soviet spy who was hidden right here in the United States. Well, today, Marvin continues telling his story, and that includes a discussion of his time as an FBI field agent in Charlotte, North Carolina, which includes making an arrest on his first day alone in the field and some heartbreaking news that he had to share with the mother of a young child. Then, of course, we’ll go on to discuss how his team finally decrypted the message hidden inside the nickel, why he believed Soviet defector Häyhänen wasn’t fully cooperative with the FBI, and since he was fully immersed in the case, why he feels that Tom Hanks portrayal of attorney James B. Donovan in the movie Bridge of Spies was way off base. Well, all that and more is coming up in Part 2 of what I’ve titled the Cryptanalyst. I am Steve Silverman and this is the Useless Information Podcast.
Now, before I begin, I just want to thank everyone for all the kind words they have passed on to me regarding the first part of my interview with Marvin, and I hope you’ll find part two equally enjoyable. I think you’ll actually like it more. Now, again, Marvin spoke to me over the phone, so the recording quality is not the best, but I have done my best to filter out all the heavy breathing, the pops, clicks, and so on. I really am not the best editor. Now, I’d estimate that this edited version was originally about two and a half hours long. So there are some major edits here, and I’ll occasionally jump in with a bit of narration and you’ll recognize those by the same beep that I used in Part 1. If you recall, in the previous episode, Marvin had completed both his FBI cryptanalysis and field training, and he was informed that he’s being sent to Charlotte. So let’s listen in as Marvin continues his story, beginning with his arrival in Charlotte.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:02:05
The first day out. Actually, it wasn’t a day out. We went around. They took us around and found apartments for us, or housing, rental housing for the families to come in, because nobody’s family was there at this time. And so we went around and I found a duplex, which is just large enough for my family, but I could afford it. And after we found our place, then we were dropped off. I was to go back to the office, but there was a little bit of humor in my assignment. The first night we got into the hotel, they made arrangements for us to arrive and we all flew down. Four of us in my class went down to Charlotte and we were all put up in the same suite at a hotel. We just got into the door, practically, and the phone rang and somebody was asking for Agent Lautzenheiser. I can’t get the right brogue, but anyway, so I took the phone and he said, “I have information on this labor union problem here. It’s very important and I will meet you.” And he told me the directions where to go to meet him. And he says, “do not call at the office. This is just a super secret thing.” I hung up and I called the office and they said, oh, that’s just Charlie Still. He’s playing a game with you. He said he picked it out because of your name. And so they said just don’t pay attention. I hung up and the phone rang. “This is agent so and so. I told you not to call the office.” Well, that’s not the end of the story. The funny thing is, the next day I reported to the office and would you believe I was assigned to Charlie Steele as my older agent to work with for the first two weeks? And Charlie Still was the greatest person he could be. He said, when is your family coming in? And I told him, he said, that will be a couple of days before you get into the apartment. I said, yes, the furniture won’t come until a couple of days later. He said, okay. And we went out to his place, and he swept and changed the bedsheets and said you’re going to live with me until you get in your apartment. So the family came down and we went out to his house. It was a big apartment. I stayed for about three nights. I thought that was the most wonderful thing he could have done.
Steve Silverman 00:04:32
Very generous of him.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:04:34
So then we went out. He had a radio car. We signed out, and he had me drive. Of course, I knew nothing about Charlotte, but I drove anyway. And after we had cleaned up his place, took a couple of hours. He was breaking all the rules, but it didn’t matter. Then we drove out to Gastonia and we went down the main street and he said, let’s go up and turn to right here, turn to the right. And it turns out it was the police station. So we went around and he said, Turn around, come around here to the side. And he said, don’t park. He hands me some papers and he said, Go find these people. And he said, I’ll be here. I’ll go upstairs and do some paperwork. Be back here at noon, and we’ll go get lunch together. Here I’m in a strange town and I’m supposed to go find people. So when he got in the building, I found a place to park. And I went in and asked if there’s any place I could find a map of the city. Anyway, I went in. They said, well, the City Hall is right here. It’s in the same building. So I went there and for twenty-five cents, I bought a map of the city. And I got in the car and I started going through the papers and they were people who had not changed their address. Back then we had a Selective Service and these people had moved. They could not be reached at their address and so the FBI was told to find them. That’s how serious it was about Selective Service. So I looked at their last address and I went there for the first guy and I looked it up in the map and found my way to it. And of course, he had moved and the people there didn’t know where he had moved. So on down through the paperwork and came noon I was back and we went to a nice little restaurant for lunch. I took him back to the police station and he said go look for some more. That’s the way the first two weeks went. That was my two weeks with an older agent. They were supposed to have me out looking for people with him. He was supposed to be leading the way. Here I was doing it by myself. So then my two weeks are up and I had the same thing. Well, this is an actual person who had been in the service, was in the service, and he had left. He was away without leave, AWOL. And after 30 days of being AWOL, you’d be called a deserter, which was really serious. like ten years. If he went back within that time, I don’t know whether it was one month or two months you could be AWOL. But if he went back in there he had so many days in the brig for each day he was out and that was about the end of it. So it was imperative that we found it