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Monday, January 02, 2017

Review: The Spy Who Couldn't Spell: A Dyslexic Traitor, an Unbreakable Code, and the FBI's Hunt for America's Stolen Secrets

audiobook that tells the story of a disgruntled U.S. Air Force intelligence analyst who used his cipher skills to almost pull off an incredible intelligence theft and attempted sale of classified documents. The author discusses the spy’s background and details the tedious work of the FBI in tracking him down. It was an intelligence agency’s nightmare: having a mole in your own agency.

The FBI received a package containing several letters in a sophisticated cipher but when deciphered were marked by numerous misspellings. Those errors proved to be Brian Regan’s undoing. The FBI agent who doggedly pursued him was Steven Carr, and the methods used to track him are straight out of the best espionage/police procedural novels. Regan was a retired Air Force Master Sergeant whose dyslexia and ineptitude with social skills made him an almost perfect spy and he was viewed as the least likely person to be involved in such a scheme. One of eight children, he had been bullied and mistreated most of his childhood, considered stupid by most of his teachers because of his dyslexia. Steven Carr, his FBI antagonist, was a devout Catholic who considered his mission to track down Regan as a spiritual assignment.

Once they had identified their suspect, the FBI had to build a case, and here another of the ironies appeared. The agent who broke Regan’s ciphers had a disability himself, one that prevented him from doing arithmetic functions and math, a form of dyscalculia. He was really good at word problems but doing straight arithmetic and polynomial functions was very difficult. He was superb, however at pattern recognition and was discovered while taking a class from a postal inspector who told the clasExcellents to ignore some codes because they are insoluble. He took it as a challenge and deciphered the codes during class. First, though, to get into the FBI he had to get a college degree and it was only with the help of a very understanding math instructor (probably at a community college) that he managed to pass the math requirement.

Something I have emphasized over and over to my friends is to never, ever, ever, put anything into a digital document or email you don’t want the world to see. In spite of Regan’s having formatted his HD and deleted documents, they were, of course, all recoverable, including multiple versions of letters he had written. (The only way to truly protect yourself -- short of using a hammer to smash and fire to melt -- is to use a program that writes over your HD with multiple passes using gibberish.)

I love books about codes and ciphers so I liked the sections where Bhattacharjee discusses Regan’s system in some detail. Others may prefer the human aspects of the characters. For me it was a perfect mix and a very enjoyable book, difficult to put down. What was astonishing was how easy it was for Regan to steal highly classified material. Then again government has a tendency to over-classify material which perhaps leads people to be careless with the stuff. That he was discovered at all was a fluke, and the letters deciphered only because the letters happened to be delivered at the same time.

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