The Privacy Act: What the Government Can Collect and Disclose about You

June 28, 2013

Privacy is the watchword in the news these days. With the revelations in recent weeks about far-reaching domestic surveillance programs by the National Security Agency (NSA) and other Federal agencies that were expanded under the Patriot Act, Americans are scrambling to determine what privacy rights they have to information collected by the Federal Government.

Overview-of-the-Privacy-Act-of-1974-2012-Edition-9780160914461Thus, the timing is ideal to review a biennial publication, Overview of the Privacy Act of 1974 (2012 Edition), available in print from the U.S. Government Online Bookstore.

The Overview of the Privacy Act of 1974 provides a valuable function to consumers, the media, Government and members of the legal profession by not only providing the current text of the Privacy Act and all its subsequent amendments, but also by consolidating the current regulations and updates, interpreting the Act’s provisions and giving detailed legal analysis of the latest court decisions that have decided challenges to how the Privacy Act has been enacted by various White House Administrations and Federal Agencies since the Act was passed.

What is covered by the Privacy Act?

The Privacy Act of 1974 established a “Code of Fair Information Practice that governs the collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of personally identifiable information about individuals that is maintained in systems of records by federal agencies.”

The Privacy Act protects certain federal government records pertaining to individuals. In particular, the Act covers “systems of records” that an agency maintains and retrieves by an individual’s name or other personal identifier, such as your social security number.  (For clarification, a “system of records” refers to a group of records or a file under the control of a particular Federal agency from which information is retrieved by the name of the individual or by some identifier assigned to the individual.)

With the advent of wide-spread use of computers and databases by the Federal Government, the Privacy Act was amended through the Computer Matching and Privacy Protection Act of 1988, which added certain protections for the subjects of Privacy Act records whose records are used in automated matching programs, such as the establishment of Data Integrity Boards at each agency.

Privacy Act Requirements

But what rights do individuals have under the Privacy Act? According to the Overview of the Privacy Act of 1974 (2012 Edition), it gives individuals the right to review records about themselves, to find out if these records have been disclosed, and to request corrections or amendments of these records, unless the records are legally exempt.

From reading the publication, it seems the Act also requires that a Federal Government agency must:

  • give the public notice of their systems of records by publishing them in the Federal Register (also available as a subscription from GPO);
  • follow strict record-keeping requirements;
  • request the written consent of the subject individual for disclosure of their personal information– “unless the disclosure is pursuant to one of twelve statutory exceptions;” and
  • provide individuals with a means  by which they can access and amend (review and correct) records stored about them.

Your-Right-to-Federal-Records-2011-coverYour Right to Federal Records

For information about your rights to “discover, access and amend” Government records about you and frequently asked questions and answers about the Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), you might want to check out the free publication, “Your Right to Federal Records available from the GSA’s Federal Citizen Information Center (FCIC).

You may also be interested in learning more about the Freedom of Information Act by reading the Guide to the Freedom of Information Act, also published by the Justice Department and available in print from GPO.

Scope Issues

The Privacy Act does NOT apply to data collected about persons outside the United States, nor does it protect the privacy of your records that are maintained by the private sector, such as your credit report, bank account and medical records or even local or state government records like your driver’s license. Since many Americans today assumed that the battle to keep this non-Federal data private was already lost, it was comforting to discover that there is still a measure of privacy in data kept about you by the Federal Government.

And finally, while The Privacy Act does apply to the records of every “individual,” it nevertheless only applies to records held by an “agency.” Thus, any records ”held by courts, executive components, or non-agency government entities are not subject to the provisions in the Privacy Act and there is no right to these records.”  The Overview covers many questions about scope.

Exemptions and Exceptions

The most fascinating part of reading the publication to me– and timely considering the current news cycle– was to learn that there are situations where the Government is not legally required to follow the Privacy Act . According to the Overview, there are currently Twelve Exceptions to the “No Disclosure Without Consent” Rule of the Act and Ten Exemptions to the Privacy Act altogether where Federal agencies are not required to disclose records. 

Two of the ten exemptions outlined by the Overview are the “General Exemptions,” which apply to records about individuals maintained by

1)      the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and

2)      law enforcement agencies— or a component thereof— that primarily perform criminal law enforcement duties, “including police efforts to prevent, control, or reduce crime or to apprehend criminals.”

