Out of America: Big brother looks on as old spies come in from the cold

FORT MEADE, Maryland - Most museums do not come surrounded by a 10ft meshed wire fence with a small entrance door that makes a visitor feel like a thief. Most bother to inform the press when they open. Most would choose a site more imposing than a converted motel tucked away behind a filling station, just off the old main road from Washington to Baltimore. But like the dog that walks on its hind legs, the real miracle is that this particular museum exists at all. It belongs to the National Security Agency.

A decade ago, unless you were an intelligence buff, you would not have heard of the NSA. America is more grown-up than Britain about its spies - it has never tried to conceal the existence of the CIA, its whereabouts, and the names of the people who run it. But from the outset the NSA was different; it was America's unacknowledged eyes and ears in every cranny of the globe, collecting and decoding everybody's secrets.

'Gentlemen do not read each other's mail,' observed Henry Stimson, Secretary of War under Roosevelt and Truman. But governments are bounders, especially those with Washington's ability to steam open letters. During the Cold War, the NSA was the great unmentionable. Even GCHQ Cheltenham was but a waystation en route to Fort Meade.

President Truman created the NSA in October 1952 with an executive order whose text has never been published; indeed, the very code word stamped upon the order is classified. Seconded Defense Department personnel, the joke ran for years, worked for 'No Such Agency'. The identity of its director was a secret. Today the Soviet Union is no more, and even the NSA must nod towards glasnost. The agency, complete with phone number and name of a 'public affairs' officer, is now listed in government handbooks. In the museum, which opened its doors six months ago, hangs a portrait of Vice-Admiral John McConnell, NSA director since 1992.

But that is all you will glean. A few hundred yards away stands the NSA proper, a squat fortress of reflecting glass, set in a forest of outbuildings, satellite dishes and radio masts, sealed off by a wall of barbed wire and who knows what else. Some 20,000 people work at the complex. But the NSA's share of the estimated dollars 30bn ( pounds 20bn) annual US intelligence budget is a mystery (though sleuths have deduced it is the largest single component). Scrutiny reaches no further than the Pentagon, NSA's parent and protector from prying souls in Congress. The museum, focused on yesterday's foes, may be as unrevealing of the present as the real NSA alongside. But at least you can get inside. And it's fun.

The most fascinating exhibit is of Enigma, the German encrypting machine whose unlocking by the Poles, British and Americans shortened the Second World War. There are almost a dozen machines on display and you can encode your name on one.

An NSA brochure (each page marked 'unclassified') explains the standard Enigma, barely a foot square, 'generated the following number of coding positions: 5,172,165,503,971,832,752,302,775, 832,450,732,675 (and then 51 zeroes)'. But Enigma would be a mere morsel for modern NSA computers, the most advanced in existence, which crunch the raw data vacuum-cleaned by its satellites, sensors and other eavesdropping devices around the clock, from foe and friend alike.

Of course, when the adversary was a superpower, there were also setbacks. In a smaller section devoted to the Soviet Union, you can inspect the famous wooden replica of the Seal of the United States given by Soviet schoolchildren to the US embassy in Moscow in the late 1940s, and which briefly adorned the ambassador's office until it was found to be bugged. For NSA scriptwriters, the episode merely bears out Thomas Jefferson's dictum that 'the price of liberty is eternal vigilance'. But as so often in espionage, this is a red herring. These days, the eavesdropping is done by the NSA. Let others be vigilant - if they can.

In fact, the most relevant warning contained in this unlikely gallery of relics in suburban Maryland is a US government propaganda poster from the Second World War. 'The enemy is listening,' it warns. 'Keep it to yourself.' Half a century later, the first part might equally be the watchwords of Saddam Hussein, Kim Il Sung, or the generals in Port-au-Prince, or of Western economic competitors trying to steal a march on the US. As for the second, well, if you keep off the phone, and don't leave anything on the lawn for a satellite to see, you might have a chance. But probably not.

For some reason the museum has a visitors' book, which like most visitors' books asks for your address. Coming from the NSA that's some cheek, I thought. Defiantly, I left the space blank. As a futile gesture it takes some beating.

News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete tomorrow
News
Kim Jong Un gives field guidance during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167
newsSouth Korean reports suggest rumours of a coup were unfounded
Arts and Entertainment
You could be in the Glastonbury crowd next summer if you follow our tips for bagging tickets this week
music
Life and Style
It is believed that historically rising rates of alcohol consumption have contributed to the increase
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people
News
Piers Morgan tells Scots they might not have to suffer living on the same island as him if they vote ‘No’ to Scottish Independence
peopleBroadcaster has a new role bringing 'the big stories that matter' to US
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie performs during her Kiss Me Once tour
musicReview: 26 years on from her first single, the pop princess tries just a bit too hard at London's O2
Life and Style
Moves to regulate e-cigarettes and similar products as medicines come amid increasing evidence of their effectiveness
healthHuge anti-smoking campaign kicks off on Wednesday
Life and Style
fashionEveryone, apparently
Voices
The erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey has already been blamed for a rise in the number of callouts to the fire brigade for people trapped in handcuffs
voicesJustine Elyot: Since Fifty Shades there's no need to be secretive about it — everyone's at it
Arts and Entertainment
A new Banksy entitled 'Art Buff' has appeared in Folkestone, Kent
art
Arts and Entertainment
Shia LaBeouf is one of Brad Pitt's favourite actors in the world ever, apparently
filmsAn 'eccentric' choice, certainly
Life and Style
An Internet security expert has warned that voice recognition technology needs to be more secure
techExperts warn hackers could control our homes or spend our money simply by speaking
Extras
indybest
News
peopleBenjamin Netanyahu trolled by group promoting two-state solution
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

1st Line Service Desk Analyst

£27000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client who are...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Huxley Associates are currentl...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style