Puzzles in Pop Culture: NCIS: New Orleans

Last week, a murder investigation turned into a puzzly treasure hunt for a group of NCIS investigators, a team who investigates criminal cases involving members of the military. So join us as we rundown the events of “Treasure Hunt,” episode 17 of season 4 of NCIS: New Orleans.

The episode opens during a pirate-themed festival, as two women search for the secret entrance to an exclusive costume party. Unfortunately, instead of drunken revelry, they stumble upon a dead body, strung up inside a warehouse on the waterfront.

The NCIS team soon arrives, and the coroner identifies the victim as an oceanographer, Lt. Commander Elaine Dodd. Dodd was beaten before her death, and her arm was partially skinned, perhaps as part of an interrogation.

Dodd’s oceanographic work centered around Grande Isle, the former stomping grounds of the infamous pirate Jean LaFitte. The team makes contact with Dodd’s father, Tom, a former Green Beret. He expected her to show up at his house in Florida after an excited phone call, but she never arrived. This leads the team to believe that Dodd’s death had something to do with a treasure hunt, one of the things she and her father bonded over.

Forensic analysis reveals that her arm was skinned to remove a tattoo, but they’re able to reconstruct the image: a simple compass and some coordinates. These confirm the treasure hunt theory: Dodd had apparently made some progress in locating the lost Napoleon Fleur de Lis, a jewel-encrusted emblem stolen by Jean LaFitte and hidden away.

Following the coordinates to a church, Special Agent Pride and lab tech Sebastian search the area, finding their way upstairs to a lofted storage area. But someone has beaten them to the punch, opening fire and sending the agents scurrying for cover.

Pride chases the two suspects, but they get away, and when he doubles back to the loft, he finds Sebastian examining a statue stored in the church attic. Once the statue is removed from its pedestal, a secret compartment opens, revealing a wooden puzzle book wrapped in cloth.

The puzzle book is marked with a fleur de lis and bears an inscription of Jean LaFitte’s signature. The investigation of Dodd’s murder has officially become a treasure hunt.

Back at the field office, Agent Gregorio would prefer to use a knife to crack open the book, but Sebastian insists on solving the cipher to open the book, as some puzzle books include a vial of acid inside that would destroy the book if tampered with.

While he works on the puzzle book, cameras outside the church help the agents ID one of the suspects, a mercenary for hire. Dodd’s father Tom enters the office, hoping for progress, and recognizes the suspect. He points the agents toward the mercenary’s usual employer, a specialist in deep-sea diving and sunken galleons. Dodd’s father offers to arrange a meeting, and the team is wary, but takes him up on his offer.

Meanwhile, Sebastian and Gregorio check Dodd’s phone records and find several calls to a local professor, Michelle Faucheux, an expert in LaFitte and pirate history, who they believe helped Elaine find the coordinates. But when they arrive at her home, it has been ransacked, the professor locked in a closet. After they release her and calm her down, she confirms she’d been talking to Elaine.

Tom makes good on his word and lures his contact to a bar with the agents in tow. But the man, Walton, claims he hasn’t worked with either of the suspects in months. He warns Tom and the team away from the treasure hunt, clearly spooked by the ruthlessness he’s observed.

Sebastian and Gregorio bring Michelle back to the office, and she’s stoked to see the puzzle book. The cover of the puzzle book is encrypted, and they have to turn a dial in order to unlock it. But they need a key word to help solve the cipher. After trying out various words, they focus on LaFitte’s brother, Pierre — the most likely person to be hunting for LaFitte’s treasure. This leads them to try the word “Cabildo,” the jail in which Pierre had been incarcerated.

Using that as the key word — and a Vigenere cipher to crack the code — leads them to the answer “fleur de lis”, and they unlock the puzzle book’s cover. The iris in the center opens, revealing a latch, and they open the puzzle book.

On the left page is a clock puzzle, and on the right is a map with smaller code dials beneath it, along with a plate reading BLF6.

Agent Pride calls them, informing Gregorio that the two suspects are camped out right down the street from the office. He and the team are en route, but they expect trouble soon.

Oddly enough, the suspects simply hang back and wait as the team reunites. The agents suspect the mercenaries are waiting for the team to lead them to the fleur. So the team focuses on the riddle, hoping for a chance to gather more info on whomever is bankrolling the gun-toting baddies.

