My day at the NSA

You know it’s an interesting day when you start at the National Security Agency and end at Public Citizen.

Today was the first day of CFP2006, and my first activity was the guided tour of the NSA. Or so we thought. Our first stop was at the entrance to the barbed wire fences that surround the NSA parking lot, where security boarded the bus to check the IDs of 50 privacy advocates. We were then warned to leave behind all cameras and electronics on the bus, especially cell phones and pagers, before going to the Visitor’s Center.

nsa.jpgI was towards the rear of the line (having a cigarette and vaguely wondering if a Zippo was a weapon), so I didn’t get to see the inside of the Visitor’s Center before the front of the line was sent back out—we actually hadn’t been cleared to be visitors. So we all tromped back to the bus, with a quick pause while another attendee grabbed a few telephoto shots of the Death Star building through the inner line of fencing.

I was left to wonder about the security precautions for the Visitor’s Center. You can’t see it in this Wikipedia shot; it’s a small building in the center of the parking lot, below the lower right of the photo here. It’s completely separate from the main building; I’ve been closer to the interior of the White House standing on Pennsylvania Avenue. So why are cell phones forbidden? My best guesses are: 1) greater concerns over Nokia bombers than shoe bombers; 2) just because; and 3) it makes (most) visitors feel really special to be seen as security risks, or reassures them about NSA security. As critical as I am of the NSA, I would generally give them the credit not to have anything in the Visitor’s Center too sensitive to be near a camera or an open phone line. I hope.

In any case, we tromped back aboard the bus, drove back out through the barbed wire, past the Shell station (20 cents a gallon cheaper than in DC), and to the National Cryptologic Museum, where we were supposed to be in the first place. “Can we bring our gadgets?” “Bring anything you like, this time.”

vigilancepark.jpgSuitably equipped with implements of destruction, we were all treated to a fine tour of the museum. We had already seen National Vigilance Park on the drive over, a re-creation of three planes that had been shot down during intelligence missions over the years. Those engagements, as well as others that cost the lives of NSA personnel, are commemorated in Memorial Hall, the first room we saw.

We were then conducted into a treasure trove of geek mathematical history, including a collection of Enigma machines and the Bombe that was used to decode them. An Enigma on display is exposed, so you can type in whatever you like and see the lights flash on as it is encrypted. I asked our guide how much they had to do to keep it working. He said, “It just works. We have 50,000 visitors a year, and kids love to bang on it. Every once in a while we have to change the light bulbs.” The machine continues to be battery powered, as per its original design, and could still serve as a 35-pound spy laptop.

The tour discussed the breaking of WWII German and Japanese codes, the security of the equivalent American codes after 1943 (which were used through the early 60s), and showed an array of fascinating artifacts from throughout the 20th century.

Almost. The notable thing about the NCM is that history ends in 1972 or so. If there’s anything there regarding satellites or the Internet, I missed it. Certainly nothing regarding wiretapping or other present-day issues. And of course, one wouldn’t necessarily expect to see such things at a museum that’s meant to give a positive impression of the Agency.

Which it does, and which is largely deserved. I recommend the NCM to history and technology buffs alike, and the underlying message—that the NSA has a history of serving its country well and with sacrifice—is worth repeating. Which is perhaps why one might regret that its present day actions are not similarly untarnished. I look forward to visiting the museum again in 2036 to see what it says then.

Postscript: as we were driving into the NSA, a wave of laughter passed through the bus because one of the cars there had a vanity license plate which was very amusing in the context of the NSA. I had originally intended to include it here, but I thought twice about it. Certainly, if this person does not want it widely known that he works at the NSA, his choice of vanity plates (and his parking near the visitors’ entrance) is extremely unwise. And yet… someone knows this plate and knows who drives that car. Perhaps that someone shouldn’t know where that car is driven to. So I’ll refrain from passing along the joke, just in case.

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