The National Security Agency’s DC-area headquarters is an open secret. Motorists pass its clearly delineated exit on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway every day, the exit ramp limply barricaded with orange traffic cones and a sign admonishing visitors. You get the sense you’re on camera for those few seconds as you speed past, your license plate scanned, tallied, analyzed.
In this area, you’re bound to run into the NSA eventually. I once went looking for an abandoned asylum, only to be rebuffed by a security guard who gleefully told me the NSA was buying up land around the area. “At night, they fly weird-looking aircraft overhead.” Then, an afterthought–“I probably shouldn’t talk about this.”
You hear whispers of the organization when out for a walk, at a party, meandering around town. We don’t tell ghost stories around the campfire, we gossip about the NSA. It’s our dreaded boogeyman, lurking in the shadows to tape our phone calls and read our email.
So it’s a bit odd to willingly go to the NSA on a snowy Saturday morning, but that’s just what I did this past weekend.
The National Cryptologic Museum is as close as most of us will get to the NSA. Open to the public since 1993, the museum is dedicated to the history of cryptology.
And there’s so much to see. Code-breaking machines from WWI and WWII, rare 16th-century cryptography books, a hallway dedicated to African Americans and women who contributed to American cryptology.
The exhibits are enthralling and full of interesting information. There are ingenious spy tactics, like invisible ink used during the US Revolutionary War. And there are occasions the US got burned, like how it took seven years to discover a gift given to the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union was fitted with a hidden microphone.
The museum is also great for families. Most of the exhibits are interactive, and free activity books teach kids about simple codes and ciphers.
I was expecting something a little unwelcoming, and I instead found an engaging museum loaded with fascinating tidbits. The docents were friendly and knowledgable, the exhibits modern and fun. And I didn’t once feel like I was being secretly recorded!
If You Go
The National Cryptologic Museum is -not- at the restricted entrance exit off of 295. Please don’t take that exit unless you work at the NSA. Everyone else should follow the directions here. The museum is about 20 miles from either Baltimore or DC and is not easily reached by public transportation. Hours are 9AM-4PM Monday-Friday and 10AM-2PM on the first and third Saturdays of the month. Admission is free.
There is also an adjacent Vigilance Park that houses real spy planes. I didn’t make it to the park as I had inadvertently stumbled into a blizzard. The planes looked pretty impressive as I drove past, but to be honest I was mostly just trying to keep my car on the road.