The People of the CIA: Edward Scheidt
Edward Scheidt made a career of keeping the nation’s secrets safe by utilizing codes.
“Cryptology and encryption offer a competitive edge to the Intelligence Community against those who want to destroy our way of life,” said Scheidt, a cryptographer and key player in the Office of Communications. “It could be viewed as a way of keeping everyone honest—a code is like a lock to keep honest people honest, but it can be broken if we are not watchful.”
How it All Began
After graduating from high school in New Orleans in 1957, Scheidt entered the Army and later, the Army reserves. In the reserves, he was placed with a military intelligence unit where he focused on signals intelligence (SIGINT). Scheidt quickly proved to be quite proficient in his technical knowledge of SIGINT. It wasn’t long before his commander approached him and asked if he would be interested in joining a federal agency that would utilize his Army experience.
Scheidt interviewed with the Central Intelligence Agency and, in 1963, he was hired to work as a communications officer in the Office of Communications.
Keeping the Agency’s Secrets
After joining the Agency, Scheidt was able to pursue a higher education. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree in telecommunications from The George Washington University.
“At the time, cryptography was not being taught as a scholastic endeavor,” Scheidt said. “Cryptography was the purview of the government and military. I took my cryptography classes from the Army and the National Security Agency (NSA) during my time in the military.”
Scheidt found that he enjoyed cryptography because of the challenges it presented.
“It is a discovery to assemble a cryptographic solution,” Scheidt said. “I enjoy designing cryptographic solutions as a challenge for others. I like to see if I can create something that could be certified or held up by my peers.”
As an Agency officer, Scheidt spent 12 years of his career overseas. Scheidt worked at the CIA during very tumultuous times:
Unrest in Laos during the early 1960s,
Internal conflict during the late 60s in the Middle East, and
Civil strife in Southeast Asia.
“My mother said that she could usually tell from the newspapers where her son was by which country was at war,” Scheidt said.
As a communications officer, Scheidt’s job was to support field activities.
“In the field, we had radios that relied on paper encryption systems for voice security,” Sheidt said. “The world was mostly analog and the crypto support was analog, so we used one-time pads and tape.”
A one-time pad (OTP) is a crypto algorithm where text is combined with a random key. If the key is truly random, used only once, and remains unshared, the OTP can be an efficient means of encrypting a message.
As Scheidt learned more about cryptology and encryption, he began to see the need to emphasize information security. In the 1980s he became a communications security officer. The Office of Communications had different divisions, one of which was Communications Security (COMSEC). This division worked with the Office of Security in technical matters so that between both offices, the Agency had a broad coverage of security roles.
“The 80s was a period of looking at the larger security picture with the advent of the computer and other technologies, such as fiber optics, wireless, and technical counter intelligence,” Scheidt said.
Scheidt retired in December 1989 after 26 years with the Agency.
Life After the CIA
Even in retirement, Scheidt continued to work with codes. In 1990, he was asked to participate in the creation of a sculpture that would become famous: Kryptos. Scheidt gave the sculptor, James Sandborn, a crash course in cryptography and assisted in preparing its implementation in the sculptured text.
What’s the answer to this famous code? Scheidt keeps quiet about the answer.
“Maintaining secrecy about the sculpture became a challenging part of creating Kryptos,” he said. “Both Jim and I were under scrutiny by the media who wanted badly to know the answer. To be honest, I don’t know the answer. After Jim finished the sculpture, I never went back to check the code.”
Since retiring, Scheidt established a small company in the early 90s that focuses on crypto solutions. Scheidt’s company built a secure voice cellular suitcase and a STU-III secure satellite suitcase, both of which encrypt classified phone conversations to prevent eavesdropping. More recently, his company focused on encryption designs that integrate traditional digital algorithms into dynamic encryption frameworks.
Scheidt has also contributed to cracking codes in the academic world. He helped break a Middle Age manuscript that illustrated an alcohol distilling process by guiding the translator to what he thought was the methodology that provided the key.
“Not too exciting today, but in the 13th century, how to make alcohol would have been a secret and not shared with the masses,” Scheidt said.
Scheidt urges those interested in cryptography to explore and discover.
“Have fun with it,” he said. “I have.”
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