Ann Caracristi, who became one of the highest ranking and most honored women at the code-breaking National Security Agency after a career extending from World War II through much of the Cold War, died January 10 at her home in Washington. She was 94.
The cause was complications from dementia, said a niece, Judy Busby.
Caracristi formally retired from her intelligence career in 1982, after becoming the sixth deputy director of the NSA, the secret agency that collects and deciphers covert communications from all over the world. She was the first woman to serve as deputy director.
By the time she stepped down, code breaking had become dauntingly computerized and relied on abstruse techniques of higher mathematics. Except for retaining its close-mouthed ethos, it was a far cry from the occupation she embarked on more than 70 years ago, only days out of college.
The world of cryptanalysis that she entered near the outset of World War II appeared to rely less on the power of electrical or mechanical devices than on the insight and dogged, pattern-recognizing persistence of talented individuals.
One of her strengths was reconstructing enemy code books, said Liza Mundy, a former Washington Post staff writer who is working on a book about U.S. female code breakers during the war.
Admired for her early accomplishments as a young woman in wartime Washington, Caracristi was credited in her later career with providing leadership for new generations of code breakers and for her efforts to bring computers and technology to bear on the work.
Within the NSA, she was known also for making certain that the information so painstakingly ferreted out by her colleagues and subordinates found its way to the proper recipients at the highest governmental levels.
In this, it appeared that she was responding to the situation that existed during World War II, in which code breakers’ findings were often shipped through channels to recipients unknown, leaving those who produced the breakthroughs to shrug and hope for the best.
In contrast to many areas of endeavor, success in her work demanded not only the ability to meet stern demands, but also the willingness to forgo public recognition for it. Colleagues knew of her and her work, however.
Among them, a story was circulated in which a senior cryptanalyst asked a friend whom he would summon if his life depended on the reading of coded instructions.
As the story went, the answer was: “Ann Caracristi.”
Ann Zeilinger Caracristi was born in Bronxville, New York, on Feb. 1, 1921. Her father was an engineer and inventor, and her mother was a homemaker.
When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 brought the United States into World War II, the country found itself ill-prepared in many respects. Platoons of young women were soon recruited to come to Washington for code breaking.
Caracristi graduated in 1942 from Russell Sage College in Troy, New York, as an English and history major. By that August, she was hard at it in Arlington, Virginia, amid tight government security at the site of a former girls’ school named Arlington Hall. The hours were long, summers were hot, and air conditioning nonexistent.
Shortly after arrival, she recalled in an oral history interview, she was told “ ‘Well, you’re going to work on the Japanese problem.’ And I said, ‘Oh, heavens, I don’t know anything about Japanese!’ “
She was told that she’d learn what she needed to do the job. At the start, it was a matter of sorting “endless amounts of paper” that represented intercepted messages. They had to be sorted, then edited, then prepared for IBM punch cards.
As Caracristi’s abilities became clear, her work became increasingly responsible. At the time, she said, code breaking “did not require a great deal of math,” but it did ask for “a great deal of ingenuity, I suppose.”
She became involved with breaking Japanese shipping codes, to gain information about the location of merchant vessels in order to sink them.
After the war, as she told it with some irony, the code breakers were encouraged to leave, for it was not expected that their skills would again be needed. In at least one interview, she recalled hearing a “here’s your hat, what’s your hurry speech,” in which she and her colleagues were shooed out of government.
She took the hint. In that brief period after the war, in which it was believed that international conflict had finally been put to rest, she returned to her home state to work in classified advertising at the New York Daily News. But within a year or so, she soon was brought back into the government, joining an agency that would become part of NSA.
This time, her skills were trained on the Soviet Union instead of Japan. One of her jobs at NSA was as chief from 1959 to 1980 of branches devoted to research and operations.
Her honors there included the Defense Department’s Distinguished Civilian Service Award and the National Security Medal, among other top federal honors.
After retiring, she began serving on a variety of prominent scientific, defense and intelligence advisory boards and committees.
She never married and had no immediate survivors.
By the nature of the work, those in intelligence may become privy to information that cried out to be shared, but could not be revealed. Caracristi told about one instance, in which she had advance notice of one of the great events of her time.
It was the news of the surrender of Japan in August 1945, ending World War II.
In the building where she worked, she said, “We knew that the messages had been read” and that “the war was going to be over.”
The word swept through the building. But the code breakers were ordered not to speak of it, not to anyone. Finally, after the news became public, she said, “We all just left the building … to celebrate the great day.”