within that time frame otherwise we’d have a really serious deserter case. And that was not nice. These people mostly didn’t intend to be deserters. But this guy was AWOL. And I found out where his mother lived, his wife lived somewhere else and that’s where the main interest was. They were supposed to go there to find him but his mother lived here in Gastonia. So I looked that up and I went there and I did the right things. I asked the neighbor on each side if they had seen this man before and that was sort of superficial, it was stupid, but we did it and they said no. So I went to the door and I knocked and a little girl about five years old opened the door and said hello and I said hello and I realized he has a daughter. I said, Is your daddy here? And she said uh-huh and opened the door. I went in. I heard the back door slam and they lived right next to a hill. I went out the side door and I saw him running up the hill. He was maybe 50ft ahead of me. By the time I got off the porch and started, he was more like 50 yards ahead of me. I ran for a ways, and I decided I’ll never reach him. So I went back in, I sat down, and I talked to the mother. I pointed out to her how important it was that he got back. And I told her I didn’t care if I took him back or he went back on his own, but he had to get back within this time, or he had been in a terribly serious problem. And so we were talking, and she was understanding, nearly in tears, and I was really gentle with her. And the door opened, and he walked in and said, I’m ready to go. So I handcuffed him and took him, and I called the office, and they didn’t have anybody. I’m just not supposed to make an arrest by myself, which I had done. You’re supposed to have two people to make an arrest, but this was spur-of-the-moment, so you had to do it. If you met the person you were to arrest, you had to do it. But if you could do it otherwise, you got to have somebody else. You did that too. So I took him down to the police station. It’s what we did, and I checked him in, filled down some papers, and I left it at that. I notified the military. They would go and pick them up the next morning. And that was my first arrest.
Steve Silverman 00:09:38
And this is your first day on your own, is that correct?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:09:42
First day on my own.
Steve Silverman 00:09:44
So you made an arrest on your very first day. That’s pretty good.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:09:47
In class, all the way through, they said, somebody in this class, one of you, will make an arrest on your first day. You’ll meet somebody who either a warrant out or wanted on your very first day when you’re by yourself. I turned out to be the one.
Steve Silverman 00:10:06
Next, Marvin discusses having to investigate a rash of cases in his territory in which kids would take rocks and smash the locks at the railroad switches. And, of course, that causes the trains to be diverted to side rails. Sadly, both an engineer and fireman died in one incident. Now, for those of you too young to remember, the fireman is the guy who shoveled the coal into the furnace and tended to the boiler.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:10:31
I was there a couple of months when I got a call at midnight that a train had been diverted onto a siding. Yeah, it was diverted onto a siding, and it was very serious. And I said to myself, I picked up another agent who I worked with before, and we went out and got out about midnight or a little after, and flood lights everywhere went down, and the engineer and the brakemen were gone, but the train was sitting there. Somebody had thrown this switch. The train usually came through about 30 or 35 miles an hour, but today they had a pickup just up the tracks a way. And so they went up to speed their room and going five or 10 miles an hour. So they saw the flags, the red flag. When you throw the switch, a red flag turns on it. It was a round sign with a red painted red. And they should see it even though it was dark. They could see it in the light of the locomotive. And they just stopped in time that they didn’t go off on the siding, but they were right at it. If they had gone off on a siding, they would have gone through the end of a brick building where people were working at 35 miles an hour. It was unbelievable what could have happened there.
Steve Silverman 00:11:42
So basically the train stopped before it actually got to the…
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:11:45
It just got to the siding. I don’t know, maybe I’ve been actually on the siding a little bit. I don’t remember exactly. But it got stopped in time to not do any damage. So anyway, there are people moving around everywhere. Railroad people turned up to the engineers to interview him. It didn’t matter. Funny thing is, while we were walking, there was a couple of kids, about 14-15 out there too. And I said, what are you doing out here? And he said, oh, we came to see what the commotion was about. And I said come on, get in the car. Let’s talk a while. So they were pretty shaky, but they denied that they had anything to do with it. They had just heard a commotion and they come out. Well, I took their names and addresses and I waited a week and I went back to the address and talked to them again. And that went on. I stretched it out to two weeks, and then three weeks. About two months later, maybe a little more, I stopped there and they came over. They were on the street. They came over and got in the car and they said, “It’s time to go. We did this.” And so I said, let’s find the lock. Because I scoured the brush along. They said they had thrown it away. We went down and we found a lock. And because they had to operate like that, I said, I will do what I can so you’re not charged, but you will be turned over to the juvenile authorities here. And I said that’s the best I can do for you. And I’ll try very desperately that there won’t be any federal charges. Because it was serious what they have done. There’s a little background: Just before I got to Charlotte, somebody had done a similar thing to run the engine up on the ramp that they use for changing cars. There’s a ramp, they shove them up there, and then the train pulls away, a different train pulls in. They let them loose or whatever, and it rolls down and hooks up. Well, somebody had sent the engine up over that, and the engineer and the coal man were killed. So they were sensitive down there about this kind of stuff. Would you believe that this was a rash going around? Kids were throwing switches all over my territory.
