For the third time in 50 years, the National Security Agency played host to "family day" yesterday, an event that for many decades-long employees signaled the first time their relatives were allowed to see where they work.
But far from the average bring-your-child-to-work day, the event attracted more than 16,000 curious relatives who lined up early in the morning for a chance to look behind the gates of the nation's most secret spy agency.
After being asked to leave all cameras, phones, pagers, electronic equipment and "incendiary devices" at the gate, many family members had their first peeks at a relative's desk and cubicle, and took their first small tours of the facility at Fort Meade in Odenton.
They wandered from a display room that scanned the irises of their eyes for identification to an auditorium- sized room covered floor to ceiling in blue foam triangles - some as large as people - that they were told test electronic signals for echoes.
They ate lunch in the cafeteria under signs marked "No Classified Talk," accepted free pins and brochures from officials of the understaffed agency looking to recruit them and marveled at technology the agency considers outdated, including one of the world's fastest computers, which fits in a 4-inch cube.
"I'm still confused about [this place]," said teen-ager Kurt Ponting as he wandered through a maze of booths and information windows, where agents offered to attach him to a lie-detector machine and show him encryption devices.
"I thought the inside was going to have dark walls and no light and a lack of mirrors," he said. "It's too homey."
His mother, Julie, who has worked at the agency for 22 years, said she signed up her two children and parents as soon as the event was announced.
"It's incredible to have them here," she said, "because as a rule, it has been an incredible mystery what my desk looks like. Most people can bring their families to the office any time. Here, it's a special thing. It's been a lot of fun."
Carolyn Scheibe said she jumped at the chance to see where her sister, Sherry Bennett, has been working for the past 13 years.
"I always knew it was kind of secret," Scheibe said. "She doesn't talk about it a whole lot. I don't think she can. All I knew was that she worked here. That is why it's so exciting."
"It's really nice to have the agency open up like this," Bennett said. "And it's nice for people to get to see what their taxpayer money is doing. If I worked somewhere else and wanted to bring my children in, I just would. Here you can't bring anyone in."
This year's family day offered more festivities than both its 1990s predecessors as part of a move within the agency to present a more human face to the public. An estimated 20,000 to 25,000 employees work at NSA in Anne Arundel County.
The agency has undergone numerous changes in the past year and a half, beginning with agency director Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden's "100 days of change" and recent announcements that the agency would begin contracting out as many as 2,000 jobs from its computer departments.
Hayden said both developments were at the core of the NSA's decision to hold yesterday's event.
"Those changes put stress on the work force and this is a way to celebrate who we've become," he said. "Americans need an image of the agency so its identity is not a vacuum, so the first bad story that comes out doesn't fill the vacuum like a gas."