New proposed exemptions are offered all the time by subsequent Congresses and Administrations, such as the George W. Bush Administration’s agreement signed with the European Union in 2007 to share an airline’s Passenger Name Record as well as the utilize the Automated Targeting System.


The questions about what constitute personally identifying data; what legal exemptions and exceptions apply; and how the Privacy Act has been interpreted over time by Federal Agencies, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Federal courts make up a good part of the Overview.

With post-9/11 security concerns driving Agencies’ desire for more information coupled with rapidly evolving technologies that enable greater collection and analysis of data, the publishers of the Overview of the Privacy Act of 1974 will certainly be kept very busy in upcoming years reporting on and analyzing new privacy regulations and court decisions that will follow.

How Can I Obtain These Privacy Publications?

Anyone concerned with the laws governing what the Federal Government is collecting and disclosing about individuals in the United States—and how much individuals can learn about it—should read this important publication.

  • Overview of the Privacy Act of 1974 (2012 Edition) in Print
    • Shop Online: Buy a print edition on the GPO U.S. Government Online Bookstore NOW ON SALE!!
    • Order by Phone: Call our Customer Contact Center Monday through Friday, 8 am to 5:30 pm Eastern (except US Federal holidays). From US and Canada, call toll-free 1.866.512.1800. DC or International customers call +1.202.512.1800.
    • Visit our Retail Store: Buy it at GPO’s retail bookstore at 710 North Capitol Street NW, Washington, DC 20401, open Monday–Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., except Federal holidays, (202) 512-0132.
    • Find it in a Library: Search for it in a Federal Depository Library.

About the Author: Government Book Talk Editor Michele Bartram is Promotions Manager for GPO’s Publication and Information Sales Division in Washington, DC, and is responsible for online and offline marketing of the US Government Online Bookstore ( and promoting Federal government content to the public.

CIA’s World Factbook: Global intelligence for every thinker, traveler, soldier, spy

January 27, 2012

A great publication not only provides timely and valuable information, but it also allows us a glimpse into the times and events that necessitated its production.

Such is the case with the CIA’s World Factbook—which marks its 50th anniversary in 2012 for the classified version and over 40 years for the public version described here— and shows us a glimpse into how Pearl Harbor and the Cold War changed the way America began to gather information about all corners of the globe.

The Factbook has its origins in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the realization by Congress and the White House that lack of coordinated intelligence across all Governmental departments had left the United States woefully unprepared for the attack, and determined to correct this as a national security necessity and priority.  According to the CIA historians:

During World War II, intelligence consumers realized that the production of basic intelligence by different components of the US Government resulted in a great duplication of effort and conflicting information.

Detailed and coordinated information was needed not only on such major powers as Germany and Japan, but also on places of little previous interest. In the Pacific Theater, for example, the Navy and Marines had to launch amphibious operations against many islands about which information was unconfirmed or nonexistent.

Image above: During WWII, OSS intelligence reviewed existing maps with the military. Source: Top Secret Writers

JANIS Drops In

To correct this deficiency, in 1943, General George B. Strong (G-2), Admiral H. C. Train (Office of Naval Intelligence – known as ONI), and General William J. Donovan (Director of the Office of Strategic Services – known as OSS, the precursor of the CIA) oversaw the formation of a Joint Intelligence Study Publishing Board to assemble, edit, coordinate, and publish the Joint Army Navy Intelligence Studies (JANIS).

JANIS was the first cross-departmental basic intelligence program to fulfill the needs of the US Government for an authoritative and coordinated appraisal of strategic basic intelligence.

All groups involved in the war agreed that finished basic intelligence was required that covered territories around the world where the war was being fought. They needed detailed, up-to-date maps and geography; basic understanding of the cultural, economical, political and historical issues of the people and the region.

Compiling and publishing this information for the Allied intelligence needs, JANIS became an indispensable reference for war planning and execution.

The Cold War Gives Birth to the CIA… and the National Intelligence Survey

But the Cold War that immediately followed World War II showed that there was just as much need for continued intelligence gathering as ever. In the 1946 publication “The Future of American Secret Intelligence,” national security author George S. Petee wrote: “The conduct of peace involves all countries, all human activities – not just the enemy and his war production.”