The riddle “Move as the clock” offers a hint for how to find which code letters to enter, but they’re not sure where to start. Pride theorizes that BLF6 could point toward Barthelemy Lafon, an architect and city planner from the 1700s who also palled around with the LaFitte brothers. He is buried in a local cemetery, in a crypt located at F6 on the map.

Gregorio, Sebastian, and Michelle head to the crypt while Agents Percy and LaSalle keep their eyes on the suspects, getting close enough to clone their phones and gain access to their calls and text messages. Pride and Dodd’s father are back at the field office, trying to figure out who would literally kill to have the artifact.

The puzzle book trio spot an engraved fleur de lis over the letter L in “Lafon”. They try “moving as the clock” by moving clockwise to the next crypt. Another fleur de lis over another crypt engraving gives them the final letter they need, unlocking a compartment in the book and revealing both the suspected acid vial and a piece of paper. It’s a partial map with another riddle written in French. Michelle quickly translates it as “enter this last crypt to find the fleur de lis” and runs off.

At this point, all of the viewers become very suspicious of Michelle. I mean, come on, the riddle was four lines long, and given how tough the puzzle book had been to crack thus far, this seemed too easy.

Meanwhile, the suspects leave after receiving a text that the fleur is NOT in the cemetery. As you might have suspected, Michelle texted the suspects and has been behind everything the whole time. But the viewers are clearly one-up on the agents, who blindly follow Michelle to another crypt, where Michelle traps them inside and runs off.

We get some unnecessary backstory on Michelle involving a dead brother and being scammed out of treasure by the Spanish government, but who cares, what about the treasure hunt?

Pride and Tom go after Michelle while Percy and LaSalle hunts for the easily bamboozled agents, who are trapped in the crypt and running out of air. Pride and Tom head out to Fort Macomb, a repurposed, then abandoned, base which was formerly known as Chef Menteur. (It’s unclear whether they solved the map clue that Sebastian photographed and sent them before being trapped or if they just followed the hired goons.)

But nonetheless, they’re en route to the treasure while Gregorio and Sebastian set a fire inside the crypt, hoping the smoke will escape and lead their fellow agents to them before they suffocate. Their plan works, and they’re rescued.

At Fort Macomb, Pride orders Tom to stay with the car, and heads into the fort, getting the drop on Michelle. Unfortunately, her goons capture Tom, and Pride loses the standoff. In classic villain fashion, Michelle has Pride dig up the treasure for her.

At her moment of triumph, Tom puts his Green Beret training to work, taking out one of the hired thugs as Pride dispatches the other. Since we’re running on full cliche at this point, Tom has a chance to kill the woman who killed his daughter, but spares her after a speech from Pride. The better man and all that.

The episode closes with the team admiring the bejeweled source of everyone’s consternation. Tom decides to donate the fleur to the city, because that’s what his daughter would have done. Nice closer.

All in all, I was a little underwhelmed by the episode, because the plotline twists failed to keep up the same interest level that the treasure hunt did. Once they were done with the puzzle book, the cliches rapidly took over.

Who stops in the middle of a treasure hunt to tattoo a clue on themselves? Why wasn’t the tattoo artist a suspect? That would have been a nice touch. Also, Michelle’s transparent villainy wasn’t nearly as fun as her geeky schoolgirl excitement at cracking puzzles alongside Sebastian. That was easily the show’s highlight.

I do want to give a special shout-out to the Codex Silenda team, who created the specially weathered-looking puzzle book for the episode. I wrote about them back in August of 2016 when their wildly-successful Kickstarter campaign originally closed. They’ve been busy fulfilling orders for Kickstarter backers ever since, and they were clearly excited to see one of their puzzle books on a national stage like this.

What’s more amazing is that the puzzle book cracked by the NCIS team in this episode was only a few pages deep. The full Codex Silenda is much larger and more intricate! No doubt the real Jean LaFitte would’ve splashed out for the complete Codex in order to bamboozle potential treasure hunters.

Still, it’s always nice to see crime shows explore the possibilities that puzzles offer. Splicing up the occasional murder with a puzzle (or better yet, a treasure hunt) is a pleasant change of pace for the procedural genre. Nicely done, NCIS: NO.


