The National Security Agency
Being a spy is supposed to be cool. If it’s not tuxedos, cocktails and casinos, then it should at least be safehouses, martial arts and a mysterious bank account in Switzerland. Surely being a spy means having a secret cabinet of weapons and gadgets hidden behind your bookshelf at home, a special entrance to your office through a phone booth, or at least the apparent ability to never have a hangover despite the amount you drink.
If being a spy is supposed to be so cool, then why is the museum at America’s National Security Agency (NSA) so boring? I mean, seriously, these guys are the pin-ups of the espionage community?
When I say it’s ‘boring’, I don’t mean that it’s not ‘interesting’. It has lots of facts… and history… and exhibits… and, y’know, stuff. But it’s not ‘cool’. Somehow the only museum in the United States that’s run by the intelligence community thought that visitors are so intelligent that they’ll enjoy a building full of code-breaking machines. Well, I’m sorry Agent X, Y did U think that would B the case?
The National Cryptologic Museum, Fort Meade, Maryland
The first warning bell should have been the name: The National Cryptologic Museum. I supposed it manages expectations much better than calling it The Really Awesome Spy Museum Where You’ll See Heaps Of Cool Things You’ve Always Wanted To Know More About.
Unless, that is, you’re interested in the history of codes during war time. The museum has an impressive collection of code-making and code-breaking machines through numerous wars including World War II, The Cold War and the Vietnam War. The cipher machines captured from the Germans and the Japanese are displayed most proudly.
There are examples of the simple codes used before technology, the computer databases which have stored information in the NSA over the decades, and the evolution of the technology to secure telephone calls (including the model of phone on which George W Bush was told about the September 11 attacks).
On displays on the walls, the stories are told of the great cryptographers who broke the codes of America’s enemies. Even here, there is no coolness, no suave spies, no X-factor. The tales aren’t told as if the protagonists were great heroes in an epic mental battle against the forces of evil. These guys were just linguists or mathematicians who, although presumably quite brilliant, sat in a room and crunched letters and numbers for months at a time between breakthroughs. There’s no mention of whether they enjoyed the occasional martini during the process.
For those who are students of codes (is there such a thing?), the library at the museum would provide a very useful resource. Thousands of unclassified and declassified documents from the National Security Agency can be read and even photocopied. There are books going back hundreds of years, which trace the history of cryptology across several continents. There is certainly a lot of information available for those with a keen interest.
The National Cryptologic Museum at Fort Meade in Maryland is the public face of a highly secretive organisation and world of espionage that remains a mystery to most people. Perhaps it is sensible not to encourage too much interest from regular civilians. Still, if this is the life of a spy, thank goodness Hollywood has a big imagination.
* You can find out more about the museum at the official webpage here.
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