Chapter One: Special Delivery
We armchair spymasters generally think of secret messages as dense, complex lines of random-looking letters and numbers that have no meaning until rearranged by an exotic code or letter-logic system. But not every good secret message must be rendered in code language. In fact, history is full of examples of secret messages sent in plain, uncoded text, right under the noses of the enemy. Successful messaging in these cases is made possible by ingenious delivery methods. In this way, secret messaging is sometimes akin to smuggling -- transporting illicit goods past wary guards in a way that seems almost magical. It's human cleverness at its best, no less present in ancient times than it is today. Take the case of:
THE BALD MESSAGE
Centuries before the birth of Christ, Asia Minor was the scene of recurring military encroachments from east and west, and by necessity the birthplace of many clever methods of conveying a secret message (before speed of delivery held much importance).
In those days messages had to be delivered by human power, and secrecy was difficult to guarantee. When a messenger had to cross enemy lines, he would be thoroughly searched; a hiding place for a written letter would almost surely be found. A message disguised as a garment could be taken away. How, then, to overcome a vigorous search and get the man through enemy lines with the message intact?
Herodotus, the era's chronicler of events, tells us how. In The Histories he relates how Histaiaeus, governor of Miletus and plotter against the Persian ruler Darius, secretly communicated with a man named Aristagoras, whom he wished to enlist in his rebellion. It was simple, really. He shaved a trusted messenger's head, then tattooed the message on his bare scalp. After a few weeks of letting his hair grow back, he sent him on his way. After traversing Persian lines innocently, Histaiaeus's messenger is reported to have been brought before Aristagoras and said, "Master, shave my head." Which he obviously did, since the message set in motion a rebellion lasting almost six years.
Half the battle in secret delivery systems is not arousing suspicion in the vehicle itself. That's why common, everyday items like clothing make good hiding places, as can be seen in these stories:
HAVE A BELT ON ME
The Spartan general Lysander and his troops were a long way from home. They had left Greece a month earlier on a military adventure that had been supported by their new allies, the Persians, who remained behind to safeguard Greece against their common enemies. A runner/messenger arrived at Lysander's camp one day. "I have a message for Lysander," he said, and was taken immediately to the general's tent. "What have you for me?" the general demanded. The runner replied, "I know not. I was told simply to find you." Lysander looked carefully at the man, and quickly saw a broad, leather belt around his waist. Branded into the belt, and running the entire circumference of it, were a series of random letters. Lysander knew what it was. Taking the man's belt, he wrapped it carefully in a descending spiral around a long wooden baton. As he wrapped, the letters aligned into sentences, until at last he could read them all. The message told him that Pharnabazus of Persia was double-crossing him and planned to seize Sparta for himself. Lysander returned and routed the traitorous army.
The Spartan baton was called a "scytale" and was one of the first known uses of military cryptology. The method simply required both the sending and receiving parties to have scytales of the same thickness. The sending party wrapped a leather belt around the scytale, much like wrapping the grip on a tennis racket, and either burned or cut his message into the leather. It was then unwrapped, rendering the message into a seemingly random line of letters, and worn normally as a belt. As such, it was innocuous and would not arouse suspicion. To read the message, the receiving party simply rewrapped the belt on his own scytale. If its diameter was the same as the sender's, the letters would align as the sender intended, and the message could be read vertically.
THE HAT TRICK
Professional spies still talk about the remarkable espionage abilities of a man who wasn't a spy at all -- he was a newspaper reporter. Henri de Blowitz, in a long newspaper career starting in 1871, always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, with an inside track on monumental events. He invariably would be the first to break big stories in the London Times.
When the Congress of Berlin convened in 1878 to manage the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish war, everyone -- including British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck -- knew Mr. de Blowitz would be there, looking to turn the proceedings inside out for the benefit of his readers. Bismarck in particular had an interest in keeping the sessions quiet; his desire to remake the map of Europe would proceed nicely if public animosity was not brought against him. To this end he tasked his legendary spymaster, Wilhelm Stieber, with keeping de Blowitz out of the picture.
Stieber, with his army of street-level informants on high alert, and with the intelligence apparatuses of other nations also present, was confident that the formal deliberations were sealed shut from prying eyes and ears, and so informed his boss. It was incredibly confounding for him, then, to see de Blowitz's initial article in the Times, describing the entire agenda of the first day's deliberations!
Each day thereafter, with infuriating consistency, de Blowitz informed the world of the details of the closed-door discussions, and neither Stieber nor any other agent could figure out how he was doing it. Around-the-clock surveillance confirmed that de Blowitz had not been observed talking to anyone with any connection to the Congress; he received no mysterious packages or letters; he did not frequent any shadowy places or retrieve dead-drop messages. His behavior was utterly normal and innocent, and yet every day he had the scoop on who had said what, and would report it, sometimes word for word.
In the end, de Blowitz exceeded even his own high standards, publishing the entire formal agreement (the Treaty of Berlin) in the Times on June 22, 1878, almost before the ink was dry on the signatures and well before the formal release of the document to the press. His stature as the preeminent correspondent of the nineteenth century was assured.
It was only toward the end of his life that the secret of his success at the Congress of Berlin was revealed. The source for his articles was a confederate de Blowitz had managed to attach to the clerical staff of the Congress well before it even started. That explains how the information was so accurate and timely. But how did his inside man get the transcripts of the day's discussions to de Blowitz, since the two men never met, never talked, never even acknowledged each other's existence? It seemed that the two men dined in the same Berlin restaurant every night. On arrival each man would hang his hat -- the same type and color hat, it turns out -- on adjacent pegs. As he left the restaurant, de Blowitz would simply pluck the other man's hat from the rack and put it on his head. The secret messages were hidden in the hatband!
THE SHIRT OFF YOUR BACK
The German occupation of much of Europe in the early 1940s was accompanied by the violent repression and jailing of political opponents and the capture and imprisonment of civilians who sabotaged German operations in a variety of ways. These saboteurs, often members of paramilitary units collectively known as the Underground, were often interrogated and executed, but many thousands were thrown into filthy prisons where they tried to survive the cold, the malnourishment, and the disease. Almost worse was the fact that they were cut off from communicating with the outside world. Or so the Germans thought.
It has been the fate of many jailers, throughout history, to underestimate the resourcefulness and will of their captives. And so it was in the jails of Holland, France, Poland, and many other countries, where prisoners found a way to write long, detailed messages to their families, and to have them delivered without interception, and without benefit of coded language. How did they do it? When Red Cross workers were given nominal access to the prisoners, they brought clean clothing and toilet tissue. The tissue never went very far, but prisoners managed to save a tiny piece measuring about one inch square. This became a sheet of "stationery." With infinite patience and whatever writing implement could be devised (a sliver of wood or coal, a twig, even a fingernail), they would write letters using the smallest characters they could manage. Amazingly, letters hundreds of words in length were produced. When they were completed, they would be folded and placed in the small, looped clothing tag on the inside back of the shirts to be discarded. The Red Cross would gather them, remove them from the prison, and see that the messages were picked out of their hiding places and delivered. Even a careful rummaging through the clothes by diligent German guards did not turn up the messages, many of which survive today in museums throughout Europe, testament to human ingenuity and determination in the face of death.
Copyright © 2001 by William S. Butler and L. Douglas Keeney