Museum of mysteries

March 25, 1994

It may never be known for sure whether the Colony 7 Motel off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway was ever used by spies trying to eavesdrop on the nearby National Security Agency.

But the super-secret code-breaking agency apparently thought it was possible. A couple of years ago it used some taxpayers' money to buy the motel and erase a possible security risk.

The motel complex, located on Route 32, has now been reopened as the National Cryptological Museum. While NSA itself remains shrouded in mystery, the museum chronicles the historical development of codes from the Middle Ages to a recent Cray high-speed computer that contained no fewer than 45 miles of wires.

The cryptological museum is a likely beneficiary of interest in spy stuff generated by the recent arrest of Aldrich Ames, a longtime CIA counterintelligence operative. But it is just the latest example cloak-and-dagger activities that are about as old as human history.

"Man has been doing this stuff since he first stood up," said Jack E. Ingram, the museum's curator.

Among the museum's many intriguing exhibits are World War II vintage German Enigma and Japanese Purple code machines. Both are well-publicized intelligence legends.

Less known is the fact that Native Americans have been repeatedly employed by the United States government to provide a natural code that is difficult to break.

In World War I, a few Cherokee soldiers relayed secret orders in Europe. In World War II, the Marine Corps recruited 420 Navajo as code-talkers who baffled the Japanese throughout the Pacific.

The Cold War era is represented by replica of a Great Seal of the United States that Russian school children had presented to the ambassador in Moscow in 1946.

For the next six years, the seal -- equipped with a microphone -- hung in the ambassador's residence, permitting the Soviets to eavesdrop on conversations.

Miniaturization and high-tech advances have revolutionized the spy game in recent years. Instead of monitoring only telephone and telex traffic, NSA now has to deal with cellular communications, computer and satellite transmissions, faxes and electronic mail boxes.

Some day perhaps those activities, too, will be in the museum.

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