Disappearing NSA Files
jdhfora at cox.net
Mon Jul 12 17:34:28 EDT 2004
Well, most published work based on talks with those involved emphasize that
the most advanced data processing techniques applied to the VENONA messages
involved IBM keysort cards. And that was about as mechanized as it got.
The description by Mr. Taber of STRETCH/HARVEST is interesting, but I doubt
seriously that it was built so precisely to tackle VENONA material. The
only reason why the pool of messages existed in the first place was the
repeated use of one time pads. This meant that once the duplicate pads were
either used up or discarded no further vulnerable texts were being
generated. The purpose of one time pads is/was to achieve random numbers
(to repeat the obvious). I repeat my earlier premise, that the Soviet
material in question was becoming superannuated from a perspective of
current or even moderately recent intelligence. I have seen somewhere in
print that the Soviets not too long after this changed their system which
made the lessons of VENONA more or less useless for later decrypting.
My comments are based on my reading of published accounts and some first
hand comments from some who should know. As for STRETCH/HARVEST, I have no
idea as to its precise purpose, aside from surmising that given the time
frame it was undouibtedly aimed at Soviet matters
If any other readers care to comment, perhaps they could clarify.
Jon D. Holstine
----- Original Message -----
From: "John K. Taber" <jktaber at tacni.net>
To: <intelforum at his.com>
Sent: Sunday, July 11, 2004 8:27 AM
Subject: RE: Disappearing NSA Files
> Mr. Jon D. Holstine asserted:
> The sort of work involved in breaking down the Soviet messages was
> not supported by computers. The capacity to handle such work
> may now exist. However, given NSA's current tasking with world wide
> terrorism, I can see a reluctance to devout the manhours
> necessary to set up the raw, encrypted stuff, for computer treatment.
> I have to ask what he bases his assertion on because I strongly suspect
> that NSA indeed used computers to aid its cryptanalysis of the
> I suspect that NSA's STRETCH/HARVEST specs were written specifically to
> enable not just cryptanalysis in general but cryptanalysis of Venona
> specifically. This was a supercomputer built by IBM to NSA's specs. Work
> was begun in the 50s, and STRETCH/HARVEST was delivered to NSA in 1962.
> It remained in service until the 1977 or so, when it was returned to
> IBM. Supposedly the tape tractors had become defective and couldn't be
> According to an NSA 1968 report, cited in a talk by Fran Allen, STRETCH/
> HARVEST did the following:
> "Recently HARVEST scanned 7,075,315 messages of approximately 500
> characters each -- examining every possible offset -- to see if
> they contained any of 7,000 different words or phrases. This ...
> required three hours and 50 minutes to complete -- an average of
> over 30,000 messages a minute."
> What is being described is the equivalent of "dragging" a cryptogram
> to site a tip. For Venona, this means dragging messages super-encrypted
> with the same page(s) of one-time pads with probably code groups.
> The size of the messages sound about right for the average Venona
> The 7000 words or phrases is about right for Venona. There were at least
> five code books used, of 4-digit code groups arranged as a one-part code
> book. In other words, there were 10,000 possible code groups, of which
> some number were not known. 7000 sounds very good.
> Seven million messages are far beyond what was released (roughly 3000+
> msgs), but there is evidence here and there in the released messages of
> messages that were never released. For example, there was presumably
> Washington-London Naval GRU messages. They are nowhere to be found in
> the released corpus. And, this specific computer most likely was used for
> other traffic besides Venona.
> Fran Allen was the lead designer on ALPHA, a programming language for
> STRETCH/HARVEST, that was designed specifically as a cryptanalytic
> language, which, from her talks, was used intensively by NSA. Imagine
> that, an entire programming language specifically for code breaking!
> I would have loved to have seen the manual for ALPHA, which I think is
> still at IBM Research.
> So, I think the work was computerized in the early 60s at latest,
> remained in progress until its usefulness was at an end, and then
> the work was put on the shelf about 1980.
> I am very anxious to hear from Mr. Holstine what evidence he has for
> supposing that Venona cryptanalysis was not computerized.
> John K. Taber
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