Bookbag: Espionage, Cryptology, and Psychological Operations

Writer: 
November 12, 2013

The catalyst: “Wkh dwwdfn zloo frpphqfh dw gdzq.” You might see this as a bunch of gibberish, but a student in Nicholas Gessler’s class would advise you to change each letter into the letter three places before it in the alphabet. The “gibberish” is now a warning: “The attack will commence at dawn.” Gessler, an anthropologist and espionage enthusiast, is helping students examine how an intelligence agency communicates information.

The gist: “Anthropology is an academic pursuit, and most academics would like to study a culture and provide information to members of that culture on how to better provide sanitation or health,” Gessler says. “For the intelligence community, their purpose is to understand a culture and obtain actionable information—they want to understand those parts of it which they can use to activate certain results in that community.” Those divergent goals are often achieved using the same tactics.

The twist: The class meets Wednesdays for nearly three hours, so Gessler tries to keep his students actively involved. In a recent class, students decrypted coded messages using pieces of his collection of World War II-era devices: Jefferson wheels (lettered disks that can be rotated and arranged to spell out a message) and a Swiss neu machine (an improvement on the German Enigma machine).

Assignment list: Students examine decades-old postcards, when people wrote encrypted messages in their letters. Successful decryption, Gessler says, requires an ability to understand the literacy and motives of the people of the time. Students also learn about theories and dissemination of propaganda materials by analyzing the effectiveness of international military propaganda leaflets throughout the twentieth century and by comparing Triumph of the Will, a pro-Nazi film, and Why We Fight, a seven-part series produced by Frank Capra for the U.S. government during World War II.

What you missed: Students went to Washington to tour the National Security Agency’s National Cryptologic Museum at Fort Meade and the International Spy Museum. Gessler says he’s wary of his cyber security. “I’ve always figured that anything you put into a computer is accessible by anybody else with the know-how, the time, and the computational power behind them to extract it.”

  • Ryan Hoerger is an intern. He is a sophomore who also writes for "The Chronicle," Duke's student newspaper.