Cipher wheels have been
encoding and decoding messages since as far back as 1605, and one model
was designed by Thomas Jefferson. Before World War II, diplomatic
dispatches intercepted by a U.S. unit called the Black Chamber (after
medieval European agencies that opened and read mail before delivery)
helped the State Department negotiate more favorable naval
agreements with Japan. During World Wars I and II, Native American
"code talkers" transmitted messages encoded into their native
tongues across the battlefields. And a group of Soviet schoolchildren
presented American ambassador Averell Harriman with a model of the great
seal of the United States that was later found to contain a bug.
This is but some of the unclassified information disclosed at the National
Cryptologic Museum, the National Security Agency's facility located
near NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Md. Since 1993, the museum has
offered a generous look at the secret world of cryptology – a word
meaning the science of codes that still hasn't cracked the dictionary –
and the history of espionage.
A free audio tour
of the museum makes 21 stops and features more than 60 presentations. Rare
books dating as far back as 1526, old cipher wheels and displays on
Civil War signal-flag communication provide historical perspective. A
pre-World War II exhibit displays old-time military gear and the Flash
Gordon-type devices used for early code breaking.
Encryption went big time in World War II – literally so, as evidenced by
the massive U.S. Sigaba encoder, the only system used by any participant
in the war that was never broken. Other World War II systems – Tunney,
Sturgeon and Jade machines – also resemble typewriters on steroids. The
American Bombe, a hulking 7-by-10-foot steel-gray cabinet (pictured at
top), represents the onset of the computer age in espionage.
A great deal of space is devoted to Cold War activities and the successful
Venona project, which began in 1943 and eventually decrypted 2,000
messages sent by the KGB and other Soviet operatives. Venona got the goods
on Alger Hiss and sent Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the chair (no qualms
about their guilt around here). Other exhibits are devoted to the more
recent Liberty and Pueblo incidents, women in cryptology and computers in
espionage. You can also watch an episode from the Arts & Entertainment
Network series Spies and Codebreaking.
The Cryptologic Museum isn't exactly kid friendly, but it does have two
hands-on exhibits. In the first, visitors are invited to encode and decode
messages on Germany's Enigma encryption machine ("It works! Try it!
Please be gentle"), a flawed device that did much to help
Germany lose World War II. The other one, on fingerprint matching,
transmits your magnified loops and whorls to a computer screen. Not to
worry, would-be felons: A sign promises, "No permanent record is made
of your fingerprint."
A small gift shop (where you obtain the audio tour equipment) carries a
predictable array of NSA-logo T-shirts, ties, golf balls, coffee mugs and
teddy bears. But it also sells a number of books on espionage (Hitler's
Japanese Confidante, Navajo Code Talkers), Secret Code Breaker
computer programs and a "secret message kit" for $9.95 –
invisible-ink pen included.
Directions: Take the Beltway to Exit 22, the
Baltimore-Washington Parkway (Route 295). After exiting at Route 32 east,
immediately turn left onto Route 32 and then right on Colony 7 Road.
Follow the signs to the museum.
National Cryptologic Museum,
National Security Agency, Colony 7 Road (near Baltimore-Washington
Parkway and Route 32), Fort Meade, Md., (301) 688-5849
See also: Military hospitality at Fort Meade