In acknowledgement of this, the Congress established the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947 which immediately took over responsibility for JANIS. The next year, the National Security Council authorized the National Intelligence Survey program as a peacetime replacement for the wartime JANIS program. By 1955, the Hoover Commission evaluating the CIA advised Congress that: “The National Intelligence Survey [NIS] is an invaluable publication which provides the essential elements of basic intelligence on all areas of the world. There will always be a continuing requirement for keeping the Survey up-to-date.

The Sum of All Facts: The World Factbook

Subsequently, the World Factbook was created as an “annual summary and update to the encyclopedic NIS studies.

Originally published only as a classified publication starting a half century ago in August 1962 (just prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962), the World Factbook was first published in its declassified version for public consumption in June 1971, 40 years ago.

Image: CIA map produced for President Kennedy’s team estimating the range of Soviet missiles being set up in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Source: Canadian History Portal

Today’s World Factbook is the declassified version of the finished basic intelligence compiled by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and coordinated across all the U.S. intelligence community. It uses only recognized, authoritative sources, not only CIA-gathered intelligence, but also a wide variety of U.S. Government agencies from the National Security Agency, Department of Defense, Department of State, Department of Agriculture, Defense Intelligence Agency, and hundreds of other published sources around the world.

Printed Version Provides an Annual Snapshot

Once a year, the Government Printing Office takes a snapshot of this information from the CIA as of January 1 and produces a printed version of the World Factbook. It provides unparalleled and succinct information about hundreds of countries in a format that provides an easy-to-use comparison.The Factbook has been available from GPO since 1975.

The 2011 version just published provides a two- to three-page summary of the history, people, government, economy, geography, communications, transportation, military, and transnational issues for 267 world entities, including U.S.-recognized countries, dependencies, and other areas in the world.

Each country has its own basic map and shows its flag, but of particular interest are the maps of the major world regions, as well three pull-out maps included in the publication: Physical Map of the World, Political Map of the World, and Standard Time Zones of the World Map, all of which can be used as wall maps.

Who Can Benefit from the World Factbook?

A perennial best seller in the GPO bookstore, The World Factbook is used by not only US Government officials, but is a must-have reference for researchers, news organizations, businesses, geographers, international travelers, teachers, professors, librarians, and students.

In short, after 40 years, the World Factbook is still the best source of  up-to-date, summarized intelligence about the world for any “thinker, traveler, soldier, or spy” of any age!

Image: Pupils at Crosby’s Valewood Primary School near Liverpool, England, dress up as ‘Spies’ as part of a creative project. Photographer: Andrew Teebay. Source: Liverpool Echo

To gather your own up-to-date intelligence about the world we live in, you can obtain the World Factbook 2011 at one of these locations:

How can you get this publication?

  • Buy the current version of the World Factbook and selected previous editions online 24/7 at GPO’s Online Bookstore.
  • Buy it at GPO’s retail bookstore at 710 North Capitol Street NW, Washington, DC 20401, open Monday-Friday, 9am to 4pm, except Federal holidays, (202) 512-0132.
  • Find it in a library.

Some Interesting “DID YOU KNOW?” Facts related to the CIA’s World Factbook:

  • Question: What separates “intelligence” from “information”?
    • Answer: According to the CIA: The Intelligence Cycle is the process by which information is acquired, converted into intelligence, and made available to policymakers. Information is raw data from any source, data that may be fragmentary, contradictory, unreliable, ambiguous, deceptive, or wrong. Intelligence is information that has been collected, integrated, evaluated, analyzed, and interpreted. Finished intelligence is the final product of the Intelligence Cycle ready to be delivered to the policymaker.

The three types of finished intelligence are: basic, current, and estimative. Basic intelligence provides the fundamental and factual reference material on a country or issue.