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Elizebeth Smith Friedman, Codebreaker and Scourge of Nazi Spymasters

[William and Elizebeth Smith Friedman, hard at work.
Image courtesy of National Geographic.]

Last year, I rather ambitiously attempted to summarize the early history of American codebreaking and the NSA in a series of blog posts spanning World War II through the modern day. One of the names I cited in that series, William Friedman, is synonymous with American cryptography, thanks to his contributions to the cracking of the German ENIGMA code and his efforts to establish the National Security Agency.

Unfortunately, there is a gaping hole in the narrative I constructed. Because none of my sources made any reference to another crucial Friedman: Elizebeth Smith Friedman, William’s wife and partner in code-cracking.

Yes, she was name-dropped in my post about the book Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, but she had to share those pages with a host of underappreciated women who were codebreaking geniuses.

[Image courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.]

As The Woman Who Smashed Codes explains, she wasn’t just a talented codebreaker. She literally wrote the book on it. Eight of them, in fact. The Riverbank Publications — although often credited to her husband — covered new codebreaking techniques in rich detail, and they are still referred to today as part of the foundation of modern cryptography.

She also started the first and only American codebreaking unit ever run by a woman, serving as Cryptanalyst-in-Charge while jointly working for both the Treasury and the Coast Guard during and after World War II.

A history of American codebreaking without Elizebeth Smith Friedman is woefully incomplete, and in today’s post, I hope to rectify that oversight.

[Image courtesy of the Marshall Foundation.]

Elizebeth’s work with codes started in a most peculiar way. While seeking a job as a librarian after college, she was recruited by eccentric millionaire George Fabyan to live and work at Riverbank, his palatial estate that doubled as a self-funded research center for all sorts of scientific endeavors.

Elizebeth’s deep knowledge of Shakespeare was put to work attempting to prove Fabyan’s theory that there were secret messages encoded in the writings of Shakespeare. Although her work failed to uncover any hidden pattern in Shakespeare’s words or font choices, it did lead to two unexpected developments: a career in codebreaking and a budding romance with fellow Riverbank recruit William Friedman, whose own interest in codebreaking was sparked by the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Thanks to the proliferation of radio, there was a seismic shift in how information was being passed between military units, governments, and other organizations, so the ability to listen in on one’s enemies (and allies) was not only a new strategic opportunity, but it was a relatively new science.

In short, America needed codebreakers who could crack the secret messages being transmitted (and intercepted). The military didn’t have them. The government didn’t have them.

But Riverbank did. And for the first eight months of World War I, the small group of William, Elizebeth, and those they trained handled ALL of the codebreaking for every part of the US government, from the State Department to the Army to the DOJ. William and Elizebeth began running a codebreaking school out of Riverbank, even embedding a secret message in a photo of the class taken on the last day of the course.

[Images courtesy of Elonka.com.]

In the aftermath of the First World War, codebreaking had become so important that countries were turning to machines to help develop uncrackable codes. And yet, at this point, American cryptography as a whole consisted of about 50 people. William went to work for the government, establishing the American version of Bletchley Park — Arlington Hall — and setting the stage for the creation of the NSA.

Elizebeth, on the other hand, cracked codes from home. And she did so for both the Treasury Department and the Coast Guard, who would send her sealed packages of intercepted encrypted intel and communications. In her first three months hunting down rum-runners during Prohibition, she solved two years’ worth of backlogged messages.

During World War II, Elizebeth’s Coast Guard Cryptography Unit turned their attention from smuggling (which waned during wartime) to cracking German codes. Under her tutelage, they would crack three different variations on the Enigma codes, each more complex than the last. (The British also cracked ENIGMA, independently of American efforts.)

Sadly, in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, the US military didn’t want civilians in charge of sensitive operations, so Elizebeth was demoted. Yes, she was no longer in charge of the group she started, trained, and cultivated, instead answering to a new boss of dubious cryptographic talents.

(Of course, the sexist dimwits making decisions like this had to grin and bear it when numerous other organizations and agencies continued to asked for Elizebeth’s assistance by name.)

And stealing Elizebeth’s credit was practically a cottage industry over at the FBI. We have them to thank for erasing Elizebeth’s role in particular — and the Coast Guard’s role in general — in hunting down, exposing, and compromising Nazi spy networks in South America, even though the FBI’s hamfisted blundering actually served to expose codebreaking operations in the past, forcing Elizebeth to crack new codes in order to regain the advantage the FBI had squandered.

