National Cryptologic Museum Sheds Light on Secret Codebreaking Work on History

Penetrating Secrets Resonates in Today’s Wikileaks Headlines

by Karen Rubin

Can’t get enough of the Wikileaks saga of unmasked state secrets? Still smarting over the revelation that the NSA was eavesdropping on Americans without a warrant? Are you hooked on the Spy v Spy intrigues of Cold War? Or does the mysterious Enigma hold allure?

The "celebrity" of the artifacts on view at the National Cryptologic Museum relate to Enigma, the device developed by Germany to render radio communications unintelligible. Hitler thought it unbreakable, but the Allies broke the code, impacting the outcome of WWII © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Then have I got a place for you.

Tucked away in the woods adjacent to National Security Agency headquarters, itself, hiding almost in plain sight is The National Cryptologic Museum, the first and only public museum in the Intelligence Community. The Museum hosts 50,000 visitors annually, letting the public peek into the secret world of codemaking and codebreaking, and discover how this art and science impacted how world events unfolded.

You actually have to be searching for the museum, because there is no sign off of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (295) – only after you have already turned off to Route 32 East at Ft. George G. Meade, Maryland, do you see a sign that confirms you are on the right track. It’s like passing the first test of worthiness.

The modest building houses a cramped collection of thousands of artifacts that collectively serve to sustain the history of the cryptologic profession. Here visitors can catch a glimpse of some of the most dramatic moments in the history of American cryptology: the Zimmermann Telegram that brought the United States into World War I; Enigma, the encoding machine that Hitler was convinced could never be broken (but was); the voice-encrypting secure phone that Presidents use to talk with other world leaders and that Bush used on September 11, 2001; NSA’s first super-computers; the first eavesdropping reconnaissance satellite; artifacts from the U-2 and the Pueblo.

The only way to really appreciate what you are seeing, though, is to take a docent-led tour. Docents like Sharon Repta, whose tour we joined, are retired NSA personnel, who invariably bring some of their personal experience.

We stop in front of a display that describes the code-breaking intrigue surrounding the Zimmermann Telegram.

It was 1917. World War I was raging in Europe. The British wanted the United States to help them defeat Germany. In an episode that resonates today with Wikileaks’ publication of diplomats’ communications, the British had intercepted a cable from Germany’s Foreign Minister to Mexico in which Mexico is offered some of the territory that it lost to the United States in the Mexican-American War, if it would join Germany’s side. President Woodrow Wilson “leaked” the contents of the cable to the Associated Press on March 1. The ensuing headlines about the proposed alliance angered and shocked the American public, which went from being isolationist to wanting the US in the fight. Wilson declared war against Germany and its allies on April 6.

The incident – of public disclosure of secret diplomatic cables sending the U.S. to war and changing the course of history – resonates in today’s headlines concerning Wikileaks.

The work that the cryptologists do impacts history in direct ways.

Secure phones used by presidents, including George W. Bush on Sept. 11, 2001, on view at the National Cryptologic Museum© 2010 Karen Rubin/

Indeed, the celebrity artifact is Enigma – an electromechanical, wired-rotor machine used by Nazis in World War II to render a radio message unintelligible to anyone but the intended recipient. Hitler believed the code was unbreakable, but here we see how it was eventually cracked by the Allies.

There is a display of photos headlined, “The Average Americans Who Rose to the Challenge and Broke the ‘Unbreakable’ Cipher”- Frank Rowlett, Geneviene Grotjan, Bob Verner and Al Small.

The reference is to one of the great moments in U. S. cryptologic history. On September 20, 1940, eighteen months into the all-out effort to crack the Japanese Purple cipher by a team headed by William F Friedman (the father of US cryptology), Genevieve Grotjan, a young statistician who came to SIS in 1939, had discovered a repeated sequence in some of the Japanese cipher text; one week later, Frank B Rowlett handed Friedman two decrypted messages. That tool allowed the Allies to have insight into battle strategies, affecting the outcome such as at Midway, and changing the course of the war.

William F. Friedman’s group, in particular Frank B. Rowlett, developed a machine similar to, but more flexible than the Enigma device. The machine, known as SIGABA, was so successful that during the war, the German cryptanalysts gave up on even recording their intercepts of the messages. They found it impregnable.

On the other hand, Soviet codes from a listening post that gathered intelligence from the 1930s to 1950s, that were only broken in the 1980s, Repta said, proved that Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg were spies, but not Ethel Rosenberg (both Rosenbergs were executed in 1953 for betraying atomic secrets to the Soviet Union during World War II).

Evidence of changing dynamics of world history is in a display of particular intelligence gathering equipment that was used in Vietnam, captured by the North Vietnamese and sent to the Soviet Union and then to the Poles.

“In 2000, when the Soviet Union broke down, Poland became a separate country and we got message: ‘Dear United States, we think this belongs to you,’ and sent it back,” she says.

Repta, who had worked at NSA beginning in the 1960s, stands in front of a reconnaisance satellite – surprising because it is so small – and says that just whispering about its existence then would have been treasonous.