  • Question: “Why is the British Labour Party misspelled?”
    • Answer: When American and British spellings of common English words differ, The World Factbook always uses the American spelling, even when these common words form part of a proper name in British English.
  • Question: “What is a ‘doubly landlocked’ country and which are the only two in the world?”
    • Answer: A doubly landlocked country is one that is separated from an ocean or an ocean-accessible sea by two intervening countries. Uzbekistan and Liechtenstein are the only countries that fit this definition.
  • Question: “Why does the Factbook use metric units, even though Americans still use traditional units of measure like feet, pounds, and Fahrenheit?”
    • Answer: US Federal agencies are required by the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 (Public Law 94-168) and by Executive Order 12770 of July 1991 to use the International System of Units, commonly referred to as the metric system or SI. In addition, the metric system is used by over 95 percent of the world’s population.
  • Question: “Why is the European Union listed at the end of the Factbook entries? It’s not a country!”
    • Answer:  The European Union (EU) is not a country, but it has taken on many nation-like attributes and these may be expanded in the future. A more complete explanation on the inclusion of the EU into the Factbook can be found in the Preliminary statement.

About the Author:  Michele Bartram is Promotions Manager for GPO’s Publication and Information Sales Division and is responsible for online and offline marketing of the US Government Online Bookstore ( and promoting Federal government content to the public. She’s a big fan of the National Spy Museum and of spy movies, which she is going to enjoy for her birthday tomorrow.

Remembering the Forgotten War

January 14, 2011

Last year marked the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, but whatever commemorations occurred were pretty low key, maintaining its reputation as “the forgotten war.” Given that many people at the time saw the war as possibly leading to World War III, it’s interesting that it’s receded so much from public consciousness.

Sometimes it’s the byways of history that tell us the most about how things really were. Two pamphlets produced by the National Security Agency’s Center for Cryptologic History on signals intelligence (SIGINT) in the Korean War do just that. The Korean War: the SIGINT Background shows how woefully understaffed and under-skilled the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA) was in the run-up to war. With most of its efforts focused on the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, AFSA had neither the motivation nor the Korean language capabilities to track North Korean communications. The betrayal of American penetration of Soviet cipher systems by an NKVD mole in AFSA resulted in even more distraction.

So Power Can be Brought into Play: SIGINT and the Pusan Perimeter takes the story into combat. While recapitulating the failings of AFSA prior to the outbreak of war, it describes how quickly its staff began providing high-quality intelligence to the U.S. forces trapped in the Pusan perimeter after the massive North Korean invasion that pushed them into that pocket southeast of Seoul. Although outnumbered and outgunned, American forces held out until the risky but totally successful amphibious invasion at Inchon. The Korean War: the SIGINT Background then outlines the Chinese phase of the war, the resultant stalemate, and the detailed advance intelligence that led to victories at Hill 395 and Pork Chop Hill prior to the 1953 armistice.

So there is the Korean War in microcosm: initial surprise and near-disaster, furious improvisation, and success followed by stalemate and an indecisive finish. Perhaps that’s why we don’t remember it – hard fighting but no parades. You can read these publications or order copies here or find them in a library.

A Pearl Harbor Conspiracy?

November 29, 2010

If you’re a history buff like me, a good historical mystery or controversy can make for excellent reading, even if you have doubts as to how mysterious or controversial the subject is. For example, did the American Government and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt have advance information about Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and was this fact later suppressed, either to conceal incompetence or because the President wanted an act of aggression to force American into war with the Axis Powers?

One of the most written-about pieces of this historical puzzle is the so-called “West Wind Execute” message, Japan’s code phrase to advise its diplomats abroad that an attack on America was imminent. In West Wind Clear: Cryptology and the Winds Message Controversy – a Documentary History, the National Security Agency’s Center for Cryptologic History has tackled the complex history of this message, when it was sent, and why its existence or non-existence has exercised the imaginations of academics, amateur historians, and conspiracy buffs since the 1940s. Crucially, it includes many key documents, some never before published, dealing with the voluminous Japanese signals traffic leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack and the timing of signals interception and decoding.

The thrust of West Wind Clear, which is backed up by meticulous and extensive research and documentation, is that the Winds messages did exist, but they were only one string among many Japanese communications instructing diplomats to burn their code books and take other 11th hour measures to prepare for war. In fact, the actual West Wind Execute message was broadcast after the attack began. The authors state that the main source of continuing debate over the “who knew and when” question resulted from a number of contradictory statements by a well-respected American cryptographer, Captain Laurence Safford, USN, whose reliability as a witness was undermined during the hearings of the 1946  Joint Congressional Committee investigation of the Pearl Harbor debacle. He was unable to produce any documentary evidence and was shown to have changed his story of a pre-December 7 West Wind Execute message numerous times.