Steve Silverman 00:13:57
Hard to believe. You would think, especially after there was an accident, that they’d be too terrified to do it, you know?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:14:04
You would think so, but I don’t know why, but within a month or so, I had another switch thrown. The train had gotten stopped, and I went out and it’s funny thing, the kids on the street, they’ll tell you anything. I went out and I found a bunch of kids moving around. I said, who did this? And they said, this guy. So anyway, I had five more, and I got them all solved. They were all solved, and they were all kids or young grown-ups. And I had one case that really broke my heart. It was a seven-year-old boy. He broke the lock. They take a rock and it breaks the lock. The locks broke really easily, and I had to take the seven-year-old boy. Well, I knew it was him. I had to go to his house and tell his mother, and it was one of the hardest things I could do. I had a child that age.
Steve Silverman 00:14:59
Do you have any clue what happened to the kid?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:15:03
Oh, yes, everything was dropped. He didn’t even go to juvenile. I told them, this is not right to do anything. So I told the juvenile court with the authorities, but I told them, don’t bother them. The mother was crying when I left. So anyway, that’s the train chases. I got a commendation from Hoover for that. And it was the end of the rash. We didn’t have any more in the whole time I was there.
Steve Silverman 00:15:35
In this next section, Marvin discusses why he left Charlotte and went to Washington, DC to work in the crypt lab. Now, according to my estimation, this is probably around late 1955, but as you listen to this section, keep in mind how rare computers were at this time. Not only were they crazy expensive, but they had very little capability. They were very slow. They had little memory and storage, and you had to use a stack of punched IBM cards to operate them. And not only that, but Marvin was one of the few people in the world who knew how to program and operate these machines.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:16:13
I got to Charlotte, I think it was mid-April, and I left there in late October of the next year. It was about 18 months. The reason I had to leave, new agents should not stay in the same office for over two years, so when they get to the 18-month part, they started moving you out. If I had a need someplace else, they would take you out ahead of time. Since I had been trained in cryptanalysis and the crypt place had just gotten a new IBM 650. We had computers there when I was there first. But they had 16 steps you could do. What can you do in 16 steps? You couldn’t even make decisions. The new one, you can make decisions inside. And that was the important thing. The program was stored in the computer and the program directed the computer what to do. It was a very big step forward from what they’d had before. So this came in and it was shared with the statistics. They had moved them together close to the crypt office. And so they used it until something like two in the afternoon and we got over the next 4 hours. The 650 was an interesting machine. The program was not stored in memory, it was stored on a drum. Not the type of memory you’d think of now, but it was stored on a drum which rotated.
Steve Silverman 00:17:47
When you told me about this the first time, there’s a video on YouTube showing it in operation. It’s quite interesting to watch.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:17:54
Okay, anyway, it was the big one. It had 2000 words and you didn’t talk in bytes then. You talked in words. And each word would make an alpha or a numeric character. And to program it, the machine came. It was a machine. They gave you one card, a punched card. You fed that in and that told the machine read more. Then you would have your program punched into cards. Everything about the program was punched in the cards and waited behind that card. The first card in had to tell it how to handle the next card. And then it would bring in your whole program and set it up. And then it would transfer control to the last statement that came in. And then the drum revolves. As it was revolving, this was being put on the drum. Every instruction you wrote by hand onto a spreadsheet. The first thing you wrote with these two digits, that’s the instructions. The next four digits said what you were supposed to do. That could be like add or subtract or multiply. Any of the normal operations. Or it could be a decision if something. It wasn’t stated that way, but you could do a compare and then based on the compare, if it was this way you could go to this address. It was that way, it went to that address. And all these addresses you kept track of and wrote them down on your spreadsheet. So you never use the same place twice with your instruction. Anyway, when you start talking about 2000 of these instructions, it’s kind of a difficult thing to keep track of. And the programming itself, you have to figure out the logic of how you can do anything. You don’t just walk in and say I’m going to do this. Like the first program I did. Well, I should say that there were two clerks there who had already worked on the machine, and they knew how to program. They were wonderful people, but they kind of resented that they weren’t chosen for supervisor. They knew better, because all supervisors had to be an agent. You could not be a supervisor as a clerk. You had to be an agent to be a supervisor. So when I came in, they weren’t too interested in teaching me. So they gave me the manual. It was a little over a quarter inch thick, and that was everything that was printed about this computer. There was nothing else. So I took the book and I decided I would try to solve a binomial and two unknowns and just do it in the computer, because I didn’t know anything else to work on at that point. And after a week, I was programming.
