News | Aug. 4, 2020

Pioneering Codebreaker Elizebeth Friedman Honored by U.S. Coast Guard

By The Center for Cryptologic History

Elizebeth Friedman, an original member of the NSA/CSS Cryptologic Hall of Honor and known as one of America’s first female cryptanalysts, is being honored by the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard last week announced the 11th ship in its new Legend-Class National Security Cutter (NSC) program will be named in honor of Ms. Friedman, who worked with the Coast Guard during prohibition and became a crucial part of the effort to enforce the ban on liquor.

During World War I, Ms. Friedman and her husband William worked closely together to develop many of the principles of modern cryptology and to train American military personnel for wartime service. After the war, both Friedmans worked for the Army as civilian employees, although she left Government service to raise a family.

The Prohibition laws of the 1920s forbade the importation of alcoholic beverages, and the Coast Guard was given the near-impossible task of stopping smuggling along thousands of miles of U.S. coastline. Coast Guard intelligence officials began exploiting communications used by criminal gangs to arrange delivery of their contraband, but found many of the messages were protected by sophisticated encryption systems. In response, they hired Ms. Friedman.

A National Security Cutter at sea

She began solving these encrypted messages and providing the Coast Guard with vital intelligence that supported their efforts to interdict smuggling. She also trained a small team in cryptanalysis to expand the crime-fighting intelligence effort. Elizebeth and her assistant solved about 12,000 coded messages between the so-called rum runners and smugglers, which resulted in 650 criminal prosecutions. In addition to criminals violating the Prohibition laws, some of the messages Ms. Friedman solved also enabled the arrest and conviction of a number of narcotics smugglers.

She had a personal role in some of the prosecutions. She testified as an expert witness in 33 cases, and frequently became the subject of newspaper and magazine articles. For a time, she was one of the most famous women in the country.

During World War II, the Coast Guard’s cryptanalytic unit was detailed to the Navy. Ms. Friedman during this time primarily worked against German espionage communications from South America. The information she developed was critical to counterintelligence work in the Southern Hemisphere, enabling the FBI to put a major Nazi spy ring out of action. She also helped uncover several domestic spies.

In the 1970s, when her husband’s important role against enemy cryptography before and during World War II was declassified, he became the more noted of the two. Today, thanks to recent books and articles, we realize that both were important to American national security and that Elizebeth Friedman had a unique role in law enforcement.

William and Elizebeth Smith Friedman in retirement

William Friedman died in 1969 and NSA named its auditorium after him in 1975. In 1999, with growing recognition of his wife’s importance to national security and the field of cryptology, the auditorium was renamed the “William and Elizebeth Friedman Auditorium.” When a decision was made in 2002 to name the original three-story NSA building on Fort Meade, then colorlessly known as “Operations 1,” the facility, and the auditorium, were given the names of both Friedmans.

On 17 June 2014, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, successor to the Prohibition-era enforcement organization, dedicated the auditorium at its national headquarters in the name of Elizebeth Smith Friedman.

The naming of the Coast Guard’s latest NSC is the latest tribute to a person who contributed significantly to the national security and public safety of the United States.

National Security Cutters are 418-foot vessels, equipped with the most modern electronic equipment, and capable of operating in any maritime environment around the world.

 The Coast Guard announcement can be found here