Museum deciphers cryptography's story

March 06, 1994|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

For decades, the National Security Agency -- the country's electronic code makers and breakers -- publicly denied its own existence, becoming known jokingly as "No Such Agency."

Ignoring the obvious was routine; NSA employees would admit only to working "at a government facility at Fort Meade."

But no longer.

While NSA remains tight-lipped about the secret cryptanalysis work at the tightly guarded complex at Fort Meade, the agency and its predecessors are proud of the history they have begun to share in the last two months with the people who underwrote it -- American taxpayers.

The National Cryptologic Museum, a collection of materials and equipment related to codes and ciphers, opened to the public in January at the former Colony 7 Motel on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, near NSA.

The displays range from a 1567 edition of Johannes Frithemius' 1518 book in Latin on codes, the first published work on cryptography, to a section of a Cray high-speed computer with its 45 miles of wire, in pieces 12 to 18 inches long, which was in use until a year ago.

"Man has been doing this stuff since he first stood up," trying to keep secrets from others who, in turn, try to learn them, said museum curator Jack E. Ingram, a 31-year NSA veteran.

"The concept of cryptology never changes," said Earl J. "Jerry" ,, Coates, who retired in January after setting up the museum as the capstone to 30 years with NSA. "We've gone from the quill pen to the Cray computer -- the same concepts just speeded up."

"We had all this material and we had a good story to tell and now we can finally tell it," Mr. Ingram said. "The climate has changed, in the Bush administration and now the Clinton administration, toward more openness."

Much of the museum focuses on World War II, when cryptography played a major role in the Allied victory and when the government realized the vital part it would play in international affairs thereafter.

Two of the most popular exhibits are the code machines that became famous for their use during World War II: the German Enigma and the Japanese Purple.

An Enigma machine was smuggled out of Europe and copied while the United States built an analog machine that allowed the Purple code to be read. This enabled the Allies to use both systems against their operators. While the code-breaking did not win World War II, its contribution was invaluable, Mr. Ingram said.

The code machines work on a system of rotors that turn on electric impulses to produce a message.

In the late 18th century, Thomas Jefferson developed the concept using hand-turned wooden rotors. Until recently, when xTC the museum acquired an example of the Jefferson system from an antiques dealer, "we had only ever seen drawings, so we're glad to have this," Mr. Ingram said. The machine produces messages in the French diplomatic code, he said. The U.S. Army adopted the system in 1922 and used it until early in World War II.

Only one piece of a Japanese Purple machine is displayed. With two smaller pieces, it was found in the ruins of the Japanese Embassy in Berlin in 1945. "They destroyed all the others; they were pretty good at destroying things," Mr. Ingram said.

The Nazis used Enigma throughout World War II, either unaware the Allies were reading their traffic, or more likely, refusing to admit to themselves that their code had been compromised, Mr. Coates said.

The failure of Enigma security shows the vulnerability of communications and why intense security to protect it is vital, Mr. Ingram said. "While we were reading their machines, they never read ours."

Wartime American, British and Russian code machines also are exhibited, along with material about the Navajo code-talkers who were America's human code machines during World War II.

In Europe during World War I, the U.S. Army used a few Cherokee soldiers to relay orders in their native tongue. Realizing this, the Germans sent "students" to the Western states in the 1920s and 1930s and compiled dictionaries of Indian languages. But they missed Navajo.

In World War II, the Army again employed a few soldiers from various tribes while the Marine Corps recruited 420 Navajo as code-talkers. Using phrases coined specifically because the Navajo vocabulary had no comparable terms, they baffled the Japanese throughout the Pacific.

During the Cold War, the Soviet KGB was the West's most formidable opponent. The KGB set up its own museum in Moscow, of which the Russian successor agency recently allowed a few photographs.

Among the KGB displays are the long-barreled pistol and poison pills from U.S. spy pilot Gary Powers whose capture in 1960 led to an international incident.

When the Soviets protested the spy flights, U.N. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge produced a bugged Great Seal of the United States -- presented by Russian schoolchildren to the U.S. ambassador in Moscow in 1946 -- and said the Russians had been spying on the United States since at least a year after they were allies in war.

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