The revamped NSA museum opens with displays of former nuke secrets, spy artifacts
WASHINGTON, D.C. — In an unassuming brick building just minutes from a heavily fortified spy agency, a smiling, short-haired blond man is poking away at buttons on an old-school device that resembles a typewriter.
But it isn't a typewriter.
His name is Vince Houghton, and he's the new director of the National Security Agency's National Cryptologic Museum — and this is an Enigma cipher machine captured from World War II era Germany, formerly used to encrypt Nazi communications.
Just weeks before the NSA's 70th anniversary in November, Houghton and his team unveiled what they'd been working on during the COVID 19 pandemic: a complete overhaul of the aging, 1990s-era museum in Fort Meade, Md. It's designed to show off new and old stories about the history of cryptography. That includes everything from the codebreakers of World War II to the efforts to protect communications in space. Every artifact on display is real.
Over the years, NSA has journeyed from complete secrecy — it's sometimes jokingly referred to as "No Such Agency" — to maintaining social media accounts. Houghton, the former curator of the International Spy Museum and an Army veteran, has watched history unfold over decades teaching and studying intelligence history. When he got recruited to work on the NSA's new museum in 2020, he knew it would be a unique opportunity to tell stories that couldn't have been told before.
While the agency has often been subjected to unwilling exposure, due to embarrassing leaks, political drama, and congressional oversight, the trend has gradually shifted toward transparency. Part of that is political will. President Biden last year chose to release an unprecedented amount of real-time intelligence about Russia's plans to invade Ukraine, for example. The other part is what Houghton describes as a real awareness that to maintain the power to conduct global surveillance in secret on behalf of the U.S. government, NSA also needs to earn public trust.
"There is a movement from NSA that trickles down to this museum, of building trust with the public," Houghton said during an interview with NPR at the museum just outside NSA's main headquarters. "They're saying there's no need for this to be secret anymore, let's show it to you."
The history of the bomb
Houghton, who specializes in nuclear history, takes particular pride in one of the museum's newest artifacts: the nuclear command and control infrastructure. Starting in the 1980s until just a couple of years ago, the servers and machines on display were responsible for generating the nuclear codes.
"These are artifacts that have never been on display before to the public at all," Houghton noted.
The DEC Alpha, an imposing but otherwise unremarkable black server, generates both the presidential authorization codes, which verify a command is coming from the president, as well as the codes that attach to specific weapons, to verify the weapon hasn't been stolen before being launched. While the NSA needs supercomputers to aid in generating the codes, the machine that creates the physical piece of paper isn't all that complicated, explained Houghton. After a thorough review within the government, and after these machines were replaced a few years ago, the agency determined it was safe to put the DEC Alpha on display.
It's a move that has stunned experts in the field.
"I was shocked, because that kind of information is something that the U.S. government has always been incredibly uncomfortable about sharing," said Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif., during an interview with NPR.
Even mentioning the existence of things like the nuclear biscuit, as the launch codes are called, has typically been taboo for NSA personnel, Lewis said. While skeptics and critics might question whether an NSA-curated museum is capable of telling complete historical truths, Lewis says the inclusion of the command-and-control architecture is a real and unexpected step toward transparency.
Until recently, historians believed many of the artifacts on display at the Cryptologic Museum were lost to history. For Houghton, unearthing old and unique pieces of cryptologic history has been an exceptionally satisfying part of his mission.
That's because the NSA maintains a large warehouse where employees have kept highly classified objects in the hopes that one day those stories could be told. Houghton compared the warehouse, where he and his colleagues spent hours before opening the museum, as "the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark," the 1981 Indiana Jones movie ending in a giant room full of treasure.
"It's floor to ceiling crates that are deteriorating, because they were sent back there in 1945," Houghton said. "To me it was like every day was Christmas, because I'm such a nerd about this stuff."
One of the artifacts salvaged from the warehouse was a machine code-named the Russian Fish, a large metal object designed by the Germans at the end of World War II to spy on Soviet communications. It works by intercepting nine radio channels the Soviets were using for broadcasting. Through a mix of academic articles, discussions with Allied intelligence sources, and details on the machine, Houghton and his colleagues discovered it in NSA's possession.
