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Tale From the Crypto Wars

By Julian Dibbell

( 1993, Originally published as a sidebar to "Code Warriors: Battling for the Keys to Privacy in the Info Age" in The Village Voice, August 3, 1993)

The high weirdness of the military's code-busting censorship moves peaked in World War II, but didn't end there. It was during the Gulf War, in fact, that military censors made one of the strangest additions to their already strange list of banned communications: the Navajo language. A small number of Navajos, it seems, wanted to send broadcast greetings in their native tongue to loved ones stationed overseas, but Armed Forces Radio refused to pass the messages along. Once again, the mere possibility of enemy signals lurking in the noise was too much for the censors to bear. "We have a responsibility to control what's on the radio," said the lieutenant colonel in charge, "and if I don't know what it says then I can't control it."

In the ripest of ironies, however, it turns out that the only nation ever known to have used Navajo as a cover for secret communications was the United States itself. Throughout World War II's Pacific campaign, the Marine Corps made heavy and effective use of its Navajo codetalker units--teams of Navajo radiomen who spoke a slangy, cryptic patois difficult even for uninitiated Navajos to grasp, and ultimately impossible for the Japanese to decode. Today the codetalkers remain legendary figures on the rez and beyond -- legendary enough indeed that New Mexico congressman Bill Richardson, wielding the memory of their exploits, finally shamed Armed Forces Radio into lifting its ban and letting Navajo greetings reach the Gulf.

It's a familiar story. Prized and feared for its impenetrable otherness, Navajo has met the same uneasy fate reserved for all true difference in a country that both prides itself on cultural diversity and insistently suppresses it. But in its blurring of the lines between language and secret code, Navajo's passage through the belly of the military beast hints at one way out of America's terminal cultural ambivalence. As arch-Cypherpunk John Gilmore has argued, committing to universally accessible encryption is one way for our society to finally take the ideal of diversity seriously -- backing it up "with physics and mathematics, not with laws," and certainly not with the lip service it's traditionally honored with. Cryptography could guarantee us each a language of our own, which no censor, military or otherwise, could hope to silence.

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