code warriorsI received the book Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union as a gift last Christmas and it ended up buried on my desk under a pile of papers, forgotten until June. When I found it again I decided to take the book with me to the beach and read while on vacation. It was a quick read for me, and held my interest the entire time I had it open.

The book is one part math (cryptography), one part spy novel, and one part world history. The book is a history of the NSA, exploring the reasons why the NSA existed: the Russian Problem.

Starting with a backdrop of Arlington Hall in 1943, the book lays out the early days of cryptography as computer processing was evolving. Many folks know about the efforts of Bletchley Park during the second world war. The first few chapters detail the American efforts at breaking codes during the war. These attempts include breaking codes against other allied nations (something Britain had agreed to not do, but America saw it necessary). The author provides details on why spying on our friends was considered justified, both then and now.

One main narrative of the book is describing how America failed at breaking Russian codes. The American cryptography strategy centered around building bigger and faster computers. The Russian strategy for breaking foreign codes was simpler. The Russians didn’t use computers, they used people. Their network of agents was extensive. Their methods for eavesdropping was an art form. They were decades ahead of America when it came to playing the spy game. The book provides details on Russian spying and why it was successful. It also details the success in NSA efforts in Korea and their failures in Vietnam.

A side note that the book didn’t discuss is how the computers built to crack codes allowed for America to create the technology necessary send men to the moon. We failed in one area but applied the technology to succeed in another. Warrants mentioning.

If you have an interest in cryptography or modern world history, I’d recommend this book. I’ve added it to my bookshelf, you can find it at the bottom under “Some favorite non-SQL books”.