Steve Silverman 00:20:37
So when I started college in 1981, we were still using the punch card. But within a year or two, I would say, they started getting monitors where you can actually sit at a monitor, and you still weren’t using a local computer. It was still going somewhere into a main computer at the university. I would say it’s very difficult for young people to even know what we’re talking about. How cumbersome. I mean, even in 1981, when I started college, it was very cumbersome to work with computers.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:21:08
In ’81, we got our first monitor. That was just at the time I was trying to sell my company. But that’s another story. But anyway, I worked my way from the drum to the tapes. The next step was a tape for storage. And that was wonderful. You could actually store a lot of stuff. On the drum you had no storage, none to speak of. You had to share with your program. A lot of times, we would get down to 1998 words used, and we needed five more. And we’d have to go back to our code and see. Oh, we can make a little difference here. We can save two words, we can go here, and maybe if we do this a little differently, we’ll get another word. So we would be filling that drum.
Steve Silverman 00:21:54
When you think about how easy it is to use computers, I mean, the power that people just have in their pockets, on their phones.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:22:01
Oh, you have more power in your telephone probably than there was in the world back then. In the world, not just our country. There were a few huge computers, and that was it. The head of IBM said he didn’t know why anybody would need one beyond industry. So, anyway, its come a long way.
Steve Silverman 00:22:25
Marvin next discusses the first cases that he worked on upon his arrival at the FBI Cryptanalysis Lab. Now, near the end of this section, he makes his first mention of working on the Hollow Nickel case. And if you recall from my original telling of the story, after Abel’s arrest, investigators search his apartment and they found a number of hollowed-out items. And while it has been reported that a hollowed-out pencil was found, in fact, there are images of it online, I do believe this may be the first time that the actual contents of that pencil have been revealed to the public. I have to tell you, it was nothing earth-shattering, but remember, you heard it here first.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:23:04
They had a couple of little codes. I think one of them was some prisoner who was trying to sneak out a message. And they would make up codes, and they were so silly, but they still had to be broken to see what was going on. Then we would get cases where people would send, and that included prisoners, they would send a letter. It was nice open talk: I’m doing okay, and so on. I call that open code. You would go through and see if you took the first letters of every sentence or the fourth letter of every word, and so on. And after we had the computer now, I wrote programs to go through, and you would put the text into the machine. And then we would run all these different things to see what was there. And if you got a hit, it should recognize dinomes that made sense. And trinomes that made sense.
Steve Silverman 00:24:01
So explain quickly what a dinome and a trinome is.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:24:04
A dinome is like E-R or R-E. Those are dinomes. T-H-E is a trinome. H-E-R is a trinome. You could ask it to go through and look for those and it would always give you statistics of how much of meaningful dinomes found meaningful trinomes. And then you could look at them. Usually, it wasn’t meaningful. One of the cases about the Abel code case. I think I may have mentioned that a stub pencil was picked up. But we got these 23 messages that were letters from his daughter Evelyn, and they would start out with “The roses are blooming, daddy, I wish you were here to see them,” and so on. “It’s been a long time since you’ve been away, “and so on. And each of those had to be run through this to see. It took me about a week to run them. It’s very tedious. So anyway, I went through them. There was nothing undercover in them. They were just letters. But since they were in this pencil and they were sneaked into the country, that’s the only reason they were of interest.
Steve Silverman 00:25:15
Next Marvin discusses why it was so important to decipher the message that was found inside of that hollowed-out nickel.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:25:23
They said that because of this, they thought there was certainly a spy in New York City and they had no other leads on him. The nickel was the only thing they had. But they were very anxious to find out if we had somebody that was in the government, maybe? What might it be? And so it was anxious, but that was a full year. I think it was a year before Häyhänen defected.
Steve Silverman 00:25:52
Next, Marvin describes what he was given to decrypt, his frustration with trying to figure it out, and a little bit of an explanation of how he attacked doing so. Now, keep in mind that he’s basically doing this all manually, you know, paper and pencil. He also talks about transposition. And note that he keeps mentioning the key, but they couldn’t extract the key because they didn’t know the methodology until Häyhänen had defected. And while we never discussed it during the interview, Marvin did write in his initial summary of the case to me that the key was based on a musical piece titled The Lost Accordion. Also, note near the end of this section that he said he could solve it in four to five hours. And that was after they had determined the exact steps to do so.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:26:39
They gave me an enlargement of the microfiche and that was what I had. I think it was 1100 digits in groups of five. I could tell that it looked like it was monome-dinome substitution, but it didn’t make any sense to do anything else with that. I figured out there was transposition, but the transposition, there was no way I could come up with any transposition that would fit. I couldn’t make any strings. I couldn’t get anything where dinomes and dinomes would be fitted. I was just at a stopping point.
