NSA opens the curtain, just a little

Spy agency celebrates its work at its cryptologic museum

November 30, 2008|By David Wood | David Wood,david.wood@baltsun.com

OUTSIDE FORT MEADE - God bless 'em, but the nation's secret code-breakers and eavesdroppers aren't exactly the most sociable folks you'll ever meet.

Many of them are hidden away here, behind the National Security Agency's bunkered fortifications, which are so foreboding they'd make Dick Cheney's eyes glisten with envy. Others work in uniform on dusty battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, and man austere listening posts across the Middle East and Asia.

They are descendants of an early generation of code-breakers recruited on the eve of World War II, a group of Navy women who were told if they breathed a word to civilians about their work, they'd be shot.

That pretty much sums up the agency's attitude toward public outreach. "It does not pay to advertise your successes," says Patrick D. Weadon, a senior NSA official. "There is always a danger when you lift the curtain ever so slightly."

You could blow an operation. You could be shot.

But even this agency, secretive for good reason, is under pressure to loosen up. And so it is, ever so slightly, lifting the curtain.

The NSA's public Web site, jazzy but not exactly newsy, grudgingly offers information, including the names of more than 150 American cryptologists who died in action. The modest National Cryptologic Museum just outside the gates offers a look at the agency's past, which it can talk about.

The NSA needs public support. The agency relies on the public for its $8 billion budget. It needs good relations with Congress to maintain operating authorities. And it must recruit talented linguists, mathematicians, analysts and technicians

Those folks aren't going to volunteer "if you get people convinced that this is an agency doing things to them rather than for them," says Bill Nolte, a former NSA and CIA official who is a research professor at the University of Maryland.

"If you don't have the confidence of the public, you're going to have a very difficult time," Weadon says. The work of the NSA "is critical to the survival of the country. What if we hadn't had this capability prior to the Battle of Midway?" (Answer below)

Where the NSA is concerned, suspicions go both ways. The agency experiences the outside world through a one-way listening device, and many Americans glare back with distrust. Films like Enemy of the State, depicting a corrupt and murderous NSA, feed skepticism toward power and secrecy. So do reports about the NSA wiretapping Americans' phone conversations and reading their e-mail.

So the agency has made a start at lifting the curtain with the Web site, www.nsa.gov, with links to congressional testimony by NSA officials and special NSA reports.

But, c'mon: the most recent testimony is from September 2006, and the latest public report is dated October 22, 1999 (and not released until a year later).

Another section has speech texts, but the only two speeches posted there are by the NSA's former chief, Mike Hayden. The "new" guy, Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, took over three years ago.

Nolte, a proponent of more openness who used to oversee agency relations with Congress, sighs at such shortcomings. "It's always a struggle," he says.

More interesting is the NSA Web site's virtual tour of the National Cryptologic Memorial, listing 158 cryptologists who died in action. The most recent is Army Sgt. Trista L. Moretti, killed in June 2007, in a mortar attack at her post at Forward Operating Base Kalso near the Sunni Triangle in Iraq.

Agency employees rush to point out that it's not the National Security Agency museum but the National Cryptologic Museum.

There is also the glittery, commercial International Spy Museum and Gift Shop in Washington (discount tickets for NSA employees!) owned by the folks who created the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. There, you can get a customized tour for four people for only $10,000 (lunch included) and pick up a Homburg hat, an 007 video and a toy eavesdropping device.

The NSA museum is free and not so glitzy. It was built 15 years ago into the former Old Colony 7 motel just off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (route 32 east exit).

"It is delightful - they've got a lot of stuff crammed in there," says Peter Earnest, director of the International Spy Museum. Earnest, a former CIA agent, says his museum is so popular, "we have to pulse people in so we don't get too crowded." Not a problem at the NSA museum, with 150 visitors a day to the 1,400 visitors a day at the International.

Both Earnest and Weadon, who curates the NSA museum, agree on this: Just about the only way you can explain what a spy agency does today is to show visitors what it did a long time ago, and hope they use their imagination to make the connection. "That's why we tell stories from the past," says Weadon.

(Neither museum offers an exhibit on the intelligence fiascoes of the recent past: missing the collapse of the Soviet Union, bobbling the warnings about 9/11, and falling for Saddam Hussein's pretense ruse of having weapons of mass destruction.)

Some of the successes celebrated at the NSA museum, though, are big. In the spring of 1942, the Japanese were hunting the battered U.S. Navy warships that had escaped Pearl Harbor. A team led by Navy Cmdr. Joseph John Rochefort, a Japanese linguist, intelligence officer and cryptologist, finally cracked Japan's naval code and learned that the Japanese intended to attack at Midway Island.

Armed with that knowledge, Adm. Chester Nimitz ambushed the Japanese, decisively halting Japan's sweep across the Pacific.

But Rochefort, his health broken by months of poring over the codes, was ordered back from Hawaii to Washington by jealous superiors who had disputed his reading of the Japanese messages.

He was punished by being given command of a floating dry dock in San Francisco, and died in 1976. Not until nine years later did the Navy offer a posthumous Distinguished Service Medal.

The moral: Never boast about your successes.

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