Oh, yeah, did I mention that both during AND after World War II, Elizebeth continued to hound the Nazi forces in South America who sought to destabilize the region?

As one historian put it, referring to the thousands of pages of decryptions Elizebeth produced:

These pieces of paper saved lives. They almost certainly stopped coups. They put fascist spies in prison. They drove wedges between Germany and other nations that were trying to sustain and prolong Nazi terror. By any measure, Elizebeth was a great heroine of the Second World War.

The British knew it. The navy knew it. The FBI knew it. But the American public never did, because Elizebeth wasn’t allowed to speak.

[Image courtesy of Find a Grave.]

Even in their retirement, the Friedmans continued to contribute to the world of cryptography. They returned to the subject of Shakespeare with The Shakespeare Ciphers Examined, thoroughly debunking the whole idea of hidden codes in the Bard’s works.

When William died, Elizebeth even hid a secret message on his tombstone, for those who knew how to look. (It was Bacon’s cipher, something they both studied extensively during their time at Riverbank.) What a touching tribute to how she met her partner and husband.

And although the accolades and appreciation for Elizebeth’s incredible contributions have been slow in coming, they are trickling in. In the 1990s, the NSA renamed its auditorium from the William F. Friedman Memorial Auditorium to the William F. Friedman and Elizebeth S. Friedman Memorial Auditorium. A Justice Department building also has an auditorium bearing her name.

More information about the massive expansion of codebreaking worldwide is coming to light with every passing year. Hopefully that will mean greater attention for minds like Elizebeth, who used her puzzly mind to protect the world. That’s someone worth celebrating.

[Much of the information in this post comes from a wonderful book on Elizebeth, The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone, and it’s well-worth your time to check out her story in full.]


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The Puzzly Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe

[Image courtesy of the Poetry Foundation.]

Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most influential writers in all of American literature. Not only did he come to epitomize all things ghastly and unnerving in Gothic horror with chillers like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” but he also trailblazed the detective fiction genre with his character C. Auguste Dupin.

He also made an impact on the world of puzzles.

[Image courtesy of the National Cryptologic Museum Foundation.]

Those familiar with Poe’s works of fiction probably think I’m referring to his story “The Gold-Bug,” one of, if not the first, stories to not only mention cryptography, but to include a substitution cipher (a cipher where each letter in the alphabet is represented by a different letter, number, or symbol).

In “The Gold-Bug,” an unnamed narrator meets the unusual William Legrand, a man obsessed with restoring his family’s lost fortune. Legrand shows off a large scarab-like insect, the titular gold bug. A month later, the narrator and Legrand are reunited when the obsessed Legrand (along with his servant Jupiter) goes off on a expedition to discover the location of the buried treasure of the legendary Captain Kidd.

As it turns out, a piece of paper Jupiter used to collect the gold bug had traces of invisible ink on it, revealing a cipher containing instructions for how to find Kidd’s gold.

[Image courtesy of Bookriot.]

But this was far from Poe’s only dalliance with codebreaking. In fact, he helped popularize the art and science of cryptography with a series of articles in a Philadelphia publication called Alexander’s Weekly Messenger.

In December of 1839, he laid out a challenge to his readers, boasting that he could crack any substitution cipher that readers submitted:

It would be by no means a labor lost to show how great a degree of rigid method enters into enigma-guessing. This may sound oddly; but it is not more strange than the well know fact that rules really exist, by means of which it is easy to decipher any species of hieroglyphical writing — that is to say writing where, in place of alphabetical letters, any kind of marks are made use of at random. For example, in place of A put % or any other arbitrary character –in place of B, a *, etc., etc.

Let an entire alphabet be made in this manner, and then let this alphabet be used in any piece of writing. This writing can be read by means of a proper method. Let this be put to the test. Let any one address us a letter in this way, and we pledge ourselves to read it forthwith–however unusual or arbitrary may be the characters employed.

For the next six months, Poe tackled every cipher sent to Alexander’s. According to Poe, he received around a hundred ciphers, though historians have stated that only 36 distinct ciphers appeared in Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, 15 of which had solutions or partial solutions printed.

