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News | March 20, 2020

The Legacy of Women in American Cryptology: Part 3

By The National Cryptologic Museum

As NSA continues to celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re pleased to share the third part in our series highlighting influential women in cryptology with five more groundbreaking pioneers in the field.

The first in part in our series can be found here, and part two here

The National Cryptologic Museum features a tribute to these influential women with their “Women in American Cryptology” exhibit, which honors those whose contributions in cryptology opened doors and raised ceilings for those in the field today and into the future. Few will have heard of most of the women named, but they deserve to have their stories told.

Minnie Kenny (2009 Hall of Honor Inductee)

Minnie Kenny retired in 1993 with 43 years of Federal service, most of which was spent at the National Security Agency in a career that began as a GS-4 communications clerk (a lower-level position and salary) and ended as a member of the Senior Executive Service (SES-5). During the course of that career, Mrs. Kenny served as the deputy chief in the Office of Techniques and Standards, the deputy assistant director for Education and Training with direct responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the National Cryptologic School, and the assistant deputy director for Administration. She also represented the Department of Defense on the Congressional Task Force on Women, Minorities, and the Handicapped in Science and Technology. Her last assignment was as the NSA director for Equal Employment Opportunity.

Mrs. Kenny is the recipient of several prestigious awards, including the President’s Citation from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, the Don Quixote Award from the National Hispanic University, and the Doctorate of Humane Letters from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. Professionally, Mrs. Kenny received NSA’s two highest awards: the Meritorious and the Exceptional Civilian Service Awards. She was also singled out by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. for the Meritorious Executive Award and by the Director of Central Intelligence for the Intelligence Community’s Distinguished Service Award.

Mrs. Kenny’s bio is also included in the “African American Experience” exhibit at the National Cryptologic Museum.

Rose Greenhow

Rose Greenhow was a Washington socialite on the eve of the Civil War. She was also a spy for the Confederacy, a fact she did little to hide. Although suspected as a spy, Union officers and officials still sought her invitations to parties and affairs. Some spoke to her of military and political matters. Anything Union officers or Congressmen whispered in her ear, she passed on to the South. When eventually captured and tried, she claimed, “If Mr. Lincoln’s friends will pour into my ear such important information, am I to be held responsible for all that?”

Mrs. Greenhow is credited with sending a coded message to General Beauregard at the First Battle of Manassas (or First Bull Run). She had acquired details concerning the federal troops’ movements out of Washington and wrote it in a code. The message was hidden in a small, sewn purse and rolled up in the hair bun of her friend who rode out to the General. Although it is doubtful that the information was the sole reason for the General’s success at Manassas, it was a contributing factor. The general undoubtedly had additional information from other sources, but Mrs. Greenhow’s details would have been welcome collateral support. She was considered to be a valuable and credible source.

Rose continued to spy for the Confederacy, even after being captured, and managed to send more messages even while being confined, first to her home and later in prison. This was quite an embarrassment for the Union. Realizing that she could become a martyr for the Southern cause if she remained imprisoned, Mrs. Greenhow was eventually exiled to the South and instructed never to return to Washington. Rose’s escapades as a spy had come to an end, but not her ability to work for the South. She championed the Confederacy in England, where she raised money destined for the Southern cause.  She drowned off the coast of the Carolinas after returning from England, with the gold she’d collected sewn into the hem of her gown.

Velva Klaessy

Born in October 1915, Velva Klaessy attended Iowa State Teachers College, earning a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics. She worked in the Iowa public schools from 1937 until 1944 when she joined the World War II cryptologic effort.

She remained in the field following the war as the Armed Forces Security Agency and NSA were formed. For many years she was a member of the highly respected Technical Consultants group. This organization, made up of some of the Agency’s most talented cryptanalysts, assisted other analytic offices with their most difficult problems. While with the group, she and a male officer spent July and August 1953 in the Far East training military personnel. This is noteworthy because at that time, according to oral tradition, female NSA employees never went on Temporary Duty (TDY) assignments to this part of the world. Her work there was highly praised. Before leaving the technical consultants organization, she made at least one other TDY, this time to the United Kingdom.

