The tragic death of CBS newsman Bob Simon in a Manhattan auto accident earlier this month reminded longtime Great Neck resident David Kahn of his meeting several years ago with Simon and how they shared a common tie to the peninsula.
“He came out to see me when I was working at Newsday as an op-ed editor about four or five years ago,” said Kahn, whose parents moved to Great Neck in 1932 when he was a toddler. “We did a short interview and during that interview he said ‘you know I used to live in Great Neck.’”
“He was a nice guy,” Kahn remembered. “He was a professional, but I don’t remember the date or the story. And I don’t remember whether or not it was on the air.”
Simon, working for CBS News, had sought out Kahn, a recognized specialist in the study of codes, military intelligence and espionage to ask for his input. “I was a fellow journalist and I wanted to help him out,” Kahn recalled.
“He told me that his parents had moved to Great Neck, probably in the 1940s or 1950, because the Great Neck schools were good,” Kahn continued. “I don’t know where they moved from.”
“He said he lived just east of Station Road and north of Vista Hill Road. I don’t know the dates or whether he graduated from Great Neck High.”
Kahn, who received a doctorate from Oxford in history, is best known for his in-depth study of espionage, The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to The Internet (Scribner, 1996).
“My parents moved to 4 Myrtle Dr. in Great Neck Estates in 1932,” Kahn said of his own Great Neck roots. “And from there (we moved) to Windsor Gate in Lake Success in 1943.”
“After my grandparents and parents died, I remained in Great Neck (120 Wooleys Lane). I graduated from Great Neck High (no North or South then) in 1947 and stayed in town until three years ago. After both of my boys left, I moved to Manhattan.”
Kahn’s most recent book is How I Discovered the Greatest Spy in World War II (Taylor & Francis, 2014), primarily a study of Hans-Thilo Schmidt who sold German war secrets. He’s currently working on another book about American intelligence during the war.
He finds today’s news about hacking, data breaches, leaks and invasion of privacy especially relevant to his lifelong work.
“Communications has grown immeasurably over time,” Kahn says. “I’ve been interested in codes since I was a kid and as communications have grown so has code breaking.”
“This wasn’t happening in George Washington’s time, except once in awhile you had a letter in code,” he pointed out. “But nowadays, because you have telephones, you have emails and all of those things, it’s increased the amount of communication and the more communication you have, the more interception there will be.”
“And the more interception, the more information you’re going to get. So it’s become enormously important. There wouldn’t have been an NSA ages ago. There wouldn’t have been all those stories about breaking codes and listening in as there are today. So that’s why code breaking is much more important today than it ever was. “
Great Neck residents may remember that Khan was a library trustee and also served as board president as recently as 2008.
He still keeps track of library proceedings, even though he left the board prior to the main branch renovation project. Both he and present president Marietta DiCamillo served together on the board.
“Even though we were sometimes on the opposite side of the issues, she’s probably the best library president, the best qualified we’ve ever had,” commented Kahn.