Nonetheless, it’s believed that Poe solved each of those 36 ciphers.

[Image courtesy of Awesome Stories.]

He followed up this impressive feat with an essay about cryptography in July of 1841 for Graham’s Magazine, “A Few Words on Secret Writing,” in which he discussed ancient methods of encryption and decryption, name-dropping codebreaking icons like Trithemius, Vigenere, and others.

He also published two cryptograms for the readers to solve, both submitted by a man named W.B. Tyler, “a gentleman whose abilities we highly respect.” Poe claimed he didn’t have time to solve either cryptogram, leaving them to the readers to crack. (Naturally, some scholars theorize that W.B. Tyler was none other than Poe himself.)

It would be over a century before the first verifiable solution to a W.B. Tyler cryptogram appeared. Professor Terence Whalen published his solution to the first Tyler cryptogram in 1992, and even offered a $2500 prize to whomever could solve the remaining Tyler cryptogram.

[Image courtesy of Cryptiana.web.]

That prize was claimed 8 years later by a Canadian software expert named Gil Broza, who cracked what turned out to be a polyalphabetic cipher, one in which several substitution alphabets are used.

Naturally, Poe’s interest in secret messages and codebreaking has led some to suspect that secret messages are lurking in his poetry and works of fiction. (Similar conspiracy theories abound regarding the works of Shakespeare.)

To be fair, there is something to this theory.

In a manner similar to Lewis Carroll hiding Alice Liddell’s name in an acrostic poem at the end of Through the Looking-Glass, Poe dedicated a poem to friend and poet Sarah Anna Lewis by hiding her name, one letter per line, in the poem itself.

[Image courtesy of The Baltimore Post Examiner.]

Of course, Poe’s method was more intricate than Carroll’s. The S in Sarah was the first letter on the first line, the A was the second letter on the second line, the R was the third letter on the third line, and so on. (Hiding coded messages in plain sight in this manner is known as steganography.)

And to this day, the hunt is on for secret messages in Poe’s works, particularly his more esoteric and oddly worded pieces. For instance, his prose poem “Eureka” — a musing on the nature of the universe itself, which actually proposed a Big Bang-like theory for the birth of the universe well before scientists offered the same theory — is believed to contain some sort of secret message or code.

Poe stated on more than one occasion that “human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve.” So if there is a code lurking in his works, someone will surely find it.

And in the meantime, we can still enjoy the chills, the grand ideas, and the mysteries he left behind. That’s quite a puzzly legacy.


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The Voynich Manuscript: Finally Cracked?

[Image courtesy of BBC.com.]

A year and a half ago, I introduced my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers to the Voynich Manuscript, a cryptologic curiosity unlike anything else we’ve seen before. Discovered over a hundred years ago but believed to date back to the fifteenth century, the Voynich Manuscript is a hand-written book that has baffled linguists and puzzlers for decades.

The writing, which reads from right to left, has yet to be identified. It’s unclear if this is some sort of sophisticated code, an unknown or lost language which was then encoded, an invented language, an example of glossolalia (a written equivalent of speaking in tongues), or simply an elaborate hoax.

The only known copy of the text resides in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, although Yale has printed replica texts.

From the Yale University website:

Many call the fifteenth-century codex, commonly known as the “Voynich Manuscript,” the world’s most mysterious book. Written in an unknown script by an unknown author, the manuscript has no clearer purpose now than when it was rediscovered in 1912 by rare books dealer Wilfrid Voynich. The manuscript appears and disappears throughout history, from the library of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II to a secret sale of books in 1903 by the Society of Jesus in Rome. The book’s language has eluded decipherment, and its elaborate illustrations remain as baffling as they are beautiful.

[One of several fold-out pages in the manuscript.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.]

But computer scientists at the University of Alberta believe they’ve finally unraveled some of the mysteries behind the Voynich Manuscript.

They designed an artificial intelligence program with the intent of figuring out the language in the manuscript. The AI analyzed versions of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 400 different languages in order to establish different linguistic patterns to compare against the text of the Voynich Manuscript.

And according to the AI, the text was most likely written in Hebrew.

Now that they had a language to work with, they needed to begin deciphering precisely how that language was encrypted.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.]