Despite these findings from a committee whose members included some who gladly would have found neglect or malfeasance at the root of the Roosevelt Administration’s handling of the run-up to war, the West Wind controversy has persisted in popular accounts that lent credibility to the stories of Safford and Ralph Briggs, a radio operator who many years after the fact claimed to recollect a West Wind Execute message before the attack.

West Wind Clear makes a strong and well-documented case against a suppressed warning of war. For conspiracy theorists, who tend to operate within a closed intellectual system, no evidence is convincing enough, but to me, this story of bureaucratic confusion, stress, and misunderstanding seems much more authentic (and common) as an explanation for “the fog of war” surrounding the Winds messages. You can read this book here, order your own copy here, or find it in a library.

The World’s Most Enigmatic Manuscript

November 18, 2010

Have you ever read a Government publication that discussed such topics as the Hermetic tradition, astrology, demonic and angelic magic, alchemy, the Cabala, and the history of Hindu-Arabic numerals?

I thought not.

All of those esoteric subjects and more can be found in The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma, published by the National Security Agency (NSA). The Voynich manuscript, often dubbed “the world’s most mysterious manuscript,” is a remarkable conglomeration, written in an unknown script and language and profusely illustrated with carefully rendered images of unidentified plants, enigmatic astronomical drawings, and puzzling human figures. Known to have existed since the late 16th century, when it was owned by the physician of that most enigmatic of rulers, the Emperor Rudolf II of Austria, it has been labeled variously as a magical manual, a herbarium, and a hoax. NSA’s interest stems from the widely held belief that the manuscript is enciphered. The noted American cryptologist William Friedman, as well as many other professionals and amateurs, have tried without success to crack the code – if code there is.

The Voynich Manuscript gives a brief history of this mystery, along with its possible connections to the topics I’ve listed above, and a discussion of the many unsuccessful attempts to crack the code or cipher, or at least discover whether it is written in a natural or artificial language. Although none has been successful, efforts are still underway, as even a brief perusal of the Internet reveals.

Is it a hoax? If so, the hoaxer must have labored for years to create it – surely too much effort for very little known return. Given the penchant of early modern scientists and philosophers to disguise their researches through the use of symbols and allegory, its obscurity is not unprecedented, although obviously extreme. One clue may reside in this book’s reference to the Art of Memory, a system of using physical or mental landmarks to enable the memorization of incredible amounts of information. Is the Voynich manuscript a colossal “memory palace”?

The Voynich Manuscript is more evidence that the world of Government publications is almost infinitely vast and surprising. It tells a great story and provides enough decipherment tables to delight the amateur and aficionado alike. You can read this very unusual publication here, order your own copy, find it in a library, or, to get a real feel for thee original (and maybe solve the mystery!), you can study the real thing, page by page. Note: Some readers have run into a problem in downloading the PDF of the Voynich Manuscript. Try clicking the link that says “PDF with text,” which downloads much quicker.

From Segregation to Integration in the Armed Forces

November 10, 2010

This year’s Veterans Day program at the Government Printing Office features a speaker who served in the U.S. Army from 1947 to 1951, including 9 months on the front line in Korea. He’s a member of the Buffalo Soldiers organization, which preserves the memory of the six all African-American Army units formed after the Civil War for service in the American West. Their service, also commemorated at the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, is a proud chapter in American history but also a reminder of the days when the armed forces were segregated by race.

Integration of the Armed Forces, 1940-1965 tells the story of how this not so creditable period in our history was brought to an end. This definitive administrative history provides a capsule history of African-Americans in the armed forces and how both the professed war aims of the U.S. and civil rights activists combined to bring this issue to the fore. Interestingly, the book also points out that the post-war attempt to maintain segregated military units through the use of quotas while expanding the pool of African-American servicemen by conscription caused even very traditional military men to reassess the need for integration for the sake of military efficiency, if nothing else. After President Truman’s 1948 Executive Order 9981, calling on the armed forces to provide equal treatment and opportunity for black servicemen, the barriers began to fall, although other issues, particularly housing, made the process of integration extend well into the 1960’s.

