Museum unscrambles secret agency's past

But recent activity still matter of national security, natch

As sanitised as the NSA's secret history arguably is for this display, this is a much better museum than the private Spy Museum in downtown DC, which we visited a day later. The Spy Museum is all flash and celebrities, using the worst of today's multimedia jazz to distract and entertain while failing to provide anything of substance outside the book section of its gift shop.

The NSA museum, by contrast, is filled with detail and history, even if it is the NSA's greatest hits: Enigma machines, the Bombe; the "CodeTalker" Navajos from World War II, SIGSALY, its first secure voice telephone system, and other such safely past triumphs. Many of the machines in question are the originals, though the SIGSALY, like the great seal the KGB used to spy on the US Embassy in Moscow, is a mock-up. A logical decision, since the original weighed 55 tons, was made up of 40 racks of equipment, and took 13 people to operate for a single call between the Pentagon and the machine's London home, the basement of Selfridge's (it didn't fit in Churchill's office, so they ran a wire).

The Spy Museum also, being private, does not allow photography. The NSA museum, despite its owner's secrecy, is public, so except for the rarest 16th century books, you can photograph anything you like and admission is free. Everything in the museum is unclassified.

"We hope," the curator said, "that the successes of the past will help people understand the role cryptology has played in protecting national security throughout history and that they will be able extrapolate to the present day." In other words, they hope we will believe that they are doing just as great, important stuff right now even if they can't tell us about it. The museum, he added, also provides NSA staff with a way of explaining their jobs to their friends and family.

Vietnam is probably the best example of the museum's dual nature. The curator freely admitted it was a losing battle, citing a story told on a recent trip to the country by Daniel Ellsberg (time has gone by; people who used to face off angrily on opposite sides can be nostalgic together now) listing the number of nations the Vietnamese have fended off. Even so, he says, the NSA's work enabled them to predict the biggest offensives. Like Tom Lehrer in Folk Song Army: "They may have won all the battles - but we had all the good songs!"

Where the NSA's intelligence efforts failed them is in the gift shop, where the choice of T-shirts had narrowed to Small and XXL. ®

You can read more of Wendy's secrets at pelicancrossing.net.

Sponsored: Driving business with continuous operational intelligence