30 November 1998. Thanks to Anonymous

The Washington Post
Sunday, 29 November 1998, Page B06

Cecil Phillips, Cold War Code Expert, Dies

By Richard Pearson
Washington Post Staff Writer

Cecil J. Phillips, 73, a retired National Security Agency cryptanalyst and
computer security official who was one of the unsung heroes of the shadowy
Cold War conflicts involving codes and ciphers, died Nov. 27 at Holy Cross
Hospital after a heart attack. He lived in Burtonsville.

Mr. Phillips, who was born in Asheville, N.C., attended the University of
North Carolina before coming to Washington during World War II to begin his

career as a government cryptanalyst at the age of 18.

The flat feet that prevented him from serving in uniform did not slow him as
an Army civilian. During the war, he worked at Arlington Hall Station with
the Army Signals Security Agency. The little-known agency employed 7,000
people in breaking German and Japanese codes during the war.

After spending about a year on Japanese codes, he was sent to assist a team
working on what was thought to be a low-priority project called "the Russian

American authorities had intercepted an enormous number of code
transmissions between Soviet authorities in New York and Moscow. The project
was on the back burner during the war because the Soviets were U.S. allies
and because it was thought that most of the messages, however sophisticated,
dealt mainly with commercial and consular drudgery.

But in 1944, Mr. Phillips was credited with discovering a numerical quirk in
the code, which came to be code-named "VENONA" and which began to yield its
secrets. After following a long and convoluted path, the work eventually led
to the exposure of a seemingly vast army of Soviet spies in the United
States and Britain. And those exposures eventually changed the history of
the Cold War.

The downfall of the Soviet codes involved their sheer volume. One-time
pads -- theoretically unbreakable methods of communication intended to be
used only once -- instead were reused, and the Soviets could not modify
codes quickly enough to keep their messages secure.

The code, first pried open in large part because of Mr. Phillips's work,
eventually led to the exposure of Soviet espionage against the U.S. atomic
bomb program and prompted U.S. security and intelligence officials to
suspect the existence of Soviet agents high in British officialdom.

Those suspicions were correct. One of those Soviet agents -- a group that
eventually came to be known to some as the "Cambridge Gang of Five" -- was
H.A.R. "Kim" Philby, the Washington liaison officer of Britain's Secret
Intelligence Service. Though the Soviets -- through Philby -- knew that
their codes had been compromised, they could not undo the fact that U.S.
authorities had in their possession more than 1 million secret
transmissions, which were still being decoded as late as 1980. Thousands of
them were decoded before the NSA revealed the VENONA program to the public
in 1995.

Even though the Soviets knew of VENONA, through the work of an agent working
on the project, and even though American security officers knew that the
Soviets knew, the American public and most of the government were kept in

the dark.

It was largely through the cryptanalysis that "atomic spies" and other
Soviet agents came to be exposed. These actions helped fuel what became an
anti-Communist hysteria in the 1950s, as Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.)
and others hunted for Communists in the government. Their efforts caught few
Communists, ruined many lives and nearly crippled some government agencies.

At the same time, the secrecy of VENONA prevented the government from
exposing some Soviet agents who escaped prosecution. Security involving
VENONA was so tight that officers such as Mr. Phillips, as well as
presidential historians, believed that President Harry S. Truman was never
informed of its existence -- for fear he would inadvertently reveal the

Mr. Phillips moved on to other government security work in 1951, becoming a
senior NSA executive dealing with computer security. He held other technical
and managerial posts with the agency before retiring in 1980. After that, he
remained active with the NSA as both a consultant and a contract employee.

In recent years, he had appeared on television and radio programs dealing
with codes and VENONA, and he was a source of information to historians and
journalists, including writers at The Washington Post.

During his years with the government, Mr. Phillips graduated from the
University of Maryland and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.

Survivors include his wife, Nancy, of Burtonsville; two sons, Jeffrey, of
Ocean City, Md., and Christopher, of Seattle; and a daughter, Mary Phillips
of Columbia.

Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company