The newly renovated and reopened National Cryptologic Museum, run by the National Security Agency and located near the spy agency’s headquarters at Fort Meade, deals a fatal blow to one of the most enduring myths of the Cold War: There is no “red phone” linking the Oval Office to the Kremlin.
Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin do indeed communicate, but there is no crimson handset that the two leaders can pick up during a global crisis to be immediately connected.
“The red phone? That’s Hollywood,” museum director Vincent Houghton said.
What’s actually on display might be even better. Most of the artifacts — 85% says Houghton — are either the first of their kind, were used by a key person or are the only ones left. In other words, the museum, closed for two years during the COVID-19 pandemic and then rebuilt from the studs up, is a geeky, spymaster’s delight.
It’s fair to assume that any technology pertaining to national security on display in a public museum is obsolete and has been replaced by something more sophisticated, including the technology Biden’s and Putin’s predecessors would have used in the past. The museum is more than happy to show visitors how earlier U.S. and Russian leaders conversed. (Hint: Take a look at the teletype machine with Cyrillic letters on the keyboard.)
But they’re not giving away any current confidences.
“We at the National Security Agency are not in the business of talking about anything we’re not supposed to talk about,” said Houghton, who has a doctorate in intelligence history and helped design the popular International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.
“You can extrapolate from that and say that if I’m showing you this stuff here, we’re way, way ahead of that now,” he said. There’s a reason, after all, that insiders joke that NSA stands for “No Such Agency.”
The cryptologic museum, which reopened to the public Oct. 8, seeks to tell the history of American code-breaking and code-making from the nation’s earliest days through the Cold War. It takes visitors from the Nuclear Age into the dawn of computers (developed to help the war effort by breaking ciphers) with a few really cool ancient artifacts thrown in, such as the “Polygraphia,” a 1518 manuscript by the German monk Johannes Trithemius that is considered the first book about cryptography.
Members of the public can try to pick out messages written in invisible ink. They can turn the disks on a cipher wheel that might have been used by Thomas Jefferson and puzzle over the sole surviving Enigma machine, the type of device that delivered Adolf Hitler’s orders to members of the Nazi high command.
There’s even a “red phone” of sorts — a scarlet-colored, encrypted car phone emblazoned with the presidential seal. It was installed in former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s limousine in 1984. It just wasn’t used to call Moscow.
As visitors wander among pieces of old equipment, they will find stories replete with sleight of hand or derring-do, stories that helped shape the world we live in today.
There’s the 20-rotor cyber machine known as a SIGABA used by former U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to communicate with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II.
There are the sealed container cards known as “biscuits” that are locked inside safes in submarines and missile silos and that could be used to start — or avert — World War III.
There is an 1806 letter signed by French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to his son, Prince Eugene, instructing him to keep writing his letters in code.
“Napoleon talks about how critical the information coming out of the Prussians was to aiding the French war effort,” Houghton said. “They actually broke the cipher used by the other side’s archbishop. Cryptology was key to Napoleon’s success.”
Or consider this famous example from the Battle of Midway in June 1942: On view in the museum is the largest surviving piece of the “Purple Machine” on which the Japanese typed out an unbelievably complicated book-based encryption code.
“Cryptology played a vital role in winning the Battle of Midway,” Houghton said. “We were able to break the Japanese code JN-25 that let us know what was coming, how it was coming and what direction it was coming from.”
The only thing the Americans didn’t know was the target, which the Japanese referred to as “AF.”
The Allies had a hunch that AF might be Midway, so they sent out a false message saying that the water purification system on the North Pacific island was broken. Two days later, U.S. forces intercepted a message from the Japanese saying that “AF” was running out of drinking water.
“We tricked the Japanese into telling us that ‘AF’ was Midway,” Houghton said.
“At that point, we could have had a whole fleet waiting when they attacked. The Japanese never recovered, and the Americans went on the offensive. And all because of our ingenuity at breaking codes.”
Houghton estimates that about 40% of the artifacts in the museum have never been on view, and he is especially proud of the new gallery dedicated to nuclear command and control.
“This is a part of this museum that never existed before because this stuff was still classified until about a year ago,” he said. “We have the unique ability to show them to the public for the very first time ever.”
For instance, this gallery contains the DEC Alpha server that created all the nuclear codes used by the U.S. between 1980 and roughly 2017, and it contains the encryption system pulled out of the wreckage of the doomed space shuttle Challenger. Though the encryption system was dented when Challenger crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 1986, it still is remarkably intact.
Before the museum reopened, researchers went piece by piece through every artifact in the NSA’s collection — and made a discovery that is helping them rewrite American spying history.
Boxed in a crate and untouched since 1950, researchers discovered “the Russian Fish” — a machine the Germans built to listen to Soviet communications on the Eastern front during World War II.
At the time, the Soviets didn’t encrypt all of their messages, Houghton said. Instead, they split them into nine channels.
“If you were listening to a few channels, all you would hear was static,” he said.
“The Germans built a machine that allowed them to intercept all nine channels and bring them back together. At the end of World War II, they buried the Russian Fish in the ground. Our troops found it.”
The annals of spycraft have long held that the Americans’ ability to eavesdrop on the Soviets ended abruptly on Oct. 29, 1948, when the Russians changed all their codes on a day that became known as “Black Friday.”
“Everything you will read about the Cold War will tell you that for a long time after that day, the Americans couldn’t listen to a single Soviet message,” Houghton said.
“But the Soviets were still communicating with the same technology that the Russian Fish was designed to intercept. Because we discovered this machine in our warehouse, we are able to rewrite some of the history about what the Americans could do during the Cold War.
“We can’t reveal the specific messages because they’re still classified,” he added. “But now we can start saying, ‘Hey, we were able to accomplish more than we thought.’”
When you go
What: National Cryptologic Museum
Where: 8290 Colony Seven Road, Annapolis Junction, Maryland
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays through Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesdays