Museum Lifts Veil of Secrecy from Code-Making and Breaking National Security Agency Displays History of Cryptography -- Sort Of

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FOR more than 40 years, it was one of the United States government's most secret organizations, hidden in the Maryland countryside midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. People who worked there joked that its initials, NSA, stood for "No Such Agency." Their spouses and children, on the other hand, claimed the true meaning of the initials was "Never Say Anything."

But today at Fort Meade, Md., home of the world's foremost military intelligence organization, the National Security Agency, there is a new openness -- sort of.

Last year the NSA opened the doors to a new annex, the National Cryptologic Museum. Looking more like a bunker than the Smithsonian, the museum is housed in a one-story building that's ringed with a 12-foot chain-link and barbed-wire fence. And it's less than a mile from the agency's office complex, where it is a federal offense to so much as make a pencil sketch of the buildings from the parking lot.

The National Cryptologic Museum purports to chronicle the history of the NSA. But it's a necessarily sanitized history. Indeed, most of the museum's cryptographic treasures actually predate the NSA, which came into existence on Nov. 4, 1952. Instead, the museum has a rare books collection, including a second edition of "Polygraphiae" (1518), the first book on cryptography ever published. There is also an impressive exhibit on the the native American "code talkers," who confounded German and Japanese code-breakers during World Wars I and II by speaking in their native tongues.

Many visitors feel that the museum's most impressive exhibit is a collection of 13 German Enigma machines, the standard military cipher used by Hitler during World War II. Covered with buttons, dials, and lights, the machines look like children's toys from an earlier age, but they were actually the basis for the Germans' most secret military code. To encrypt a message, the German code officer would type each letter onto the machine's keyboards; each button would cause a different light to illuminate, and the officer would write down the enciphered message. The machine could be used in reverse to decrypt the corresponding message.

"I hadn't realized there were so many {Enigma} models," says Phil Karn, a computer programmer visiting from San Diego. "One case had several prewar Polish and German versions along with disassembled components and a schematic diagram showing how a rotor machine operates. The other case had the different models used by the different German forces -- Air Force, Navy, Army, and submarine service. …