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A wrong turn at the NSA can bring trouble

A sign stands outside the National Security Administration campus in Fort Meade, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
A sign stands outside the National Security Administration campus in Fort Meade, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)(Patrick Semansky / The Associated Press)

Andy Leimer, dazzled by the sun as he made his way south on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway one day this year, made a wrong turn into the restricted campus of the National Security Agency.

The Hanover man explained his mistake to an NSA Police officer at the entrance checkpoint and expected he'd be told to go on his way. Instead, he says, he was directed to a side lot, where he was surrounded by armed police and interrogated.

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Leimer was charged with driving without a license and his car was impounded. Between paying the impound lot to get his car back and an attorney to get the charges dropped, the ordeal cost him $800.

It could have been worse. Authorities believe the two people who were shot by NSA police last week outside the agency's headquarters on Fort Meade got there by mistake.

The driver, identified by the FBI as 27-year-old Ricky Shawatza Hall of Baltimore, was pronounced dead at the scene. A passenger was shot in the chest and taken to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center; the passenger's identity and condition have not been available.

Authorities have released few details of the incident, but the FBI was quick to rule out terrorism. Police say Hall and the passenger were traveling in an SUV that was reported stolen from a man at a motel in nearby Elkridge shortly before they arrived at the NSA gate off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway Monday morning.

The electronic eavesdropping agency is among the most secretive in the government, and signs at the parkway exit warn unauthorized motorists away.

The NSA says Hall drove past the signs, and did not heed an officer's instructions to turn around. Instead, the agency says, the SUV accelerated toward an NSA Police vehicle, and officers opened fire.

Fort Meade officials say about 1,500 motorists are turned away from other gates on the Army installation in Anne Arundel County each month. The NSA did not respond to questions about how many are denied access at its entrances, but the the agency does seem to be aware of the problem of people taking wrong turns and ending up on its doorstep.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Park Service, which manages that stretch of the parkway, said the spy agency is working with parks officials on getting new signs installed.

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The plan was in place before the shooting, parks spokeswoman Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles said, but designs have not been finalized, and there is no deadline for the project.

Motorists driving south on the parkway, also known as Maryland 295, encounter a brown-and-white sign that reads "NSA" and "EMPLOYEES ONLY."

The exit taken by Hall and Leimer angles right off the parkway. Where the exit diverges from the parkway, there is a similar sign that warns "NSA RESTRICTED ENTRANCE" and a smaller one that reads "PERSON/VEHICLE SUBJECT TO SEARCH."

Signs farther up the ramp warn motorists that they are entering a restricted area, but by then, it's too late to turn back.

Leimer suggested the agency give motorists a place to turn around before they reach the security checkpoint.

"When you take that exit you're kind of shoehorned in there," Leimer said. "I knew long before I got to the gate that I made a mistake.

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"That ramp needs to be reworked so it's safer for the American people."

The parkway is patrolled and monitored by the U.S. Park Police. The Maryland State Police and NSA and Fort Meade security forces also patrol in the area. State police patrol vehicles can often be seen at the exit ramp.

A spokesman for the state police referred all questions to the NSA.

The shooting last Monday brought rare public attention to the NSA Police, which, like most things connected to the agency, is shrouded in secrecy. The NSA did not respond to questions about its officers' training or procedures.

Congress gave the NSA the authority to employ its own security officers shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In a 2012 job posting for officers, the agency advertised a starting salary of $48,000 and described the responsibilities in dramatic terms.

"Qualified individuals are encouraged to apply for these exciting and highly dynamic positions offering unlimited career growth, exceptional training, and the opportunity to serve your country as an employee of one of the most unique and respected Agencies in the Federal government."

Critics have questioned the agency's response to the two people who showed up at the entrance last week. Friends say both Hall and the passenger identified as transgender women. Activists say transgender people have been mistreated by police, and are often wary of officers. And they note they were driving in a stolen SUV. They might simply have panicked.

Mandeep Chhabra, Leimer's attorney, said it's not difficult to imagine the NSA police overreacting.

"Are they bored?" he wondered.

Had Leimer been pulled over anywhere else in the state and found to have an expired lisence, police would have issued a ticket and sent him on his way, Chhabra said.

At the NSA, Leimer said, he spent an hour and half dealing with the police. His car was impounded, a State Trooper left him at a nearby 7-Eleven and he had to call a cab.

"This poor man [was] put through the wringer," Chhabra said.

Harvey Kushner, the director of a homeland security institute at Long Island University, said officers' first priority should be protecting whatever they're charged with guarding.

"The issue is to protect your facility," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's a 94-year-old woman with a bomb or a jihadi who has been trained by ISIS."

Baltimore Sun reporters Pamela Wood and Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

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