The National Cryptologic Museum

In December 1993, the National Security Agency opened to the public a small museum of carefully preserved artifacts, books, and memorabilia, housed in a former motel just outside the perimeter of its tightly-secured headquarters complex at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland. As part of a policy of new openness for the U.S. Intelligence Community, and with the concurrence of the Department of Defense, the Director, NSA, had approved a proposal to establish a National Cryptologic Museum (NCM). It would serve the professional education of the Agency’s civilian and military workforce, and, as a rare unclassified facility for the Agency, afford other government employees and representatives, as well as the general public, a “view behind the curtain” that had traditionally concealed the highly secret mission of the Agency.  That mission is to secure the confidential communications of the government and armed forces and to seek to derive intelligence from the communications of other governments.

 The underlying message of the Museum is that America’s involvement in cryptology pre-dates her existence as an independent nation, and has evolved over nearly three centuries, occasionally emerging from behind the scenes during wars and national emergencies.

 The museum would have to be maintained, however, within allocated Agency resources and without competing against higher priority operational requirements. Still, modest as it was, the low-key ribbon-cutting was followed shortly by a growing stream of visitors, headed by foreign media representatives curious to see the marvelous Japanese “PURPLE” cryptosystem solved by American brainpower and examples of the mysterious German “ENIGMA” cipher machine, “broken” by the skills and ingenuity of Polish, French, British, and American cryptologists in World War II. The added attraction of a no-admission-fee quickly appealed to tourists and visitors and those promoting tourism.

A Supporting National Cryptologic Museum Foundation (NCMF) is Established

The museum, although little publicized, soon became a popular tourist attraction and a magnet for bus loads of visiting school children from elementary level through high school.  NSA recognized that something more than the limited support that it was able to provide to the museum was needed.  Major General John E. Morrison, USAF (Ret), who had had a distinguished career in intelligence, with the endorsement of the then director of NSA, Lt. Gen. Ken Minihan, and assisted by others who shared his interests and operational experience, established the National Cryptologic Museum Foundation, Inc. in April 1996, as a not-for-profit 501 (c)(3) organization.  Its purpose was to support the museum’s mission of educating the public about cryptology, commemorating its mostly unsung military and civilian heroes and stimulating the minds of generations to come about the wonders of cryptology.

The board of directors selected to oversee the operations of the Foundation was composed of several former directors and deputy directors of NSA, a number of other senior military and civilian officers who had formerly served in the intelligence community, and several distinguished members from the private sector.  The infrastructure of the Foundation, including its standing committees and operating procedures, was then developed by an Executive Action Committee chaired by the NCMF vice president.

The following year, in September 1997, at the initiative of the US Air Force, active and retired, and ably supported by the Foundation, a “National Vigilance Park” was dedicated near the Museum, its center-piece an actual C-130 aircraft, painted and displayed in commemoration of an electronic reconnaissance plane shot down over Soviet Armenia in September 1958, during the Cold War. Subsequently, Army and Navy aircraft, representative of their involvements in Cold War reconnaissance operations were added to the Park, expanding the Museum complex, which displays related interpretative displays and material.

In the spring of 1998, after months of planning, the Foundation’s newsletter, or “bulletin” (recalling the term used by H.O. Yardley’s “Black Chamber” and an early NSA “art form” for its products), was released as a hard-copy quarterly publication titled The Link. The original NCMF insignia carried on the masthead proclaimed involvement in cryptography and a respected heritage from the Army and Navy. A reminder of “old-fashioned” Morse code spelled out its initials and its message of longevity.

Activities undertaken by the Foundation in support of the Museum have included the following:

    --Direct acquisition of a considerable number of cryptologic artifacts for display in the Museum.

    --Support for advertising the Museum in the form of brochures describing the Museum’s content and the distribution of the brochures to local hotels, airports, and other places where tourists might be present.

    --Acquisition for the NCM Library of the world-renowned David Kahn Collection of cryptologic literature.

    --Advocacy of the Cryptologic Hall of Honor embraced by NSA and continued in an annual ceremony of induction of honored individuals.

    --Introduction of the “aka SMART” program to promote computer use and cryptologic interest among school children.

    --Procurement of the Acoustiguide hand-held individual tour-guide system to assist visitors touring the Museum.

    --Establishment of an In-Memoriam Registry to commemorate those who served in U.S. cryptology and at the same time raise funds in support of the Museum.

The Foundation also sponsors a continuing series of programs featuring speakers on subjects of professional interest to its members, as well as an annual organizational meeting, which is scheduled to coincide with the biennial NSA Cryptologic History Symposium, also supported by the NCMF.