Expensive secret about NSA stuff

Souvenirs: Items available at low or no cost at NSA's gift shop bring fancy prices from unknowing Internet buyers lured by the scent of secrets.

February 23, 2000|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Once so secret its employees were forbidden to utter the letters NSA when asked where they worked, the National Security Agency is now hawking coffee mugs and ashtrays emblazoned with the agency's logo.

Even more surprising is that some people are willing to pay premium prices for what they believe is agency "secret stuff," the same items that come from the gift shop at the NSA's National Cryptologic Museum.

The mouse pads, cups and hats hailing from what once was the nation's most clandestine place are turning up on the Internet auction site eBay, where they're fetching sometimes 10 times the gift shop price tag.

Even items that are free on a shelf just inside the museum door have sold for hundreds of dollars, such as coloring books and, more recently, a pamphlet describing the mathematics of the World War II German encryption machine.

The selling price of the pamphlet reached a high of $400 last summer. The latest sale was in November for $102.

The number of items and their prices have declined over the past few weeks after several Marylanders caught on to the idea and flooded the market with NSA merchandise.

But sales of many items are still going strong.

Tim Dafoe, the self-described "spookiest guy in the office" at a Toronto-based Internet company, beat out eight other bidders two weeks ago to buy a $4.50 coffee mug for $16, not including shipping. He said he had been watching the site for six months waiting for another chance at a mug. He said he couldn't believe the "low price" he found.

The last mug he saw went for three times as much.

Sellers as spies

"It's the idea that this is the closest most people are going to get to them," Dafoe said, referring to the agency. "We have to take what we can get.

"I always check to see if the people selling are from Maryland to see if the stuff is legit, you know, from the inside. I always wonder about the people selling the stuff, if they are spies."

Dafoe said he was not aware that the agency had a gift shop, which is just outside the NSA gates at Fort Meade off Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Because he is from Canada, Dafoe said, it's worth it to him to pay the high price, plus the shipping charge. The items have now lost some of their allure, he said.

Many people don't order from far away at all. David Agatstein, a Baltimore lawyer and former NSA employee, was one of five people to bid last week on a $7 mouse pad that went for $22. Agatstein came up 50 cents short.

He said he had no idea there was a gift shop.

The shop opened in May 1997, years after he left the agency, where he was a language analyst. Agatstein said most of his colleagues aren't aware that he used to work at the NSA and thought a mouse pad would be an interesting conversation starter.

"When I worked there, we weren't even supposed to say we were NSA employees, so it was really unlikely they were going to hand out coffee mugs and T-shirts for us to wear," he said. "We had all kinds of services -- a travel agency, a barber shop -- but definitely not a gift shop."

Bidders in recent months have come from as far away as Europe, but what many have in common is the sense that they are buying a secret, something somehow "smuggled" out.

The Web site entices with comments such as "The book NSA didn't want you to have" and "Keep your friends wondering where you got these from."

NSA officials say they have no plans to sell their merchandise on their Web site. Kevin Pursglove, a spokesman for eBay, said his company would love to become a partner of the agency, but NSA officials said they are not.

"We've taken the items to a worldwide audience," Pursglove said. "Maybe if you crack the coffee mugs open you'd see a secret microphone inside.

"Of course, if we did [become the NSA's partner], I'm not sure who people would make the check out to."

The checks and credit card receipts at the shop are made out to the Civilian Welfare Fund, which an agency spokesman said is a private enterprise that funds the gift shop and donates to the museum.

For the NSA, the merchandise and the gift shop are part of an effort to be more open and forthcoming with the public. In addition to opening the museum and starting its Web site, the agency has been trying to overcome movies such as "Enemy of the State," which portrays an agency defying the law without public scrutiny.

It's an image thing

By offering jackets and pens, the agency hopes to be seen more like the CIA and FBI, agencies often criticized but also revered. The more items sold, NSA officials hope, the more accessible the agency appears.

Some of the prices indicate that the agency has a way to go. The most stunning example is the 16-page pamphlet on Enigma, the German encryption machine, that sold for as much as $400.

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