upr-header-1.jpg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

The National Security Agency revamps its museum, revealing secrets

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Until the mid-1970s, the average American had no clue the National Security Agency even existed. Now the NSA is in its 70th year and unveiling renovations inside its public museum near agency headquarters in Maryland. NPR's Jenna McLaughlin got a tour.

VINCE HOUGHTON: I'm still not used to them opening on their own.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: The doors swing open as the director of the newly refurbished National Cryptologic Museum welcomes us.

HOUGHTON: Every so often, they'll bring someone like me in from the outside. They don't do it very often as we usually come in and cause trouble.

MCLAUGHLIN: Vince Houghton is quick to laughter with a smile and a short haircut reminiscent of his military days. He's excited to finally show off what he's been working on while the world was shut down during the pandemic.

HOUGHTON: I'm actually pushing the buttons on the Enigma.

MCLAUGHLIN: You might remember the World War II movie with Benedict Cumberbatch playing Alan Turing.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IMITATION GAME")

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) Welcome to Enigma. It's the greatest encryption device in history. The Germans use it for all major communications.

MCLAUGHLIN: In the film "The Imitation Game," Turing is holed up in Bletchley Park, trying to crack the Nazi code. Houghton has his quibbles with that movie. He's a historian's historian, but he's excited he gets to show off the genuine artifact captured from the Germans.

Looks kind of like a fancy typewriter.

HOUGHTON: Well, that's what Enigma is. We have kids come in here all the time, going, why are there all the typewriters? I'm surprised kids know what a typewriter looks like in the first place.

MCLAUGHLIN: It's not just kids who are fascinated. Rupert Simms (ph), one museum patron, was enthralled.

RUPERT SIMMS: It's awesome because to me, it's a revelation.

MCLAUGHLIN: He's here on a Friday afternoon date with his girlfriend.

SIMMS: You know, I knew that there was a lot of secret communication going on all during the war - First World War, Second World War and so on. I had no sense that it was as sophisticated as it truly is.

MCLAUGHLIN: Simms isn't alone. A lot of the details shared here are pretty revelatory, especially since the U.S. government barely even acknowledged NSA existed until the '70s. They earned their nickname No Such Agency.

HOUGHTON: We are No Such Agency. We are an agency that does things in secret.

MCLAUGHLIN: But after years of embarrassing and damaging leaks on top of congressional oversight, the NSA was forced to step out of the shadows. Houghton was brought over from the International Spy Museum with a mandate.

HOUGHTON: The museum is part of this mission of NSA to increase the people's trust of the agency.

MCLAUGHLIN: Part of that is explaining what they actually do. The NSA has been in charge of intercepting digital signals since World War II from radio transmissions to emails. But then they have to actually figure out what those messages say.

HOUGHTON: So that's a lot of what we're focused on here at the museum - is code-making and code-breaking.

MCLAUGHLIN: This museum has technically been here since the '90s, but with aging carpets and exhibits, it was in real need of a refresh. That gave Houghton and his team a chance to push the boundaries.

HOUGHTON: So this entire wall is focused on nuclear command and control.

MCLAUGHLIN: Houghton means the actual machines that would have been key to launching a nuclear weapon until very recently.

HOUGHTON: Until about three months ago, they were never outside of NSA.

MCLAUGHLIN: It's a move that stunned experts in the field. Dr. Jeffrey Lewis at the Middlebury Institute in Monterey can hardly believe that the NSA decided to put it on display.

JEFFREY LEWIS: I was shocked because that kind of information is something that the U.S. government has always been incredibly uncomfortable about sharing.

MCLAUGHLIN: Just from looking at it, you wouldn't know how powerful these machines are.

HOUGHTON: To our right is what we call the MP37. The MP37 is the server and machine that created the biscuit.

MCLAUGHLIN: The biscuit. That's the card bearing the president's personal nuclear codes. The machines are unremarkable - giant black boxes with knobs and buttons.

