Spy Agency Reveals Some, Not All
By Maureen O'Hagan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 3, 2001
Hidden along Route 32, in a drab beige building that looks every bit the cheap motel it once was, is America's official museum of secrets.
Here, you'll learn about a hush-hush device that historians say shortened World War II by nearly two years (no, not the atom bomb), you'll read tales of unheralded genius and you'll glimpse the efforts of this country's own James Bonds, many of whom resemble the class nerd more than they do 007. In fact, a number were women.
The sign outside says, National Cryptologic Museum. It's run by the federal government, but it's a far cry from the Smithsonian Institution.
Instead of a prominent spot on the Mall, this museum sits behind a gas station on the edge of Fort George G. Meade in northern Anne Arundel County. Instead of a gleaming marble entrance, it welcomes visitors with a low-slung canopy propped up on spindly columns. Instead of dazzling displays, it houses mysterious exhibits intended, in some cases, to obfuscate as much as explicate.
The museum is one of the few peeks the public is allowed into the super-secret National Security Agency at Fort Meade, an organization so sensitive that the government once denied its existence and still won't release its staffing and budget needs.
With the museum's opening in December 1993, however, the agency has tried to dispel the conspiratorial rumors that have swirled about it for decades.
"I had 30 years where nobody but my family and close friends knew where I worked," said Jack E. Ingram, the museum's curator since 1994. Shortly after Ingram took the job, his face appeared on television, making him the first NSA employee to be shown on camera. "I had to keep pinching myself," he said.
The museum now acts as a release valve for other NSA employees.
"It's a great venue for us to show our families what we actually do without talking about it," said Bronwen Reagan, an agency public affairs officer.
Inside the one-floor building are exhibits showing how Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the first U.S. civilians executed for espionage, were outted; how the Russians fooled a U.S. ambassador with the help of Soviet boy scouts; and how an American cryptologist broke the codes of a gang of Chinese opium smugglers even though she didn't know a word of Chinese.
Don't expect too many details, however. The museum is careful to tell and show only so much. But contemplating the brainpower behind the stories helps fill some of that void.
Take Enigma, for example. A World War II-era German machine resembling a typewriter, it featured a system of mechanical rotors and wires that turned words into what was thought to be impenetrable code. The code changed every time a letter was typed, meaning that a mind-boggling one hundred thousand billion billion combinations of letters had to be tried to break the code.
The Germans who designed Enigma were smart, but the Allies who solved it were smarter.
Explaining to visitors how the code was cracked is difficult if not impossible, both because of the brain wattage required and because the museum doesn't fill in all the gaps. Suffice it to say that, because of the work of more than 120 computers and countless anonymous Einsteins, American cryptologists eventually were able to read a coded Enigma message in a matter of hours.
The Germans didn't discover this until 1974, when a controversial book titled "The Ultra Secret" revealed the codebreaking triumph.
"It was absolutely the best secret in World War II," said Ingram, one that analysts have concluded shortened the war by almost two years.
"Just think of all the lives saved by these people working in secret," Ingram said.
There is another side to America's professional secret-keepers, one not touched on at the museum: The NSA has at times monitored not only the activities of other nations but also those of U.S. citizens, as revealed by a Senate investigation in the early 1970s headed by then-Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho). The agency has since tightened its rules, and officials are adamant in saying it does not spy on American citizens. Still, critics charge that the NSA has the capability to intercept virtually all forms of electronic communication from whomever it likes.
Are its eavesdroppers really listening to the world's cell phone conversations? That's a mystery that won't be solved here.
Particulars: Adjacent to the museum are the National Vigilance Park and the Aerial Reconnaissance Memorial, dedicated in 1997 to honor crew members who lost their lives on reconnaissance missions. The park features a C-130 airplane like one that was downed by Soviet fighters in September 1958. The backdrop for the park is a semi-circle of trees, each representing types of U.S. aircraft downed during reconnaissance missions.