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National Cryptologic Museum, Fort Meade

For Your Eyes Only

Artifacts at the museum include a German Enigma cipher machine, above, used during World War II for encoding messages. (Visitors can even try it out.)
Artifacts at the museum include a German Enigma cipher machine, above, used during World War II for encoding messages. (Visitors can even try it out.) (Photos From National Security Agency)
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Friday, May 2, 2008

Love the International Spy Museum but cringe at the idea of shelling out $18 to indulge your inner 007? Convert those bills into gas, buy a couple of gallons and head north to the National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade.

James Bond doesn't have anything on National Security Agency code breakers. He might have won over the ladies, but these sleuths started wars, prevented attacks and busted criminals.

"Intelligence is not just getting good information. It's knowing when to use it," tour guide and retired NSA employee Howell McConnell tells a group on a recent Saturday in front of an exhibit about the World War I Zimmermann telegram.

The coded German telegram was intercepted and deciphered by the British as it traveled from the foreign minister in Berlin, Arthur Zimmermann, to the German ambassador in Mexico. It encouraged Mexico to start a war with the United States so the Americans would be too busy to join the war in Europe. Mexico would have gained land, and the Germans would have had free rein to sink ships in the Atlantic. The telegram was the push Congress needed to authorize America's entry into the war.

The gritty authenticity of the National Cryptologic Museum beats just about anything the Spy Museum has to offer, from the docents like McConnell to the exhibits assembled by real-life code-breakers to the barbed-wire fence and guard huts that separate the museum from the NSA buildings nearby.

The museum gives an unclassified glimpse of the history of American espionage, but there's little to be spooked about. The atmosphere is welcoming, and there is plenty for little hands to play with and older eyes to take in. Perhaps the most interesting exhibit is an Enigma cipher machine circa World War II Germany. Visitors can even try their hands at creating a secret message using the machine.

Another room houses Barney. Long before computers could fit into an interoffice envelope, Barney was one of the first supercomputers. It looms over even the tallest visitor, and its plush purple namesake sits on top. One of the reasons we have computers at all is because of the NSA's need to perform quicker math computations for breaking codes.

"When I was in school, I hated math," said Geoff Fein of Alexandria while visiting the museum with his wife. "But [here] you get to see the application."

Math is vital to code breaking, and the NSA boasts that the agency is the largest employer of mathematicians in the world. That might be because they are the only ones who can make math look just as cool as James Bond.

-- Amy Orndorff

DON'T MISS: GRAB II satellite, one of America's first intelligence satellites; the Enigma cipher machine; and National Vigilance Park, which features airplanes used in intelligence collection.

IF YOU GO: The museum is open Monday-Friday from 9 to 4 and the first and third Saturdays of each month from 10 to 2. (So you could go tomorrow!). Closed Sundays and federal holidays. Free. Scheduled group tours are available, but visitors can explore the museum on their own and talk with docents.

WHERE IS IT? The museum is at Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Route 32. From Washington take the parkway north to Route 32 east and follow signs to Canine Road and the NSA grounds. There will be signs to the museum and free parking.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call 301-688-5849 or visit http://www.nsa.gov/museum.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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