Not only did historians believe no such device still existed, but they also thought the U.S. did not have much access to Soviet communications after World War II, particularly after a day in 1948 known as "Black Friday," when the Soviets "changed all their codes overnight," Houghton said. Most history books describe this time period as a gap in American intelligence about Soviet operations, he said, but the discovery of the Russian Fish in the NSA's possession changes that calculus.
"Now we have a much better understanding of how we were still listening in the Soviet communications in the early Cold War. And it was because of the Russian Fish," Houghton said.
After noticing a photograph attributed to NSA in 1954 on a website about cryptology, Houghton and his team were also able to track down one of the earliest cipher machines in history, previously believed to no longer exist. The Italian device, a small blue machine, is on display in the museum with another old American cipher machine made from cardboard.
In a time when diversity and inclusion are major topics in most workplaces, NSA is highlighting previously overlooked stories of women and people of color who worked at the agency or made major contributions to cryptographic history.
In a section of the Museum titled "Trailblazers," several audio-visual display screens and a couple of in-depth exhibits tell visitors these stories. Visitors can listen to narration about Juanita Morris, for one, who volunteered to help the war effort in 1943 and later supervised intelligence missions at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Another exhibit features Agnes Driscoll, who designed her own cipher machine and broke several Japanese naval codes.
In addition, NSA features a more somber memorial space to honor dozens of NSA officers who died in the line of duty, countering a notion that signals intelligence officers are always safe behind computers, Houghton says.
"There is a misperception, I think, that people within, especially the signals intelligence community and the codebreaking community don't find themselves in harm's way," Houghton said.
The reality is different, he said.
"A lot of people were forward-deployed in places that were incredibly dangerous, certainly going back to the time of the Vietnam War, where many, many, unfortunately, cryptologists and people doing signals intelligence were killed in the war. But even if you look at some of the last names on this list, you have people like Shannon Kent who was killed in Syria supporting military operations and doing so from a cryptologic and signals intelligence perspective."
Going back farther in history, NSA displays a military dog tag belonging to an airman who crashed after straying into Soviet airspace in the 1950s while conducting an intelligence-gathering mission.
"His sister decades later went back to the crash site and was able to actually find the dog tag of her brother," Houghton said. "And that's what's on display here at the museum."
NSA has had the opportunity to choose which stories to highlight — and which to exclude.
Privacy advocates may be frustrated to learn that whistleblowers like Edward Snowden are not featured. Snowden's leak of classified NSA files to journalists in 2013 led to changes in the law surrounding collection of Americans' phone records. There's also no mention of the mysterious Shadowbrokers, a hacking group that dumped NSA secrets in 2016, or recently sentenced criminals like Hal Martin, a former NSA contractor who stole 50 terabytes of classified documents and kept them in his basement.
NSA doesn't include a display on Snowden or other more recent leaks for a couple of reasons, Houghton explained. First, much of what Snowden stole NSA still considers classified. Meanwhile, because he fled to Russia, where he recently obtained citizenship, Snowden has yet to be prosecuted by American justice. NSA isn't going to comment on an ongoing Justice Department investigation, Houghton said.
"For me as a historian, I don't want to show the public anything that I don't have an end to. ... I need a beginning and an end. And I don't know how that story's going to end," Houghton said.
The museum might reconsider including stories like Snowden's once they're settled history, but it's not likely. That's because the museum has chosen to focus purely on cryptology, rather than the history of the agency itself, said Houghton.
"Edward Snowden didn't, you know, break codes and get information. So that's not something that necessarily would go in this museum," he said.
However, the museum does feature at least one American who spied for the Russian KGB: John Walker, a Navy cryptologist who was convicted of passing information to his handlers through dead drops. On display is one of his notebooks from several days before he was arrested.
It's a temporary exhibit space that Houghton plans to rotate out over time.
Fortunately for Houghton, NSA archives have a lot more artifacts for him and his team to dig through. In 2023, he's planning additional temporary exhibits as well as educational resources for schools. The museum plans to design a free curriculum on the history of cryptology.
For families visiting Washington, D.C., Houghton hopes the Cryptologic Museum becomes a destination.
To Rupert Simms, who visited the Museum on a Friday afternoon date with his girlfriend, it's a real success.
"It's awesome, because to me, it's a revelation," Sims said. "You know, I knew there was a lot of secret communication going on all through during the First World War, the Second World War, but I had no sense that it was sophisticated as it truly is. It's amazing."
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