Steve Silverman 00:27:15
Since I’m not a cryptanalyst and most people aren’t. Can you be a little more detailed in what you were doing?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:27:22
Well, first I started with digit counts. How many zeros, how many ones, so on. We did that and it turned out showing that it’s probably a substitution, probably monome-dinome, which means the most frequent letters get one digit and the least frequent letters get the remainder. So a Z would get something done with a dinome, it would be two characters. So you use one through five or six for A, E, I, O, and T, and so on, just a few of those. And then the remaining letters of zero through nine would be used as the first digit in other things. So once you got to use up zero through seven, say or six, then you would go to seven. 7-1 would be something, 7-0 would be something. Seven would never be used by itself. It was always used as the front end of a two character thing. So we’d have about five or six of the high ones. And then you’d pick up with the dinomes. Well, this comes up with a frequency that’s kind of unusual because the single digits will be used much more. They’re still used, but they’re part of the dynome. If you’re going to count things, there’ll be a lot fewer of the 7s and 8s, but there will be many more 1s and 2s, because they’re used as themselves and they’re used as part of the dinome. So very early I figured this must be a monome-dinome, but nothing figured. I worked on this all that time. It was on my desk the whole time. I shouldn’t say. Never on my desk, but it was on my mind all the time. I would come home at night thinking, I didn’t try this yet.
Steve Silverman 00:29:09
So explain what a transposition is.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:29:11
Okay, a transposition is you write a message in graph paper, just one letter per block. And let’s say you go out ten characters wide. Let’s make it 16 characters wide. And then you start the next line. So all your characters are in there. All the characters will be across, and then you went down as far as possible. Let’s say it was ten deep, and you’re 16 wide. Then you start stripping off. You take off, let’s say, the first column, and you write it down. Then you jump over to, based on your key, you jump over to the 7th column, and you take it down and write the next, and then you jump back to number three, or out to number ten. You had the key. The key told you how to strip it off. Then when you got done, you had your message. It was hard, but you could do it. A transposition was not overly difficult. Substitution was the easiest thing. Simple substitution was kid stuff. That’s what I’d done as a kid. But the Abel stuff, you first put it through the substitution, and that was monome-dinome substitution. Tricky. Then you wrote this stuff into the graph paper, and this was long. 1100 characters. How tired do you get just writing them in one time across? And then you get that whole thing written in, and you strip them off according to some key that you don’t know, and then you do it again. So by the time you’re done, there’s absolutely no pattern. Now, wait a minute. There’s still more. The nickel case had a special way. You did not strip them off all the way across. You put a stair-step in. You start maybe at the fifth character over, and you go down one, over one, and when you stripped them off, you stripped off over to where you hit the stair-step. Then you dropped down to the next one and then the next one, and you went out to the stair-step and quit. And then you went back to the top and took what was left. And all this was by the key. Then you did that again. It wasn’t enough to do that once, which was enough, but just to do that, what you took off there, you put back in with a different stair step. You can get an idea why it would take 6 to 8 hours to do one. And it was a long message. This was 1100 characters, and that was difficult. I timed myself I could do it 4 or 5 hours after I knew it, but there was a great chance of a mistake. And that’s what happened with the case where the guy who worked with me but wasn’t on my team. He and I sort of thought alike and the next day when we were going to start over, he said, “Wait a minute, I want to try this.” And he worked on it. About noon, he said, “I think we might be making progress. I got the T.” And so he went over and he was working with a translator, Mrs. McMahon, I remember her name. She was from a country near Russia, and they deciphered it.
Steve Silverman 00:32:18
And this is Chauncey Seefeldt that you mentioned in what you wrote?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:32:22
Yeah. And that’s why I wanted him to get credit in here. At first, I wasn’t going to use any real names. I was just going to say A, B, and so on. It didn’t make sense after I wrote a bunch. And they’re all dead but Chauncey.
Steve Silverman 00:32:38
From the time that he defected and gave that information to the investigators, how long did it take you to figure out what the message said?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:32:46
I think it was less than a week.
Steve Silverman 00:32:46
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:32:46
They rushed that to me, and when I saw what I had, I figured if I give three possibilities to each of the 40-something people. And I was given full throttle, take everybody except his secretary and him, and give them each three of these, and that would be…
Steve Silverman 00:33:07
This is your boss, Downing?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:33:09
Yeah. I wouldn’t give him any, of course, but his secretary did not get any. But the rest of the people were all fair game. So everybody had some, and it came out just about enough to do it. I finished. I did the extra one myself, extra couple myself by staying over. But it was very disappointing. I hate to say it that way, but we had a screw-up guy. He sat right in front of me. He was always goofy. He never did things right, but it turns out that he’s the one that got the right combination. And that’s why Chauncey and I said, if anybody is going to make a mistake, it will be him. So we picked on his first and we looked at them, and for some reason, I don’t remember why, we thought this one combination looked the best, and it turned out to be the best. And for the life of me, I can’t remember why we picked that one.
