Was Grandpa spooky?
July 23, 2014 7:37 PM   Subscribe

Can I find out through a foia request, or some other means, whether my grandfather was a spy, code-cracker, or somehow involved in Cold War hijinx?

I don't have much to go on, but my mom is very curious and I'd like to help her figure this out. She thinks my grandpa/her dad was a code-cracker for some part of the US federal govt. I'm not sure how to verify that without any evidence. Is there someone I can ask?

My grandfather was a quiet guy. He was U.S. Air Force during WWII and went "out of town" every Saturday and spent most of his time on the "computer" -- sort of a typewriter that could save a little bit of data to cartridges -- during the 80s. Once, before I was born, the FBI came and checked him out with the neighbors.

My mom didn't know what they were, but she once caught him reading a ream of what looked to her like nonsense -- letter-and-number jumbles. He told her not to mention it to anyone and she didn't until he died in 2001.

Recently, my mom inherited my grandfather's house (grandma died) and has been wondering about his last words. He died asking her to go "get the papers" so he could "tell [her] about [his] work." She looked through his things but never figured out what he meant, if he meant anything at all.

If grandpa was a secrets guy, it was a long time ago and I figure it ought to be fine for me to know by now. Unfo, I couldn't find anything like a whos who of espionage directory website. I'd hate to think he took some fascinating history to his grave just because he was too sick to explain coherently.
posted by metajc to Law & Government (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Any pay stubs in there? Even people on black-book projects are government employees, just in obscure offices. From those, you might be able to at least find an HR office (or the descendant thereof) that can give you an idea of where to look and what might be declassified. Don't bet on it all being open information, though -- a lot of that stuff gets reclassified every few years for a variety of reasons.
posted by Etrigan at 7:47 PM on July 23, 2014

Do you have any info about his service? Dates, locations, units, co-workers? The 'spooky agents' group in WW2 was OSS- Office of Special Services, I believe (but didn't google). The more info you can provide.... and that can be anything... passports, coded info, discharge dates, service locations, old war stories, correspondence... the more we (and the good people of Reddit, actually, are very good at this too) can expand on this, possibly.

Also, ask the Air Force for whatever they can give you on your grandfather. Let us know! I'm curious!
posted by Jacen at 8:01 PM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is a long shot, but the National Cryptologic Museum has an adjunct library that might be able to help? It's affiliated with NSA, but the USAF 70th ISR wing supports NSA operations to some extent and has been operational at relevant times, if my Wikipedia-ing supplemented by weak memories of NSA and USAF recruitment panels is serving me.
posted by dorque at 8:06 PM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know that guy above! But I don't think he has any gov't connections.
posted by miyabo at 9:26 PM on July 23, 2014

I'm in Australia and my grandfather, Australia's first, post WWII intelligence agency chief still has lots of his files redacted. We knew enough about him to know what we were looking for but 40 years after his death, while there's still lots of stuff to look at...tons of it is redacted.

We looked through his military records through our national archives. I guess I'm saying that if you aren't certain he was a spook, it may not be obvious from what you find.
posted by taff at 9:43 PM on July 23, 2014

OSS was WWII, but morphed into the CIA after the war.

Cryptography, though, could have been a lot of things, from the DIA to NSA to all sorts of government contractors including the Rand Corporation and MITRE.

It would be very helpful, perhaps, to tell us where he lived. Are you suggesting he had a "day job" and then some other, secrecy-involving job? What do you know of his work, period?
posted by dhartung at 10:12 PM on July 23, 2014

Checking someone out with the neighbors is basic security clearance stuff and might mean nothing. I had a friend who was a contract DBA at Los Alamos - working with super secret department budgeting data (Yawn!) and I got the legendary "How long have you known Mister Johnson?" phone call.

The problem you're going to run into is that your dealing with security stuff and people get stupid about that stuff in a hurry. A friend of a friend worked for the Defense Mapping Agency and also taught a computer programming class at the local community college. Apparently when he was grading papers he wrote down the score and then his initials. Then he realized his initials were the same two they used at work to refer to a super secret spy satellite data and, so he shredded the tests and just reported to everyone what their grade was. (Hint: His initials were the same as mine, which is why my friend told me.)