There have been many theories regarding what form of encryption was employed in the Voynich Manuscript. Some investigators theorized that vowels had been removed from the words in the text in order to obscure their meaning further, while others have suggested writing that has been mirrored or otherwise written backwards. Anagrams and other forms of word manipulation are a common theory, and the University of Alberta team went with a variation on the anagram idea.

They theorized that the encoded words were alphagrams, anagrams where the letters in a word are placed in alphabetical order. (For instance, if VOYNICH was encoded this way, it would read CHINOVY.)

Turning loose the AI once again under these parameters, they found that 80% of the words in the Voynich text could be anagrammed into Hebrew words. They managed to cobble together a possible opening sentence for the text:

“She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people.”

Is it clunky? Sure. But it’s also a partial translation that has held up to some scrutiny, which is better than most amateur AND professional attempts to crack the Voynich Manuscript have done.

The team is currently hoping to team up with experts in ancient Hebrew and continue the process, but until then, they’re excited to apply their AI to other ancient manuscripts to see what it uncovers.

Although we are a long way from calling the Voynich mystery solved, this is a very intriguing step forward for cryptographers and codebreaking enthusiasts everywhere.


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Last-Minute Puzzly Valentine’s Day Ideas!

Valentine’s Day looms large, and sometimes it’s hard to find that perfect way to express your love for that certain someone… particularly if that certain someone is the puzzly type.

But have no fear! We’re here with some terrific last-minute puzzly ideas for Valentine’s Day!

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

Have you considered a puzzle bouquet? You could grab some newspaper crosswords and origami them into flower shapes for a fun puzzle-fueled spin on a holiday classic.

Or maybe they like coded puzzles? You could write the object of your affection a coded love letter!

All throughout history, people have employed different tricks and techniques to keep their private messages away from prying eyes, and you could do the same! Whether it’s a simple letter-shifting cipher or something more complex, just make sure your message is worth reading. =)

[Image courtesy of Shutterstock.]

Or maybe you’d like to show off how much you know about him or her. Then you could whip up a little scavenger hunt! You could leave clues around leading to a gift, or a romantic dinner, or some other grand finale. Maybe a rose with each clue.

(You could make each clue or destination about your relationship or about your partner, allowing you to show off how well you know them… where you first met, favorite meals, favorite movie… )

If you don’t want to leave things around where anyone could nab them, keep a few small tokens on you, giving one for each destination reached or clue solved. Heck, you could enlist a friend to text clues to your special someone once they’ve reached a particular destination!

For a family-friendly version of the same idea, have the kids help you cut out and hide jigsaw pieces around the house that, when put together, spell out a Valentine’s message, a picture of the family, or a picture of some gift or event to come!

You could even walk around and play Valentine’s Day Bingo.

Go for a walk or take your loved one out to dinner, and see if one of you can get bingo by observing different things. A couple holding hands as they walk, a Valentine’s Day proposal, outrageously priced flowers…

Even on short notice, the possibilities are endless when you put your mind to it. Happy Valentine’s Day, fellow puzzlers!


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Puzzles Endanger, Then Save, a Nation: The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell

While working on our multi-part series of posts about the history of codebreaking in America during the 20th century, I mentioned that some of the recent revelations about the National Security Agency were the result of Edward Snowden’s actions during his time as a government contractor.

What you might not know is that he has not been the only contractor to sneak information off of government computers in that fashion: a decade before Edward Snowden, there was Brian Patrick Regan.

Regan was a career soldier in the Air Force who eventually reached the rank of Master Sergeant and worked in signals intelligence.

Buried under hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit card debt, Regan decided his only way out of financial ruin was to try to sell US government secrets to a foreign government. He copied page after page of sensitive documents from national defense systems and snuck them out of his office, eventually amassing more than 15,000 pages, CD-ROMs, and other material in his home.

He would later bury bundles of these documents in various locations, including state parks, concealing the GPS coordinates of these valuables caches through a complicated series of encryptions where letters and numbers became three-digit sets.

You see, Regan had spent a fair amount of time studying cryptography, and fancied himself a top-shelf codemaster.

Regan used another set of encryptions of lesser complexity when he attempted to contact agents of the Libyan, Iraqi, and Chinese governments in order to sell off the treasure trove of secrets he’d amassed during his time at the National Reconnaissance Office.

