The four-story brownstone at 141 East 37th Street in Manhattan has no remarkable features: a plain building on a quiet tree-lined street in the shadow of the Empire State Building. In the summer of 1920, Herbert O. Yardley, a government codebreaker, moved in with a gang of math geniuses and began deciphering intercepted Japanese diplomatic telegrams. This was the Black Chamber, America’s first civilian code-breaking agency. From this was born the American surveillance state, and eventually the sprawling National Security Agency, which you may have heard about recently.
I was standing on the sidewalk outside the building, on a sweltering summer Friday afternoon, waiting to meet a man named Perry Fellwock, also once known as Winslow Peck. Four decades ago, Fellwock became the NSA’s first whistleblower, going to the press to explain the spy agency’s immense scope and mission to a public that had barely been allowed to know such an organization existed. His revelations in the radical magazine Ramparts were picked up by the front page of the New York Times. He went on to be a key player in the turbulent anti-surveillance movement of the 1970s, partnering with Norman Mailer and becoming the target of CIA propaganda. But today he’s a semi-retired antiques dealer living in Long Island, as obscure as the Black Chamber once was.