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NSA Historical Figures

Meredith Gardner

2004 Hall of Honor Inductee

Originally from Texas, Meredith Gardner was teaching German at the University of Akron when the U.S. Army's Signals Intelligence Service (SIS) hired him as a linguist in 1942. He quickly switched from the German to the Japanese problem, having learned Japanese in only three months. After World War II, this talented linguist learned Russian and moved to the Soviet problem. In 1946, he began working on VENONA.

VENONA was the final in a series of cover names for the project to exploit the cryptosystems used to protect Soviet diplomatic and spy communications. The messages were encrypted using a complicated numeric code that was then super-enciphered by adding a numeric key stream from a one-time pad to the code. Prior to 1943, the system was believed unbreakable and thus not worth the cryptanalytic effort. However, it was decided that VENONA was worth revisiting and in February 1943, a team was assembled to study the traffic.

Mr. Gardner proved instrumental in breaking the underlying code and led the efforts to reconstruct the codebooks. By identifying the "spell" and "end spell" indicators, Meredith Gardner was able to recover the portion of the codebook used for spelling English names and phrases in a message. He continued to build on his success, recovering more and more code groups. The first message was broken in February 1946. The value of his work was clearly demonstrated in July 1946, when he decoded a message containing encryption procedures for Soviet spies in Mexico.

Mr. Gardner decided that merely decrypting VENONA messages was not enough if the decrypts could not be put to good use. He sent a memo, "Special Report #1," to a small number of Army Security Agency (ASA) seniors in the summer of 1947, describing what sort of intelligence VENONA could provide. He also included samples of the material being recovered. Mr. Gardner's report helped the Army's leadership to recognize the value of VENONA, leading to cooperation between the ASA (later NSA) and the FBI in the identification of Soviet agents working in the United States.

Meredith Gardner returned to the VENONA project in the mid-1950s, where he worked until he retired in 1972. He died in August 2002.