Steve Silverman 00:34:04
So basically your whole team went through everything and there was no one was able to crack it?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:34:10
That’s right. We missed a whole day, a long day, for some who stayed over to work and we had missed the combinations. I forget. There was 1000 and some combinations, I think. And I don’t know how I figured out there were that many combinations, but somehow I knew it had to be one of these. And I cannot remember. It’s been a little time.
Steve Silverman 00:34:10
Just a little.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:34:10
Like three-quarters of a century, I guess.
Steve Silverman 00:34:39
Were you disappointed that there really wasn’t anything useful in the message?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:34:43
No, I really wasn’t. I had the feeling. This was a backup system for communication. The real system of communication was a one-time code pad. Does that make any sense to you?
Steve Silverman 00:34:58
Yeah. So they use it once and then toss it out.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:35:00
Yeah. Whoever is sending the message has a pad exactly like yours, and you have a pad and he sends you something. You take off the top of your pad, which is upside down, so he can’t read it before it’s taken off. And then you use it and you throw it away.
Steve Silverman 00:35:20
So now the nickel finally decoded. And you didn’t use any programs to do this, am I correct?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:35:28
No. Right after we finished the decoding, my team and I, we knew we couldn’t get the program into our computer. It was just going to be way too much. So we talked about it and we figured out that if we used one program to just find the key, and one program to do the transposition, and then one program to do the substitution, we might get it into the machine. And we may have to go to four because we may have to do the transpositions in two separate ones. Anyway, we each one took a part, and I took the part of finding the key. It turns out I think it was the easiest. Then Dean Earnest took the tough one, the transposition, and Loren Guell took the substitution. And in about two or three days, we had a program that we could test on the nickel case and, sure enough, it worked. It found the code, it found the key, it decoded everything. And each program was one of these nail biters where you get up to 1995 and am I going to make it? And you go back through and find the place you can do something a little simpler.
Steve Silverman 00:36:36
Yeah, and just save a little bit of memory.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:36:36
You save a word here and there and you could make it. It was difficult coding, but it was a wonderful challenge. I think all three of us took it as this is the greatest opportunity we’ll have in our lives is to make this program work.
Steve Silverman 00:36:55
But now, after this, there were no messages, right?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:36:58
No messages. It wasn’t very long. I don’t think it was a week or two. It went up the ladder that we had this. And the top people, they always communicate. NSA and we worked together very closely. I was over the NSA at a time or two or three. And when we decoded something, we’d hand carry it over there. Or if we were picking up something, we’d hand carry it. So they gave us the shuffle of papers of the messages they had picked up. And they didn’t have time to work on or they didn’t want to work on or for some reason they just didn’t come up. And they thought they were mostly different. So there was no one to concentrate on. But about 10,000 and a few. And so that came over and I got those on Wednesday and I was told I was to have them decoded by the following Monday.
Steve Silverman 00:37:51
So, why don’t you to talk a little bit about that because you were called into your boss’s office, Downing, is that correct?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:37:58
Yes. I was so happy to go in there. Besides, we had the program already working, and I figured out that we should have them all done in ten days. I just thought, this is wonderful. He’ll be really pleased. And before I got to say anything, he said, I want them done by Monday morning. I want the report on my desk. I started to say something. He said, “I told you I want them on my desk Monday morning.” And it went downhill from there.
Steve Silverman 00:38:28
You had already calculated, you knew how long it took to do each card.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:38:33
Yeah, I said it would be done on Friday, the next Friday, and we were done at between 11:30 and 12:00 on the next Friday. I didn’t think I’d be that accurate. In fact, I gave him the optimistic one, and it turned out that that worked. Sometimes it didn’t take a whole two minutes to find the key or find that you weren’t going to find the key. Sometimes you get it in a minute. If it was a short message, that came through faster, turns out. So we got done in time, but he would not listen.
Steve Silverman 00:39:02
So you’re given 10,000 messages, which is kind of crazy, and they have to be put into punch cards, am I correct?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:39:09
Absolutely. And that was the first thing I tried to tell them. We can’t get them all punched by then. And he wouldn’t listen to that. And this is with all the stenos and the keypunch, all those people were all turned free on it, and we couldn’t get them done, punched. We were just about up to them quite often on the running the machine versus what they had punched. It was so obvious that it couldn’t be done.
Steve Silverman 00:39:34
Now, pretty much along the whole way, there were no matches. It wasn’t until the very end. Is that correct?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:39:38
That’s the funny thing, is, I was really depressed. We were down to about 11:00 on Friday morning, and we only had maybe 20 or 30 to go, and I thought, oh, we’re not going to get anything. We did all this for nothing. And suddenly it punched out a card. What happens is, it punched out the cards on the computer for us to print. And we took that little deck over and rushed to the printer and printed it out and, sure enough, there was stuff we could read. We got it printed up, and as fast as I could, I took it into Mr. Downing, and he just took it without comment. And we never talked about the fact that I had missed his deadline by a week. He never mentioned it again, except he told me I’m not a team player after that.