Even civilian employees in the defense establishment endured the pains of segregation and the slow evolutionary path of its demise. The Invisible Cryptologists: African-Americans, WW II to 1956 is a sort of microhistory of one small Government agency’s journey from racial injustice.  World War II saw what was then the Signals Intelligence Service (SIS) hire African-Americans, up until then employed mainly as messengers, to decipher commercial telegraph codes that might contain valuable information emanating from companies Tokyo, Berlin, and other international locations. After the war, the machine section (or “the plantation,” one of its numerous unflattering nicknames) used African Americans to transfer Russian intercepts from radio tapes to punch cards – a tedious job in hot and dirty conditions without any realistic possibility of promotion up and out.

Slowly, things began to change, as Executive Order 9981 and other developments ushered in an era when jobs as polygraph operators and, by the 1950’s, linguists and analysts, began to open up. The Invisible Cryptologists is at its best when it not only tells the story of segregation and integration, but lets some of the characters in that story speak for themselves. As one former employee said, “I was so involved in what the Agency stood for, and I wanted it to be better. I had a feeling things were going to get better. Everybody in there was not evil. I felt that one day African Americans would be able to break out of this box.”

Yes, it was a discreditable period, but these books show that our Government and our country, when confronted with injustice, were able to change. They’re both worth reading. You can find Integration of the Armed Forces here or buy a copy here. You can read The Invisible Cryptologists here or order a free copy here.

Secret Codes and the Founding Fathers

November 5, 2010

Never say “never.” I recently blogged about Thomas Jefferson’s Library, a reprint of our third President’s library catalogue as recreated by his secretary, Nicholas P. Trist. I’ve always been intrigued by Trist’s subsequent checkered diplomatic career, so I added, “Trist later had a controversial career as a diplomat – if I ever find a Government publication concerning him, you’ll hear all about it,” assuming that the chances of finding a book like that were practically nil. Meanwhile, I had requested copies of a number of publications from the Center for Cryptologic History at the National Security Agency to blog about. After they arrived, I began thumbing through Masked Dispatches: Cryptograms and Cryptology in American History, 1775-1900. Of course, the title of Chapter 15 is “Nicholas Trist Code.”  That’s why I decided to discuss this book first.

Masked Dispatches presents some of the Founding fathers as active participants in spycraft. America’s first espionage code was devised by Benjamin Tallmadge, General George Washington’s director of secret service, for use by a spy ring set up in New York in 1778. Another chapter discusses Washington’s supplying of invisible ink to Tallmadge. What would Parson Weems have thought?

Not surprisingly, Thomas Jefferson’s contribution to the world of codes and ciphers was a mechanical device – a wheel cylinder. Although not much came of this invention, which was developed some time before 1802, in 1922 the Army adopted a similar device, bearing out President John F. Kennedy’s White House remarks to a roomful of Nobel Prize winners: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Even less surprisingly, Aaron Burr, that brilliant and ever-controversial character, appears in Masked Dispatches, as does John Quincy Adams in his role as America’s representative at the Prussian court. While in Berlin, he developed a sliding strip cipher – apparently not the easiest device to use, but another tribute to early American ingenuity and aptitude for secrecy.

The book includes much more – a chapter on Civil War ciphers, the use of codes during the 1876 Tilden-Hayes Presidential election scandal, and several descriptions of State Department codes. Particularly intriguing are the many reproductions of the various codes and ciphers, so  puzzle lovers and would-be spies can spend hours encoding and decoding.

Masked Dispatches and other publications on the history of cryptology can be ordered from the Center for Cryptologic History area of the National Security Agency’s web site, or you can find it in a library. I’ll be blogging about some more of these excellent books in the near future.

Oh, wait, Nicholas Trist! According to Masked Dispatches, when he was Chief Clerk of the State Department, President James K. Polk sent him to Mexico as a secret agent in an effort to end the Mexican War. From Mexico, Trist wrote to Secretary of State James Buchanan and explained his design for a code. It was a book code, but the title of the particular book he used was a mystery until the 1980’s, when shrewd scholarly detective work revealed that it was an obscure book on the Spanish language (Verdaderos principios de la lengua castellana by Joseph Borras). Trist successfully negotiated the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, which ended the war, but only after ignoring his recall by Polk. The President accepted the treaty but fired his emissary – and Trist didn’t even get paid for his time in Mexico!

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