From 1958 to 1967, Ms. Klaessy held positions of high responsibility in organizations dealing with cutting-edge technology. In 1958, she was part of a three-member team called the Advanced Weaponry and Astronautics Research Division (AWARD). From there she moved to be the deputy chief of the New and Unidentified Signals Division and was finally made its chief in 1964.

Ms. Klaessy returned to what is now called the extended Enterprise in 1967 when she was named Deputy Senior United States Liaison Officer (SUSLO) in Ottawa, Canada, and then SUSLO in 1970. As SUSLO, she represented the United States Intelligence Board and the NSA in all signals intelligence and communication security matters with the appropriate organizations in Canada. She was the first woman to hold a senior liaison officer post anywhere in the world.     

Velva Klaessy returned to Fort Meade in 1975 but retired shortly afterwards.

Barbara McNamara

Barbara McNamara reached the highest position a civilian can hold at the National Security Agency in 1997 when she was named Deputy Director, only the second woman to do so (Ann Caracristi was the first). It was the culmination of 34 years of cryptologic work. Ms. McNamara joined NSA in 1963 as a Chinese linguist. She served in several analytic, operational, and managerial positions in the Operations Directorate until 1983. She also attended the Armed Forces Staff College (1976) and the National War College (1982) before being named the executive assistant to the Director in 1983.

High-level management positions followed, including chief of staff to the deputy director of Operations, office chief for a country analysis office, and chief of the Office of International Economics and Global Issues. It was during this part of her career that she received the Meritorious Civilian Service Award and the Meritorious SCE Rank Award. She was then named the NSA representative to the Department of Defense and, in 1994, the deputy director of Operations — the first woman to hold that position. The same year, she received the Exceptional Civilian Service Award. 

For her 37 years of dedicated service to the Intelligence Community, Ms. McNamara was awarded the Intelligence Community’s highest and rarely given award, the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal, in June 2000. The award recognizes superior achievements of senior intelligence personnel over a sustained period that have contributed significantly to the U.S. foreign intelligence program.  According to the citation, Ms. McNamara was recognized for her ability to forge cooperative alliances among intelligence agencies and foreign partners. That same month, she became the first woman Senior United States Liaison Officer (SUSLO) to London. Ms. McNamara retired from that position as the liaison to the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), where she forged alliances with our partners.

Marie Meyer

Marie Meyer was a language scholar from Illinois with a master’s degree in Latin, as well as knowledge of Greek, German, and Sanskrit. After teaching for more than 20 years in Illinois, she was hired by the Army’s Signal Intelligence Service in 1943, probably as a German linguist. During the summer of 1946, Ms. Meyer took a University of Chicago correspondence course in Russian and moved to the Venona problem (Venona was the final cover name for the project to exploit Soviet diplomatic and, what turned out to be, espionage communications). She was only the second linguist assigned to exploit the KGB codes. Meredith Gardner, a well-known linguist on the problem, credited her and a coworker, Alice Joys, with making some of the initial recoveries on that code system.

Ms. Meyer appears to have spent the remainder of her career on some facet of the Russian problem, developing and teaching several Russian language classes at the NSA training school. The NSA newsletter acknowledged her “unique qualification for pioneering and developing special instructional courses and programs … positive, dynamic approach in resolving unusual, technical problems, and … exceptional ability in working relationships.” 

Ms. Meyer’s interest in languages never tired. She studied a wide variety of languages throughout her life, including Navajo in 1954 (perhaps she’d learned of the Code Talkers). When she retired in 1960, soft-spoken Ms. Meyer — remembered as “the perfect lady” — was the first person to receive NSA’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award. Continuing her love of learning languages, she planned to study Celtic languages after retiring.

Visit the National Cryptologic Museum to see this impressive “Women in American Cryptology” exhibit in person, among the many other exhibits that explore the expansive history of American cryptology. The National Cryptologic Museum is located at the intersection of Maryland Route 32 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (I-295), adjacent to the headquarters of the National Security Agency. Admission and parking are free! Click here for hours, directions, and other information. You can also follow the museum on Facebook.