Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/05/09/inside_nsa/

Museum unscrambles secret agency's past

But recent activity still matter of national security, natch

By Wendy M. Grossman

Posted in Security, 9th May 2006 09:38 GMT

Inside the NSA A few of us got through the metal detectors before the National Security Agency (NSA) realised we were in the wrong place. We had arrived, expunged of all electronic devices from mobile phones to cameras, at the Visitors' Centre, a security outpost for visiting security personnel, instead of the National Cryptologic Museum 370 metres away by eagle. Oops.

There was a time when the very existence of the National Security Agency was completely secret. Many of the sort of people who are interested in it (such as this crowd from the annual Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference) are, therefore, somewhat surprised by the idea that it has a cryptologic museum.

Approximately 50,000 people a year find their way to Fort Meade, where the museum and NSA's headquarters are located. The curators will tell you openly that the museum's creation in an abandoned hotel in 1993 was a public relations exercise. The Cold War had ended, and although cryptology has been used in American wars all the way back to George Washington, between wars the effort was generally closed down. So the NSA had to answer: why should the nation keep funding it?

You would think that if anyone was likely to say "we shouldn't" it would be this group of gearheads and privacy wonks. Jostling with the NSA tour for pride of place on the programme was a panel on wiretapping featuring James Bamford, author of The Puzzle Palace, the 1982 exposé of the NSA. The NSA hasn't really forgiven him yet; mentioning his name at the museum draws a waspish response. David Kahn, whose 1967 book The Codebreakers drew a government suit when it was published, however, is now a scholar working there.

The curators seem refreshingly open, at least in the sense that they voice opinions they disassociate from the NSA. Still, the last 40 years of increasingly controversial activity is omitted. For national security reasons, of course. No one argues about wiretapping in World War II or even Korea; it's today's warrantless wiretapping that's controversial. So there is no mention of Bush, the class action suit brought on behalf of AT&T customers, or the revelations by AT&T employee Mark Klein that the NSA has been cheerfully and illegally wiretapping US citizens' domestic phone calls. It's a sign of how far the American government monolith has depressed people's free spirits that even this group does not bring up the subject.

When this museum opened it was also the height of the crypto wars, and cryptography was the hottest topic at this conference. Two government efforts made it so. One: continuing to promote the International Traffic in Arms regulations, which restricted the export of strong cryptography, slowing its adoption to protect, for example, ecommerce transactions. Two: backing a government standard known as the Clipper Chip, which would have included encryption in devices such as telephones and modems, but at the price of storing an escrowed key with the government. ITAR was ultimately defeated by the demands of ecommerce; Clipper Chip by the cracking work of Matt Blaze. The museum has a display of secure telephones, but mentions neither the Clipper Chip nor the ITAR battles.

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.