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National Cryptologic Museum: A Peek Behind The Curtain At The NSA [VISIT]

It’s no surprise that the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) is a bit secretive — so much so that the CIA has a museum that isn’t actually open to the public. 

Likewise, the FBI Museum now requires a special background check to visit. But then there’s the National Cryptologic Museum (NCM), an institution that traces the origins of the National Security Agency (NSA) and its role in the IC today.

This is actually the only public museum in the U.S. IC — and it can be visited for free with no reservation required. The facility was first open to the public on December 16, 1993, and it currently hosts some 70,000 visitors annually. 

BACKGROUND – HISTORY OF THE NSA

The NSA could also be best described as something of a paradox. Founded nearly 71 years ago, its existence wasn’t even revealed until 1975, even as it became the largest of the U.S. intelligence organizations in terms of personnel and budget during the Cold War. Its headquarters is located in a fairly nondescript office tower at Fort Meade, Maryland — akin to it hiding in very plain sight.

To most Americans, the NSA is the agency where Edward Snowden worked before leaking classified documents about its operations to monitor the communications of American citizens. It’s arguably one of the components of the IC that we may not always like what it does and how it does it, but should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Even with the revelations made public by Snowden, many Americans likely don’t fully understand what the NSA does. In simple terms, it’s responsible for global monitoring, collection, and processing of information and data for foreign and domestic intelligence and counterintelligence purposes, specializing in a discipline known as signals intelligence (SIGINT). 

A modern smartphone has more computing power than this Cray – but it was quite the machine in the Cold War.

Though it was formed by President Harry S. Truman in November 1952, its origins date back to the role the U.S. Military played in deciphering coded communications during the Second World War.

ORIGINS OF NCM MUSEUM

Though many of the more famous museums that surround the nation’s capital are housed in either historic or specially built facilities, NCM is actually located in the former Colony Seven Motel. On the surface, it’s an odd location for such a motel, a fact noted when it was purchased with taxpayer dollars in the early 1990s to create a buffer zone between the high-security main buildings at the NSA and the adjacent highway.

The Baltimore Sun newspaper questioned in March 1994 whether we’ll likely know if the motel, located off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, was actually used by spies trying to eavesdrop on the NSA. However, because the NSA wasn’t about sending of information — and rather was at its heart a unit that collected data — it isn’t likely that clandestine operations were carried out at the Colony Seven.

Dr. Vince Houghton, who was named director of the museum in November 2020, further dismissed such rumors that the motel ever housed a den of spies. It was simply where those who were interviewing to work at the NSA or had business with the agency typically stayed. The truth is likely a lot less interesting than what we’ve come to believe from the writings of Tom Clancy and other authors. 

This is the Bombe. It was used by the U.S. Military to crack the German Enigma machine during WWII.

Just prior to the global pandemic, the NCM closed for major renovations. When it reopened in October 2022, visitors who may have been to the museum previously likely noted that it had far fewer items on display. 

That was entirely by design. “We made good use of the time to go through the collection, and archive what we actually owned,” explained Houghton, who previously served as curator and historian of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. “What you will see today is far more significant to the history of cryptology in the United States. This is no longer a collection of stuff. 

Instead, the items on display now are because they were the first of something, the only one in existence, or were used by someone of historic note.”

An early “lie detector machine.”

As a result, every one of the items in the collection played a significant role in the nation’s cryptologic history. That right-sizing of the collection in many ways mirrors the role of the NSA.

“It was like pulling signals out of the noise,” Houghton added. “Instead of cases of artifacts, we designed this to be a history museum that was presented to be much like an art museum.”

Today, the collection still has artifacts that date back to pre-American Revolutionary War times, but everything is related to American code-breaking or cryptographic efforts. 

President Ronald Reagan’s red phone. He probably used this to check in with the First Lady as much as calling Moscow.

That does include a copy of the 1518-dated “Polygraphia,” a manuscript by German monk Johannes Trithemius that’s now considered the first book about cryptography. In addition, there is a letter from French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to his adopted son, Prince Eugène, instructing him how to write letters in code. These are seen as important items that those working at the NSA should study.

“Around 85 percent of the artifacts are real and significant,” Houghton continued.

NO GIZMOS – BUT IMPORTANT ARTIFACTS

Even as it is part of the IC, the NSA isn’t actually a spy agency. As such, the NCM also doesn’t have James Bond secret agent-style gizmos or gadgets — such items can be seen at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. Rather, the three main galleries of the NCM feature items such as a secure red phone that was used by former President Ronald Reagan in one of his limousines.

A 1518-dated manuscript of “Polygraphia,” by German monk Johannes Trithemius – considered to be the first book on the study of cryptography.

Likewise, the museum doesn’t have a collection of secret agent communication devices, but instead has a number of President Barack Obama’s mobile phones including his beloved Blackberries that the NSA equipped with better security. 