She knows because just across the room is a wall of infamy of moles and double agents. Among them Ronald W. Pelton, an NSA analyst for 14 years who quit in 1979 after falling deeply in debt, and sold NSA secrets to the Soviet Union between 1980-86, when he was arrested after an NSA colleague recognized his voice on a tapped Soviet Embassy phone.

Early reconnaissance satellite, once super-secret, is surprisingly small; it can be seen at the National Cryptologic Museum© 2010 Karen Rubin/

The displays are mainly machines (they seem so quaint even ordinary, today), documents, old photos, and lots of commentary. But what comes through are the people who worked the machines, devised the codes and cracked codes.

There are also displays that remind of intelligence failures – like the capture of Gary Powers and the U-2 spy plane, and the ship, the Pueblo, loaded with secret technology.

There is nothing of the intelligence intercepts from the September 11, 2001 attack – not the most famous message of all that warned of the impending attack but was not translated in time (perhaps in the future, after wounds heal). But there is on display a fragment from the Pentagon building where the third plane hit. A plaque reads, “We will come together to strengthen our national intelligence capability to know the plans of the terrorists before they act.” (9/20/01, George W. Bush).

One of the displays is devoted to artifacts donated by David Kahn, author of The Codebreakers and former journalist and editor at Long Island’s Newsday. In that display is Johannes Balthasar Friderici’s book, ‘Cryptographia,’ from 1684.

But the historical piece de resistance from his collection will go on display in the future: a signed 1806 letter from the Emperor Napoleon to his son Prince Eugene Napoleon. In the letter Napoleon instructs his son to “keep sending me the letters from the Archbishop of Silesia sent from Rome to Dresden. The key has been found here so that they can be read just like ordinary writing. But it is necessary to let them continue on their way while copying them exactly.” How cryptic can you get?

David Hamer of the museum explains that Silesia, a historical region of Central Europe located mostly in present-day Poland, with parts in the Czech Republic and Germany, was for centuries a hotbed of religious, political, cultural and ethic differences and long contested between Germany and France. In 1812 students at a university in Silesia took part in a rebellion against Napoleon, presumably with the support of the Archbishop of Silesia and the catholic archdiocese in Rome.

“This letter is a reference to Napoleon spying on the Archbishop, a likely precursor to the student rebellion and to the much larger conflict that started in 1812 called the War of Liberation. An estimated two million people were killed in that war in which a coalition of countries led by Germany defeated France resulting in Napoleon’s exile to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean,” Hamer writes.

Codes and codebreaking is ancient, as a 1518 copy of the first printed book on cryptology, Johannes Trithemius's Polygraphiae shows. The book is part of the collection donated to National Cryptologic Museum by David Kahn of Long Island © 2010 Karen Rubin/

The Wall of Honor reflects that the museum is dedicated to the people who devoted their lives to cryptology and national defense – for the most part, working secretly, in the shadows and therefore unrecognized and unappreciated – the machines, devices and techniques they developed. For the visitor, you come away with a new understanding of some key events in American and world history and are humbled by the thought of how differently things could have turned out. For the cryptologic professional, it is an opportunity to absorb the heritage of the profession, and come out of the shadows to receive justified recognition.

Originally designed to house artifacts from the Agency and to give employees a place to reflect on past successes and failures, the Museum quickly developed into a priceless collection of the Nation’s cryptologic history. The Museum opened to the public in December 1993 and quickly became a highlight of the area.

Visiting the museum, you realize, that codes and code-breaking are ancient – even the Phoenicians had codes. And the methods and techniques are as sophisticated as space satellites and as basic as the Navajo language. But in each instance, there is human ingenuity – a cat-and-mouse game. And the ramifications of the work, done mainly in tiny cubicles, can have extraordinary impact on the course of history.

Museum Library

A key part of the museum, though, is not on display, but its Reference Library, which not only supports the exhibits, but has become an important resource to students, scholars, and those with an interest in this once secret world. You are allowed to read materials at the Library but not take them out.

The Museum Library maintains a collection of unclassified and declassified books and documents relating to every aspect of cryptology. The books and records complement the museum exhibits and artifacts, but also offer unique and in-depth sources of information for researchers.

The library has a very large collection of commercial codebooks. These codebooks were used by all manner of businesses to reduce the costs of cable communications as well as to provide a measure of security for trade secrets. Modern communications and encryption methods have made these books obsolete and they are mainly of historical interest. Some of the most sought after items in the library include the declassified documents. The Museum Library holds all of the released VENONA documents. NSA’s Special Research Histories (SRH) provide documentation of NSA’s predecessor organizations in the U.S. Army and Navy’s cryptologic services. The SRH collection (available in its entirety at the National Archives in Record Group 457) consists of declassified reports dating predominantly to World War II. The library also holds some of the oral histories taken by NSA’s Center for Cryptologic History.

These oral histories provide a detailed and personal view from a few of the people who have been a part of world events, including a radio intercept operator prior to WWI and Navajo Code Talkers.

