On the National Security Agency's site, there is a timeline dedicated to the most significant events in cryptologic history. Among its many entries: November 4, 1952, the day the NSA itself was created; December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor; and the earliest event that is commemorated, the U.S. State Department's decision to hire a 23-year-old Indiana native, Herbert O. Yardley, on November 16, 1912, just prior to the outbreak of World War I.
An ambitious young man with a background as a railroad telegraph operator, Yardley quickly showed a talent for breaking codes. After proving himself able to decipher an ostensibly secret message to President Woodrow Wilson, he decided to spend his career improving the security of U.S. government communications. Soon after, he began breaking the codes of other governments in anticipation of war. He would ultimately spy on the communications of foreigners and U.S. citizens in peacetime, and head a secret surveillance agency headquartered in a New York City brownstone.
But Yardley wasn't just the progenitor of the trade practiced at the NSA today. He was also the surveillance state's first betrayer, as loathed by insiders in his day as Edward Snowden is in ours. His 1931 book The American Black Chamber spilled secrets on a scale that a pre-Snowden-leak NSA described as follows:
In today's terms, it would be as if an NSA employee had publicly revealed the complete communications intelligence operations of the Agency for the past 12 years–all its techniques and major successes, its organizational structure and budget–and had, for good measure, included actual intercepts, decrypts, and translations of communications not only of our adversaries but of our allies as well.
The same historical analysis declares that Herbert Yardley is "by all odds the most colorful, controversial, enigmatic figure in the history of American cryptology."
He worked as a cryptanalyst for three countries, was commended by the U.S. government for his cryptanalytic achievements, then saw the same government summarily abolish his organization and, with it, his job. For later publicly revealing his success in cryptanalysis and secret writing, he was generally acclaimed by the press but reviled by the cryptologic community.
He wrote melodramatic spy novels and radio programs, and traveled the country speaking on cryptology and espionage. He hobnobbed with movie stars, famous authors, a future presidential candidate, and a future prime minister and winner of the Nobel Prize. He played championship golf; he played winning poker all his life and wrote a best-selling book on the subject. Motivated, probably, by bitterness and a need for money, he apparently sold cryptanalytic secrets to a foreign power, with results that, together with his other exposes, affected the course of U.S. cryptology for the next decade.
What's more, he published his book and lent his expertise to foreign governments partly because he lost his job just before the 1929 stock-market crash and needed money and work. Put another way, if you survey the evidence-free accusations that surveillance-state apologists lob at Edward Snowden, you'll find that the father of American cryptology actually did perpetrate those very transgressions.