HOUGHTON: We call it the sealed authenticator system, or the SAS.

MCLAUGHLIN: But once Houghton starts talking specifics, it gets pretty chilling.

HOUGHTON: The cards that are inside the nuclear silos, the submarines, the bombers - that ensures that a message to start World War III comes from the president or whoever is the National Command Authority at that time.

MCLAUGHLIN: For the NSA to share all this, Jeffrey Lewis says the agency must have changed the whole system. But he thinks including these machines in the museum is a real step towards transparency.

LEWIS: I strongly suspect that more openness is a good thing. But that doesn't change the fact that this must have been a very unnatural act for the people involved.

MCLAUGHLIN: Meanwhile, some of the stuff in the museum - Houghton and his colleagues had no clue what they even were at first. We stand in front of a large object with the codename Russian Fish. It's a device created by the Germans to listen in on Soviet communications.

To me, it looks like a combination between a giant steamer trunk and, like, a "Mad Max" stereo or something.

HOUGHTON: Yeah. It really does have that kind of "Beyond Thunderdome" look to it where it's very, you know, 1940s technology. It's solid steel. And you look at it and go, I don't know what this was for.

MCLAUGHLIN: Intense archival research helped the team uncover the Russian Fish from the bowels of history, also known as the NSA's giant warehouse. No, actually, they really have a giant warehouse where NSA employees over the years stashed things, hoping one day those things might become declassified.

HOUGHTON: Everyone thinks and jokes like, ha-ha, it's like the end of "Raiders Of The Lost Ark." No, it's like the end of "Raiders Of The Lost Ark." It's floor-to-ceiling crates that are deteriorating 'cause they were sent back there in 1945. To me, it was like every day was Christmas because I'm such a nerd about this stuff.

MCLAUGHLIN: In a different kind of transparency, the museum also wants to highlight pioneers of cryptology who have previously gone overlooked, especially women and people of color.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In early 1943, Juanita Morris at a small college in North Carolina wished to contribute to the war effort and volunteered at the nearest recruiting office.

MCLAUGHLIN: Juanita Morris worked for over 30 years at the NSA. That included overseeing intelligence gathering efforts at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The museum doesn't just celebrate successes in U.S. intelligence. Under a glass case, Houghton shows us a notebook kept by a Navy cryptologist-turned-spy for the KGB named John Walker. It's open to an entry from May 17, 1985.

HOUGHTON: And you can see that that is the last entry in the notebooks because Walker was never to see freedom again at that point.

MCLAUGHLIN: Walker got caught but not Edward Snowden. The infamous NSA contractor gave journalists a massive trove of secret documents about the agency's global spy programs in 2013.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Where is Ed Snowden? An international manhunt is underway to find the man who leaked some of the U.S. government's biggest secrets.

MCLAUGHLIN: Snowden's disclosures about NSA collecting Americans' phone records changed the law and the world. But you won't see his name here at the museum. Houghton argues that's because the story isn't over. Snowden fled to Russia, where he now has citizenship. Meanwhile, the NSA still considers the documents Snowden leaked to be classified. Privacy advocates might be frustrated that whistleblowers like Snowden aren't included here. But Houghton says the museum is about cryptography, not the agency itself.

HOUGHTON: Now, it's not really a cryptographic story, right? It's not - Edward Snowden didn't break codes.

MCLAUGHLIN: Then again, you can buy shot glasses, stuffed animals, T-shirts and more in the gift shop with the NSA logo on your way out.

TONY FLANAGAN: Being able to push the buttons - that's kind of fun. Yeah.

MCLAUGHLIN: Another museum visitor, Tony Flanagan (ph), plays with the Enigma machine. He's fascinated with the artifacts on display and maybe just a bit dumbstruck.

FLANAGAN: It makes me realize how little I know.

MCLAUGHLIN: I guess that's kind of the point of museums - to teach you just how little you know and inspire you to do some digging yourself. Jenna McLaughlin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT'S "THE IMITATION GAME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.