Americans howled to get into World War I after President Wilson leaked the contents of the Zimmermann Telegram to the press © 2010 Karen Rubin/

A few select, unclassified monographs are also available to the public from the Museum Library. They cover a wide range of cryptologic subjects from early American ciphers to the Vietnam War. Most of the monographs were written and published by NSA’s Center for Cryptologic History. These monographs go into greater depth than the museum exhibits or museum pamphlets and help to provide a greater understanding of the events in which cryptology played a role in world history.

The collection nearly doubled by the gift of the leading historian of cryptology, David Kahn, author of The Codebreakers and former Newsday journalist and editor. The works include more than 2,800 books and over 130,000pages of notes from interviews with hundreds of cryptologic and intelligence personnel, both foreign and American, many now deceased. In addition, the collection houses photocopies of rare or unique intelligence documents from foreign and domestic archives and from private collections. Also, there are 55 extremely rare books, such as a copy of the first printed book on cryptology, Johannes Trithemius’s Polygraphiae of 1518. The one-of-a-kind items in the Kahn Collection include a typescript of Herbert Yardley’s once controversial American Black Chamber.

In June 2010, the library received another gift of the archives of the late John Byrne who invented what he called Chaocipher in 1918. Among these papers are an enciphered excerpt from a speech by General Douglas MacArthurChaocipher – The Ultimate Elusionblueprints of the ChaocipherPreliminary Instructions for Chaocipher II (a computerized version of the Chaocipher developed by Byrne’s son John Jr.), andcorrespondence between Byrne and the RD Development Company.

The Museum Library is open to the public, but the hours vary. (Call ahead to ensure that a staff member will be present to assist you,301-688-2145.) The library is non-circulating, but photocopying is permitted.


Fortunately, the museum also offers age-appropriate, interactive programs designed to engage the students and to make them aware of cryptology’s role in world history and how mathematics plays a role in cryptology.

Docents like Sharon Repta are retired NSA personnel, and help personalize the visit to the National Cryptologic Museum, which is devoted as much to the people behind codebreaking as the machines © 2010 Karen Rubin/

For example, “Who, What, When and Where” program is designed specifically for home schoolers ages 9-16, but available to other small groups as well. This program has students search the museum looking for specific exhibits. They then determine the “who, what, when, and where” regarding each artifact, person, or event.

There’s a gift shop – the NSA Civilian Welfare Fund Gift Shop, located within the National Cryptologic Museum, offers a variety of merchandise ranging from unique NSA logo items to books and videos relating to the art and science of cryptology – but no food. come prepared since you will likely spend 2-3 hours.

Adjacent to the Museum, is the National Vigilance Park. The park showcases two reconnaissance aircraft used for secret missions. The RU-8D serves to represent the Army Airborne Signal Intelligence contribution in Vietnam and the C-130 memorializes an Air Force aircraft that was shot down over Soviet Armenia during the Cold War.

The National Cryptologic Museum is located adjacent to the NSA/CSS at Ft. Meade, Maryland (directions), and is open to the public. Admission is free. It is open Monday-Friday 9 – 4; Saturdays (first and third of the month) 10 – 2 pm; 301-688-5849; Library – 301-688-2145,

Other Places to Unmask Secrets

Your exploration into the world of secrecy should also include the International Spy Museum, a private museum that adds glitz and pizzazz to its important and serious collection of artifacts, and has engaging, interactive, even thrilling ways to appreciate spies and spying. Here, it is hard to figure out whether Hollywood grabbed ideas from the pages of history or the real spies took their cues from Hollywood ($18/adults, $15/youth, 800 F St. NW, Washington, DC 20004, 202-eye-spy-u,

A polar opposite to the National Cryptologic Museum, which is devoted to the art of secrecy, the Newseum is dedicated to those whose job it has been to expose secrets and serve as a watchdog on government. To speak truth to power, as it were. this push-pull of what it means to be a free press is as current as the Wikileaks controversy, the Pentagon Papers and the Zimmerman Cable.

Known to German cryptanalysts as "the American Big Machine," SIGABA was the most secure COMSEC device used by any nation during WWII © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Located midway between the white House and the Capitol Building, the major exhibit on view now at Newseum is “G Men and Journalists” (on view through 2011). The exhibit focuses on the FBI’s efforts to fight crime and its starring role in popular culture. There are 200 artifacts – including the actual Unabomber’s cabin, Patty Hearst’s coat and gun and the electric chair that killed the Lindbergh baby kidnapper – nearly 300 photographs, dozens of historic newspapers and interactive displays, the exhibit reflects the sometimes cooperative, sometimes combative relationship between the FBI and the news media ($19.95/adults, $1295/youth, 10% discount to purchase online; weekend early bird discount tickets available at admissions desk; Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001, 888/NEWSEUM,

The National Museum of Crime & Punishment includes a crime lab and the filming studios for America’s Most Wanted. A simulated FBI shooting range, high-speed police-chase, and hundreds of interactives and artifacts pertaining to America’s favorite subject fill the 3-floor, 25,000 square foot museum ($19.95/adults, $14.95/child, save $2 if purchase tickets online; 75 7th St. NW, Washington , D.C. 20004, 202-393-1099,

Monday, 27 December, 2010


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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including, Huffington Post and and blogs at "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at 'Like' us at

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