President Barack Obama’s old phones — instead of ending up in a drawer, these are in a museum.

Other items include the “biscuits” — the sealed contained cards that are locked in submarines and missile silos that are used to launch nuclear weapons.

THE ENIGMA MACHINES

The role that code breaking played in World War II is really at the center of the NCM. Not surprisingly, the now infamous Enigma machine that was developed by Nazi Germany is the standout attraction. Yet, equally notable is that the NCM has not just one of the machines on display. It actually has an early commercial model that was developed in the 1930s for use by banks and other financial institutions. 

A German-made device to monitor Soviet communications during WWII. It was captured and used by the U.S. Military during the early Cold War.

The museum also has another machine in its collection that was believed to have been used at one of German dictator Adolf Hitler’s headquarters. Even more impressive is that the NCM has a pair of connected Enigma machines that visitors can use to send messages in code and then decipher. 

These are likely the only operational Enigma machines that can be used by the general public today  “This was important for us to make the history of the Enigma accessible,” noted Houghton.

Visitors can send a message from one German Enigma machine to another at the NCM.

Visitors can also get a sense of what it took the Allied code breakers to overcome Enigma. The NCM has the only surviving U.S.-made Bombe devices in its collection. These were the machines that were initially developed by the British to break the German Enigma codes. 

The U.S. greatly improved on the design after the Germans increased the number of code rotors from three to four in the Enigma. The Bombe in the collection was used by the U.S. Navy to crack German codes, greatly impacting the outcome of the war.

THE PURPLE CIPHER

Students of military history will know that the U.S. Military successfully cracked the Japanese codes and there are long-standing rumors that at times the U.S. was reading Japanese communications even before the Japanese. 

That helped the U.S. Navy at the Battle of Midway — and also allowed the U.S. to successfully track the movements of Japanese Admiral Yamamoto. Intercepted ciphers gave word that Yamamoto was to visit the Solomon Islands, and that intelligence allowed his plane to be shot down.

None of that would have been possible had the U.S. not gone to great lengths to overcome what was believed to be an impossible-to-crack cipher device. Based on the rotor technology of Enigma, it was officially dubbed the “97-shiki O-bun In-ji-ki,” which translates to Alphabetical Typewriter ’97 (the Japanese year 2597 or 1937 in the Western calendar). 

This machine was used to help crack Japan’s purple code during World War II. It incorporated telephone stepping switches to mimic the Japanese machine, which also used stepping switches it turned out.

Purple, the codename given to Japan’s diplomatic cipher, proved to be a huge challenge to U.S. Army cryptanalysts. It took 18 months for the men and women of the Signal Intelligence Service (SIS) to study the messages to determine how to break the code.

That included developing a machine that incorporated telephone stepping switches to mimic the Purple machine’s complex scrambling pattern. The efforts proved successful, and there are still those stories of how the U.S. was reading the signals. The Germans had good evidence that the U.S. had cracked the Japanese code, but Tokyo refused to believe the code could be broken. It proved to be a costly mistake.

In addition to the U.S. machine that was used to crack the Purple code, the NCM has a remnant of the Japanese purple cipher from the bombed-out Japanese embassy in Berlin. Though no full units survived the war, the NCM retains that only intact part from the machine.

THE SIGABA AND RUSSIAN FISH

Clearly, the U.S. and its allies knew that better encryption was required as noted by the 20-rotor cipher machine known as SIGABA, or ECM Mark II that is now displayed in the museum. The device was used by President Franklin Roosevelt to communicate with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during the war. There was reportedly no successful cryptanalysis of the machine during its service lifetime.

The collection also contains the largely unknown “Russian Fish,” a machine that the Nazis built to listen to Soviet communications on the Eastern front during WWII. Instead of encrypting all their messages, the Soviets devised a way to split the communications into nine channels. 

An early code device that was reportedly used by President Thomas Jefferson when he served as ambassador to France.

The Germans monitoring the channels would only hear static until the Russian Fish was developed allowing all the channels to be put back together. The device was buried at the end of the war, and discovered by U.S. troops who returned it to America.

That machine proved especially useful in the late 1940s after the Soviets changed their codes on October 29, 1948 — a day known as “Black Friday.” However, the Soviets still communicated with the same technology. This fact was among the secrets of the Cold War that were largely unknown to most Americans until recently.

Though nothing in the collection is actually top secret, it still proves to provide insight for those at the NSA as well as the general public. “The museum was originally created with a specific audience in mind, the workforce at the NSA,” said Houghton. “And while we still provide history for the NSA staff, and sister agencies like the U.S. Cyber Command, we’re still designed today to shed some history of cryptology. The museum is also a treasure of artifacts.” And that’s certainly no secret.   

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