Steve Silverman 00:40:25
So you wrote that Häyhänen kind of couldn’t remember how it worked, but he gave you enough information to figure it out. And you believe that he actually knew the whole method. And why is that?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:40:37
Absolutely. Because when we deciphered that second message, it was the instructions of how to get home. And he had followed those instructions to Paris. How else would he do it if they had known how to do that? He was still playing a little bit of a game. Anyway, we got there, but he gave us enough.
Steve Silverman 00:41:01
In the summary that Marvin initially sent me, he wrote the following about Häyhänen: “With respect to the nickel code, he said he did not remember all the details. He did provide sufficient information that led to decrypting the message.” Later in his summary, he writes, “We rushed the cards to the IBM 407 printer. It contained instructions in a mix of English and Russian on how Häyhänen was to go back to Moscow. A classic spy story. A stopover in Paris where he’d meet up with his next contact with some coded greeting exchange, etc., you’ll wear a specified flower in your lapel, at a certain place, you’ll meet a man who will say…” So, let’s dive back into the conversation and we’ll pick up where Marvin describes the discovery of a stamp-sized pad that was hidden inside of a paperweight.
And then you also talked about in Abel’s apartment, I think they found a large paperweight or something like a paperweight.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:41:58
Well, they found this paperweight. It was about two and a half inches long, maybe three. It was curved. It was like an oval, but you had bent the ends in. So it was just a graceful curve. I think mahogany, beautiful little thing. It was just the right size for a paperweight. And it had a seam where the two ends were glued together. And that was the giveaway. We thought that it was made in two pieces and it might be something. And sure enough, Chauncey and I went over to the photo department where they had red light, a room with nothing but a red light. And the guy there laid the thing down on the floor and he hit with a hammer and it was breakdown. After two or three thumps, it fell apart. And now it’s all this little pad of stuff. It was the size of a postage stamp. And I can’t remember it was a quarter of an inch thick, maybe 5/16s. Then we could turn on the light, because this is not something some film to be developed. We had to do that in the dark with red light. And then we turned on the light and looked at it and we all recognized that. It looked like the top was just a thin layer you could skim off with your thumb if you just brushed over it. It would have come off and you could take it off in such a way you could photograph it and ball it up. And then when you were done you could take it in your fingers and roll it up and you could hardly see the little bit that it turned into. Not as big as the head of a pin and just throw it in the waste basket. We made up one-time pads. That was one of my jobs is to make up one-time pads. I would run off the pages and I made up the random, truly random characters. They weren’t make-believe, they weren’t patterned like most random numbers are. But I had a deck of about 1000 cards of old messages and I shuffled those and ran them into the sorter. And then I shuffled them again and ran them through sorting on different columns until they were completely jumbled. And then I would run tests on them to see can I find any patterns left after all this. And after all this that we could use that put that stuff for the one-time pads for the field offices and for the legal attaches in the embassies. I would make up the papers, and Dean Ernest knew how to bind them. They were sealed with some kind of a wax, and you could not get to the first page in there without really destroying the thing. And that was sent throughout the field offices. And that’s what they used if they wanted to have some super secret sent back to the bureau, to headquarters.
Steve Silverman 00:44:43
You also wrote about a large wooden screw that they had to get out of the concrete. So why don’t you talk about that one?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:44:49
Häyhänen said that there had been a message that had been put out. I don’t know if had been left for him or if it was something he had left for them that hadn’t been picked up. But there was a crack in the cement at the bottom of some steps someplace in New York. He gave the location, the street name, and what it was. So agents from New York went out there and looked, and the thing had been redone. They had rebuilt the step and repatched everything so it looked like it was just brand new stuff. They got uniforms for the work people in New York City, went out there with a jackhammer and other tools, and broke open this new concrete and they found the screw. I saw it. It was about two inches long, maybe two and a half. Rusty. The end of it was bent. It was really something you throw away quickly. And they took hold of it, and with pliers, you could turn the head of the screw off. It was unscrewed from within the screw. And then in there, it was another microfilm. And it was something to do with the… Well, they never told me completely. They just said it was not of interest.
Steve Silverman 00:46:04
Well, with the beauty of the Internet, I found the answer. And it says this on the FBI website. “In one of the dead drops mentioned by Häyhänen, a hole in a set of cement steps in Prospect Park, FBI agents found a hollowed-out bolt. The bolt was about two inches long and 1/4 inch in diameter, and contained the following typewritten message: “Nobody came to meeting either 8th or 9th as I was advised he should. Why? Should he be inside or outside? Is time wrong? Place seems right. Please check.” It continues, “The bolt was found on May 15, 1957. It had been placed in the dead drop about two years previously. But by a trick of fate, a repair crew had filled the hole in the stairs with cement, entombing the bolt and the message it contained.” Boy, Marvin’s memory is incredible, isn’t it? Anyway, let’s return to the conversation.