One of these packets — a collection of three parcels intended for Libya — ended up in the hands of an FBI agent named Steven Carr.

From The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee:

In the first envelope was a four-page letter with 149 lines of typed text consisting of alphabets and numbers. The second envelope included instructions on how to decode the letter. The third envelope included two sets of code sheets.

One set contained a list of ciphers. The other, running to six pages, listed dozens of words along with their encoded abbreviations: a system commonly known as brevity codes. Together, the two sets were meant to serve as the key for the decryption.

Some of the document had already been decrypted by FBI agents, and it revealed a member of the US intelligence community — claiming to be CIA, which was unverified, but definitely someone with top secret access — was trying to sell government secrets.

And this person had terrible spelling.

Brian Patrick Regan suffered from severe dyslexia. And, despite concerted efforts to perfect both his encryptions and his plan to net millions by selling government secrets, that dyslexia would be one of the clues that led Steven Carr to Regan’s doorstep.

It took Carr six months to connect Regan to the Libyan package, but once he did, surveillance on Regan began immediately.

When Regan attempted to board a plane to Zurich in 2001 — intending to meet with Iraqi and Libyan embassy officials — he was nabbed by the FBI and taken into custody.

Again, excerpted from The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell:

On searching Regan, officials found a piece of paper tucked between the inner and outer soles of his right shoe, on which were written addresses of Iraqi and Chinese embassies in Europe. The other materials they found on him and in his belongings were more mystifying. In a trouser pocket, Regan was carrying a spiral pad containing a page with 13 words that didn’t add up to anything: like tricycle, rocket and glove.

He had another 26 random words scribbled on an index card. Among the contents of Regan’s wallet was a piece of paper with a string of letters and numbers that read “5-6-N-V-O-A-I …” And in a folder he was carrying in his duffel bag were four sheets with handwritten lines of three-digit numbers.

FBI cryptanalyst Daniel Olson decoded some of the messages found on Regan when he was captured, but he had failed to unravel the multi-stage encryptions that concealed where Regan had buried his secret parcels. The government knew which state parks, but with acres and acres of possible hiding places, they needed more precise information.

And those parcels were the key, because they weren’t just packages to be sold to the highest bidder. No, those parcels doubled as a ransom in order to secure a better deal for himself with the US government. He wanted to blackmail the government for a reduced sentence.

They were his insurance plan.

As Thomas G. West said in Seeing What Others Cannot See, a book about visual thinking and dyslexia, “It’s not hard for a dyslexic to think ‘out of the box’ because they have never been in the box.”

Thankfully, Regan eventually realized that cooperation was in his best interest, and he revealed that each of the elaborate three-digit codes concealed a backdoor key built into the code itself.

Regan designed them this way so that, if he forgot the actual details of the encryption, all he would need is the starter word, a spark that would unlock the built-in key and help him decode the entire message.

This backdoor key system worked in a similar fashion to the Vigenere cipher, where a keyword or key phrase served as the entry point for a longer string of encrypted text. The trouble is… you need to know the cipher word or source in order to crack the code.

For example, during World War II, German agents in Europe used Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca as the basis of a code for transmitting intelligence from Cairo to support a campaign by the Axis powers against the Allies in North Africa.

The discovery of the book among the possessions of two German radio operators who didn’t read English ultimately led to the breaking of the code, which in turn led to the capture of the German spies in Cairo.

Regan revealed the cipher words for the various hiding spots in state parks — which used cipher words from sources as peculiar as Regan’s own high school yearbook — and soon, the FBI recovered all but one of the buried parcels.

But Regan couldn’t remember the cipher word for the last one.

Daniel Olson would then step in, having learned some of Regan’s techniques as they uncovered the other parcels, and partially decrypting the remaining message enough to spark Regan’s memory. Regan finally came up with the last cipher key, and the final parcel was recovered.

Yes, once again, puzzly perseverance had saved the day!

Regan was found guilty on two counts of attempted espionage and one of gathering national defense information, and sentenced to life imprisonment with parole. Which, quite honestly, is getting off easy, considering that prosecutors were seeking the death penalty for his treasonous acts. (If prosecutors had gotten their way, he would’ve been the first person executed for espionage since the Rosenbergs in the ’50s.)

For the full story, including more in-depth explanations of Regan’s elaborate encryptions, check out The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee.


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