I think your best bet is to try and find someone he worked with and see what they can tell you. Let them know up front that you're not interested in specifics or details, just kind of vaguely want one or two sentence job description that doesn't immediately fly over your head.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:34 PM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would start with trying to locate his military records. He may have been with the Army, as part of the US Army Air Forces. The US Air Force didn't become its own branch until 1947.

The National Archives has information on obtaining official military personnel files, though there was a fire at the national records center in 1973 that destroyed a lot of Army and Air Force records. The site has a link to more information about the fire and alternate ways to locate service information.

If you think he went to the CIA during or after his service, you can file a FOIA request with the CIA. Here is a sample request letter along with the info for sending it in. Because you are requesting records for someone other than yourself, you'll also need to fill out this form and send it in too.

I have no idea how long any of this will take, or what you'd even get from the CIA in particular, but it could be worth a shot.

My grandfather was with "the Agency" after serving in the Army during World War II, but he passed away in the mid-1980s... it was still a time when you didn't talk about that kind of thing, and even his obituary made no mention of it, saying that he had retired from the Department of Defense. I have been meaning to request his military records and do the CIA FOIA request... good luck to you!

(Actually, this sounds dumb but have you tried some Google searches? As more things get declassified and more institutions get collections online, there may be something out there. I ended up finding an oral history at one of the University of Texas libraries where the interviewee spent a few minutes talking about my grandfather coming over to Vietnam to help him set up a strategic watch/command center... it was a pretty cool find.)
posted by scarnato at 11:08 PM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Getgrandpasfbifile.com will generate FOIA letters for the FBI, CIA, military, and other agencies. There are detailed directions on the site. Getmyfbifile.com will help you FOIA request for yourself, and fair warning, I did mine in February and I am still waiting for a response (though I doubt I have a record.)
posted by blnkfrnk at 2:33 AM on July 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

You do now, blnkfrnk!

This looks like a good place to start for the USAF. I think the chances are high that either:

a) they haven't got any interesting records, or
b) they will invoke an exemption for national security, or
c) they will invoke an exemption over personal information.

But why not ask?
posted by Segundus at 4:43 AM on July 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

If he was in the Air Force prior to the 1980's he may have worked for the Air Force Security Service. This was a military arm of the NSA, before The Great Conversion in the mid 1970's, which moved certain "tactical" projects into the organizational charts of operational military units, giving them organic assets (such as missile and radar intercept options). Other orgs in this vein were the Army Security Agency, and the Naval Security Group--all now defunct.

These groups were technically outside the organization trees of their respective services, even though they used military personnel to perform the tasks. For reference, the USS Pueblo was manned by a mixture of naval and army troops. The sailors ran the ship, the army guys worked with the equipment; the naval personnel were not aware of the exact nature of the work done on their vessel. I worked in a similar field, on an army base, but on a navy project, overseen by a civilian from Fort Meade. Our post commander wasn't allowed inside the room where I worked, and he was unaware that it was a navy project.

The tasks of these security services were similar, in that they collected intelligence for the NSA. Their techniques varied. A cryptanalyst would be a typical job for any of these services. Other jobs include voice interception and analysis, linguists, radar and telemetry signal interception and analysis, and technicians who repaired all the relevant equipment, specially modified vehicles, and so on. I doubt he was doing any collection with his typewriter, so he may have been some sort of analyst.

It's possible that he was hired by the CIA, or another agency after WWII. Some agencies are buried in classified sections of such as the State Department and Defense Department, and require a security clearance with a crypto stipulation, plus a "need to know" mandate for access.

FBI officers typically conducted investigations related to assigning security clearances. Crypto access projects all related to the tasking and equipment involved in collection systems. When I worked for the Army Security Agency, typical crypto access projects were cloaked with a 50-year review. Your timing may be good.
posted by mule98J at 8:31 AM on July 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's not hard to file FOIA requests with the various Three Letter Agencies; the real problem is that responses can take forever. I've got requests in for information about my dad, filed October of 2013, and I don't really expect to have substantive responses much before mid-2015. FBI's FOIA Page links to a sample FOIA letter which, with some details you provide, should be more than enough to get the ball rolling.
posted by hanov3r at 12:04 PM on July 24, 2014

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