Steve Silverman 00:47:05
So at some point, someone had to testify at Abel’s trial. And originally it was going to be you. And the fact that you did this kind of prep work meant that you couldn’t go. So why don’t you explain that?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:47:19
Sometimes in the field, the agent would go in and testify, and they’d get a judge who is not very friendly, and the defendant’s attorney would be nasty. And they’d go off, way off of the real track, but the judge would allow it. They were afraid if we got a judge like that, and we did get an attorney like that, incidentally. The defense attorney was not very nice. Even though the Bridge of…
Steve Silverman 00:47:19
The Bridge of Spies.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:47:19
Bridge made him sound like a hero. He was anything but the hero. The Bureau and the Justice Department already had decided to not do anything nasty. They were keeping Abel for a trading point. I never knew that because there were some of the details that were in that movie. I don’t know whether that was made up to make it more interesting, or whether it was facts. But anyway, the attorney was very unpleasant to the agents and to the DOJ attorneys. We did not think much of him, but he was glorified in the movie, and that’s okay with me.
Steve Silverman 00:48:24
So they needed someone to testify, and you couldn’t do it, so you had to train somebody else, is that correct?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:48:30
Well, yes. Because it wasn’t just the one-time pads or other codes that we used for things that were sensitive but not super. So I knew how those were made. I made them up for all the field offices and for the legal attaches. And I didn’t dare tell them, tell anybody that. Even that level was dangerous. And they would’ve loved to know how the one-time pads were made, even though it wouldn’t help them.
Steve Silverman 00:48:58
So you had to train somebody else, though, to go testify?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:49:01
So when they decided I should not testify, they wanted to get somebody with the most interesting personality. And so this tough guy from New York was their choice. And they sent him down to stay at Washington until we felt confident that he could testify. It turned out to be two weeks, but I would teach him one part. I had to teach him a substitution. I had to teach him transposition. I had to teach him how the stairstep worked and how the next stairstep worked and how you got the key. I had to teach him all that so any question he’d be asked he knew exactly how it was done. And it took us a while. So, each of those was a topic. And that took about the first week just to get that much done. And then we started on putting him on the stand, questioning him, and then go back and reteach something. And by Friday, we were doing a good job, I thought. And he said, “I’m ready,” and that’s how it worked. And I was so relieved because I did not want to go testify.
Steve Silverman 00:50:03
So he was kind of chosen because he knew this stuff that you taught him, but he really knew nothing else, so he couldn’t reveal any secrets. Is that correct?
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:50:12
He didn’t have any idea about anything outside of what I taught him. By this time, he knew about monome-dinome. He knew about some substitution, but he didn’t know anything beyond that. We didn’t teach him anything that he didn’t have to know. He did a good job.
Steve Silverman 00:50:31
And clearly, Abel was convicted.
Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:50:34
Yes. But he was being held in a pretty nice prison. He never gave away anything. As often as they went back, the attorneys went back and questioned him, he never gave an inch. He was true to his country, a real patriot. And I think he knew if he held the line, that he would get home sometime.
Steve Silverman 00:51:00
And at this point, I need to admit that I made an error in my original telling of the story. I wrote, “On June 5, 1957, FBI cryptographer Michael G. Leonard was able to use information obtained from Häyhänen to decode the microfilm’s code.” Well, as Marvin just explained, Leonard definitely was not the one who decoded the message. In fact, he had nothing to do with it. He was just a stand-in at trial from Marvin and his team. Well, that ruse clearly worked, since all of my sources indicated that Leonard was the one who decrypted the message.
Well, that’s probably a good place to close part two of my interview with Marvin. I still have quite a bit of the audio that needs to be edited, so I’m not sure if there will be one or two more segments to this. My hunch is one more episode should do it. And without going into great detail at this point, I can tell you that he still has one good FBI story to tell, and that involved everyone’s fear of contradicting FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. He’ll also discuss why he left the FBI, his work programming missile launches for the military, and this is long before flight simulators. He’ll talk about his patents and, of course, the giant theater organ he installed in his Virginia home. In fact, he sent me a CD recording of it last week, and I’ll play his favorite song from the album for you. Anyway, stay tuned for Part 3 of The Cryptanalyst, and I hope to have that edited within the next couple of weeks.
On another note, you may not be aware of this, but this Christmas marks the 200th anniversary of the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, which, of course, most people know better as ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, and author Pamela McColl, who recently released the incredible book ‘Twas the Night, The Art and History of the Classic Poem. She’ll be stopping by on November 30 to discuss everything and anything about the poem. She spent the last ten years writing this book, so she really knows all about the subject. I should add that I attended a talk that she gave at her local historical society a few weeks ago, so I know she has a great story to tell and I hope to get that edited and posted sometime during the first week of December.
Anyway, I’ll end it there. Thanks, as always, for listening, and take care, everyone. Bye.
Click here to listen to Part 3 of The Cryptanalyst.