“More times than we can count, we’ve made history, without history even knowing we were there.” — General Keith Alexander – Director NSA/Chief CSS
I love to visit history museums. I know that many other genealogists enjoy viewing history as well. The fact that a museum is on the grounds of one of the more secretive agencies of the U.S. Government makes the visit just a bit more exciting. Yesterday I spent some time at the National Cryptologic Museum at the National Security Agency’s Headquarters in Ft. George G. Meade, Maryland. Yes, the National Security Agency is the same thing as “the NSA,” and I spent time at the agency’s headquarters. I expected to see James Bond look-alikes, armed with pistols and exotic explosive devices, driving exotic automobiles. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
[Click on any image here to view a larger version.]
As stated on the National Cryptologic Museum’s web site, “The Museum houses a collection of thousands of artifacts that collectively serve to sustain the history of the cryptologic profession. Here visitors can catch a glimpse of some of the most dramatic moments in the history of American cryptology: the people who devoted their lives to cryptology and national defense, the machines and devices they developed, the techniques they used, and the places where they worked. For the visitor, some events in American and world history will take on a new meaning. For the cryptologic professional, it is an opportunity to absorb the heritage of the profession.”
A government agency charged with keeping secrets has a museum to which the public is invited? Indeed. In fact, the museum is in a small building adjacent to “the puzzle palace,” as NSA headquarters is sometimes called. As a history buff with an interest in technology, I was already interested. However, I admit I had a second motivation: I spent four years in the U.S. Air Force as a crypto technician. Every piece of equipment I installed and maintained was classified, all of it designed by the National Security Agency although manufactured by civilian companies under contract to the NSA. Every maintenance document I used was clearly labeled “National Security Agency” and then had a security classification on every page: Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret. In those days the agency was so secret we were not allowed to say the words, “National Security Agency,” or even the letters, “NSA” outside of our workplace. In fact, we jokingly referred to it as, “The None Such Agency.” My workplace at the several bases where I served were always inside heavily fortified buildings, usually without windows and always protected by armed guards at the entrance and barbed wire surrounding each building.
Obviously, all that has since changed since my military days as you can read a lot about the NSA today in newspapers, magazines, and online. Had I written this article years ago and mentioned the agency by name, I would have been court-martialed. That is not a concern today.
The National Cryptologic Museum hosts approximately 50,000 visitors annually from all over the country and all over the world, allowing them a peek into the secret world of codemaking and codebreaking. No security clearance is needed to visit this museum.
I was curious to revisit some of the equipment I used to maintain and also to see just how far the security restrictions have been lifted. When driving from Florida to Massachusetts this week, I found myself driving past the entrance to NSA headquarters at Ft. Meade. A large sign by an exit on the side of the highway proclaimed, “National Security Agency.” A smaller sign said, “National Cryptologic Museum.” I turned in.
As I drove up the winding driveway, I saw the large NSA headquarters building surrounded by a chain-link fence and, outside that, several large parking lots. Several armed guards stood at the gate in the fence that led to the building’s entrance. I also saw several SUVs with strobe lights on top and the NSA logo on the doors, obviously used to patrol the grounds. I didn’t see any exotic automobiles in the parking lots, however. Just before reaching the armed guards, a small sign pointed left to the National Cryptologic Museum. I followed a winding road to a smaller building about a quarter-mile away. The museum is in a non-secure area outside the high-security perimeter marked by the fence.
The museum’s parking lot and the nondescript building itself looked like it could be the location of any museum. There were no armed guards in sight. I parked and went inside. A receptionist welcomed me, announced that admission was free, and said that I was free to take pictures anywhere. Take pictures? These are NSA materials? Indeed, the times have changed.
I found the exhibits to be interesting but also a bit disappointing. Keep in mind that I had two motives: (1.) to learn about history and (2.) to see if the museum displayed the equipment I used to work on. The museum does an excellent job of portraying history of cryptography, starting with the Roman legions and going forward to modern times. Did you know that cryptography was used frequently in the American Revolution as well as in the American Civil War? Of course, it was manual cryptography until the invention of mechanical machines around the time of World War I and then the development of electronic encryption in the 1950s.
My disappointment was personal: while a lot of equipment was on display, none of it resembled what I worked on, and none of it was anywhere near current. One machine I used to know intimately was mentioned once in a sign on the wall but with no explanation of what kind of device it was or what it was used for. The sign even had a typo error, although I suspect the only ones who would notice were those familiar with the device in question.
To be sure, there was a Cray supercomputer on display that had been used to decode secret, encrypted messages sent by the Russians, North Koreans, and Chinese. However, I have seen a number of Cray supercomputers in commercial data centers over the years, none of them used for espionage purposes. The Cray was completely non-classified although I suspect NSA ran some classified programs on their Cray. As powerful as the Cray computer was back in its heyday, it has long since been replaced by much more powerful supercomputers in the business and academic worlds. I suspect the same is true at NSA. After all, the Cray on display in the museum was powered on with some lights blinking but was idle.
The works on display and in the library range from the first printed book on cryptology, the 1518 Polygraphiae Libri Sex by the German mystic Johannes Trithemius, to David Kahn’s notes of his interviews with modern cryptologists. (David Kahn is the author of The Codebreakers, a popular book that describes the history of cryptography, including several never-before-published stories about the early days of the NSA.)
The museum does focus on American cryptology with pictures and stories of the people who devoted their lives to cryptology and national defense. It also gives information about a few of the Germans who worked on cryptography before and during World War II along with some information about Japanese cryptography. Various machines and devices used by military forces years ago were also on display. Some information about the Viet Nam era was also on display, along with some two-way radios and other devices of that era. However, I didn’t see any true crypto machines manufactured within the past sixty years or so. I am guessing those machines are still classified. (Don’t ask me questions about them.)
I agree with the museum’s web site: “For the cryptologic professional, it is an opportunity to absorb the heritage of the profession.” I learned quite a bit about the people who developed cryptology, information that I never knew when I was “in the business.”
If you are interested in the history of high-tech secrets, you will probably enjoy a visit to the National Cryptologic Museum. If you have younger children with you, find something else for them to do. They won’t find much of interest in this museum. If you are a former (or present) crypto professional, you absolutely should stop by and spend an hour or two.
For those with a very strong interest, the National Cryptologic Museum has a reference library that supports the exhibits and also encourages visitors to research various areas of cryptologic history. Many of the documents available in the library were once classified, including a few that were once labeled “Top Secret.” Over the years, the library has become an important resource to students, scholars, and those with an interest in this once secret world.
If you encrypt some of the files on your computer, if you store anything in the cloud, or if you talk on Skype, Ooma, or any other encrypted voice service, you can thank the many professionals whose pictures hang on the walls inside the National Cryptologic Museum at the National Security Agency’s Headquarters. They developed the technology that keeps your secrets just that: secret.
The National Cryptologic Museum’s web site is described in the NSA ‘s public web site at http://www.nsa.gov/about/cryptologic_heritage/museum/. You can find driving directions to the museum at http://www.nsa.gov/about/cryptologic_heritage/museum/map/index.shtml. If you visit the museum in person, look for it right behind the gas station.