as reported in the [REDACTED] list and RISKS
Date: 01 Apr 88 1620 PST
From: Les Earnest
Subject: The “previous account” referred to in RISKS-6.51
e-t-a-o-n-r-i Spy and the FBI
Reading a book got me into early trouble–I had an FBI record
by age twelve. This bizarre incident caused a problem much later
when I needed a security clearance. I learned that I could obtain
one only by concealing my sordid past.
A friend named Bob and I read the book “Secret and Urgent,” by
Fletcher Pratt [Blue Ribbon Books; Garden City, NY; 1942] which was
an early popular account of codes and ciphers. Pratt showed how to
use letter frequencies to break ciphers and reported that the most
frequently occurring letters in typical English text are
e-t-a-o-n-r-i, in that order. (The letter frequency order of the
story you are now reading is e-t-a-i-o-n-r. The higher frequency
of “i” probably reflects the fact that _I_ use the first person
singular a lot.) Pratt’s book also treated more advanced
Bob and I decided that we needed to have a secure way to
communicate with each other, so we put together a rather elaborate
jargon code based on the principles described in the book. I don’t
remember exactly why we thought we needed it–we spent much of
our time outside of school together, so there was ample time to
talk privately. Still, you never could tell when you might need to
send a secret message!
We made two copies of the code key (a description of how to encrypt
and decrypt our messages) in the form of a single typewritten
sheet. We each took a copy and carried it on our persons at all
times when we were wearing clothes.
I actually didn’t wear clothes much. I spent nearly all my time
outside school wearing just a baggy pair of maroon swimming trunks.
That wasn’t considered too weird in San Diego.
I had recently been given glasses to wear but generally kept them
in a hard case in the pocket of the trousers that I wore to school.
I figured that this was a good place to hide my copy of the code
key, so I carefully folded it to one-eighth of its original size
and stuck it at the bottom of the case, under my glasses.
Every chance I got, I went body surfing at Old Mission Beach. I
usually went by streetcar and, since I had to transfer Downtown, I
wore clothes. Unfortunately, while I was riding the trolley home
from the beach one Saturday, the case carrying my glasses slipped
out of my pocket unnoticed. I reported the loss to my mother that
night. She chastised me and later called the streetcar company.
They said that the glasses hadn’t been turned in.
After a few weeks of waiting in vain for the glasses to turn up, we
began to lose hope. My mother didn’t rush getting replacement
glasses in view of the fact that I hadn’t worn them much and they
cost about $8, a large sum at that time. (To me, $8 represented 40
round trips to the beach by streetcar, or 80 admission fees to the
Unknown to us, the case had been found by a patriotic citizen who
opened it, discovered the code key, recognized that it must belong
to a Japanese spy and turned it over to the FBI This was in
1943, just after citizens of Japanese descent had been forced off
their property and taken away to concentration camps. I remember
hearing that a local grocer was secretly a Colonel in the Japanese
Army and had hidden his uniform in the back of his store. A lot of
people actually believed these things.
About six weeks later, when I happened to be off on another
escapade, my mother was visited by a man who identified himself as
an investigator from the FBI (She was a school administrator,
but happened to be at home working on her Ph.D. dissertation.) She
noticed that there were two more men waiting in a car outside. The
agent asked a number of questions about me, including my
occupation. He reportedly was quite disappointed when he learned
that I was only 12 years old.
He eventually revealed why I was being investigated, showed my
mother the glasses and the code key and asked her if she knew where
it came from. She didn’t, of course. She asked if we could get
the glasses back and he agreed.
My mother told the investigator how glad she was to get them back,
considering that they cost $8. He did a slow burn, then said
“Lady, this case has cost the government thousands of dollars. It
has been the top priority in our office for the last six weeks. We
traced the glasses to your son from the prescription by examining
the files of nearly every optometrist in San Diego.” It apparently
didn’t occur to them that if I were a real Japanese spy, I might
have brought the glasses with me from headquarters.
The FBI agent gave back the glasses but kept the code key “for
our records.” They apparently were not fully convinced that they
were dealing just with kids.
Since our communication scheme had been compromised, Bob and I
devised a new key. I started carrying it in my wallet, which I
thought was more secure. I don’t remember ever exchanging any
cryptographic messages. I was always ready, though.
A few years later when I was in college, I got a summer job at the
Naval Electronics Lab, which required a security clearance. One of
the questions on the application form was “Have you ever been
investigated by the FBI?” Naturally, I checked “Yes.” The next
question was, “If so, describe the circumstances.” There was very
little space on the form, so I answered simply and honestly, “I was
suspected of being a Japanese spy.”
When I handed the form in to the security officer, he scanned it
quickly, looked me over slowly, then said, “Explain this”–pointing
at the FBI question. I described what had happened.
He got very agitated, picked up my form, tore it in pieces, and
threw it in the waste basket.
He then got out a blank form and handed it to me, saying “Here,
fill it out again and don’t mention that. If you do, I’ll make
sure that you never get a security clearance.”
I did as he directed and was shortly granted the clearance. I
never again disclosed that incident on security clearance forms.
On another occasion much later, I learned by chance that putting
certain provocative information on a security clearance form can
greatly speed up the clearance process. But that is another story.