Decoding the Light in the Darkness
When I was looking toward this week, I didn't expect that I would be visiting a museum dedicated to national security and cryptology that I had written about more than ten years ago, attending a funeral for one of my favorite uncles or returning to New York to see a group of people that I had not seen since a wedding 16 years ago in Virginia or sitting at the beside of one of them in a Christian Science nursing home, where the only medicine on the menu is a healthy dose of prayer.
I was actually looking forward to a relaxing week of bunkering down with my clients to help them work on their lives, but several unexpected twists and turns transformed the week into an exploration of my own life and history.
I find that sometimes, when I take in too much darkness, its good to turn to the light. I often find it in the brilliance of the most intelligent and creative people around us.
So, after my uncle's funeral in suburban Maryland on Thursday, when my girlfriend asked what I wanted to do, I said, "Visit the National Cryptologic Museum." No doubt, she was confused. And by the look on her face, she was already preparing to suffer. I tried to give her an out, but, she insisted, that if that is what I wanted to do, we'd do it. As we headed up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, I think she was even more surprised when I told her to get off on the exit
with the entrance to the National Security Agency and to take it onto their Fort Meade compound. We took a left in front of the massive operations building and visitor's center and on a side road, passed a gas station and into the parking lot of an old hotel. I think she had caught on to where we already, but there was no question once our tour guide, a witty and bright retiree referred to the "big grey building next door" without naming the place or the agency.
"When he mentions the building next door," she said, "Is he talking about the NSA?"
Yup. He was. It's a place I had not been to since 1997, when I was a cub reporter interested in
finding stories that others could not find and fascinated by the smarts of others. It was telling to me that following the funeral of my uncle, I
found comfort in a one-story hotel-turned-museum a stone's throw from some of the country's brightest mathematicians, linguists, physicists and computer scientists.
This journey started last weekend, with, oddly, enough, psychopaths. A few weeks before I was in the office of a psychologist who is a friend talking about a mutual acquaintance of ours whose personality and actions I was having a hard time getting my head around. My friend started to lay it all out for me, in clinica
l and psychoanalytic terms, and then he stopped himself, turned to his shelf and handed me a copy of "Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us." The title of the book, by Richard Hare, PhD., a prominent researcher, said it all, but, I, of course, decided to read the thing.
Somewhere past reading about the differences between the psychotic and the psychopathy and the sadists, I decided that I had enough of the darkness and turned to my version of the light --- "The Shadow Factory" and "Body of Secrets," two books about the National Security Agency (NSA), the home of the nations codemakers, codebreakers, eavesdroppers, data miners and computer network warriors. These are the folks who used complicated mathematics and machines to break German codes during World War II, use submarines to tap underwater Soviet communication lines during the Cold War, the people who died during the Six-Day War in 1967 on the U.S.S. Liberty. They manned listening posts near the Artic and in the mountains on the Caspian Sea, were captured and killed on missions and run the world's most technological advanced and powerful group of supercomputers.
As I was reading the "Body of Secrets," I came across a quotation from an unnamed University of Maryland administrator who was discussing a National Security Agency laboratory on campus. "We don't know what they do there," James Bamford, the author of "Body of Secrets," quoted the administrator as saying. The quotation seemed familiar. And, indeed, it should have been. I checked the author's notes in the back of the book and the quote came from a 1997 article I had written about a National Security Agency laboratory I had tripped across on campus.
My interest in the National Security Agency was academic. More precisely, when I was at the University of Maryland back in 1996, I became interested in their academic research. It all started because of an off-handed comment made by a student I knew who volunteered with the University of Maryland campus police. He mentioned that there was a locked metal box on a wall in the main police station and it held a key to a building on campus, and that, in the event that an alarm went off in the building, the police were supposed to call a number, get a supervisor to open the box and then respond with extreme caution. The building was tucked behind Veterinary facilities and called the Laboratory for Physical Sciences. Given what I heard from the student, I had a feeling that they were doing something more than studying rock formations and agrophsyics.
So, I followed the thread. The laboratory was not in the campus phone directory, but it was indeed there. A white building with locked doors and an American flag in the lobby. There were two white vans with United States government tags in the parking lot. A little reporting later and it became clear that when that telephone call was made at the campus police station the person at the receiving end of a chain of calls was at the National Security Agency.
After a little digging, it became clear that the University of Maryland had a long, but little-known history with the agency. I found an obscure reference to a Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency run laboratory in College Park that designed spy equipment, like real-life looking fake birds that were really surveillance devices and antennas that could be hidden in umbrellas (the search for that lab was a bust. They had long since moved to another location).
I wrote a piece about the Laboratory for Physical Sciences for The Washington Post ("Spy Agency Toils Quietly On Campus; NSA Doesn't Say Much About Its Lab at U-Md."). Despite, the headline, the agency did say a lot about the laboratory. They refused to discuss the application of the technologies developed at the lab, but they did discuss much of what they were researching (from reducing supercomputers to the size of 6x6 inch boxes using diamonds instead of copper and silver for head conduction with microchips to creating computer disks thinner than strands of hair). The agency made researchers, the director of the laboratory and a spokesman for the agency, available and let them talk on the record, and the university gave me access to several senior officials). The agency once referred to not-so jokingly by employees as standing for "No Such Agency" and "Never Stay Anything" was having a bit of a coming out of the closest in the 1990s. Budget cuts were hitting defense and intelligence agencies hard, and the agency was looking to tout much of what it had down for the country, from its role in cracking communication ciphers during the Cold War to development of the first large-scale computer, the first solid-state computer and storage devices that lead to the creation of the first tape cassette.
Pointing out how much the National Security Agency had changed over the years, my NSA handler, a charming public affairs specialist named Patrick Weadon, turned me on to museum -- the first among any of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies -- that had be opened in a converted hotel on the agency's campus in nearby Fort Meade. Later that year, I wrote one of my favorite stories for The Boston Globe, about the National Security Agency's National Cryptologic Museum.
The Boston Globe, September 8, 1997, Page A7Cross Country JournalJayson T. BlairBetter Classify this museum as crypticFORT MEADE, Md. -- There were no road signs identifying this massive complex until 1989, even though about 20,000 people work here daily. And the National Security Agency will not say much about the collection of antennas, microwave dishes and large golf ball-shaped objects on its installation Employees still can't tell people, including their families, what they do at work.The executive order that creates the agency was classified, and for years it was a federal crime even to say the agency existed. Next to the NSA, the CIA looks like a publicity hound.
As much as I found the secrecy intriguing, what really amazed me was that I found inside the
museum. These were a collection of some of the most brilliant, hard-working people that America had to offer. The scandals that have enveloped the agency over questionable and illegal eavesdropping aside, the purity of their creativity and ingenuity -- if not their extroversion -- was amazing.
The history of an agency that chronicled the cipher that Thomas Jefferson used to encrypt messages, code-making and -breaking during the Civil War through flag wavers, during World War II through Native Americans, through U2 planes, submarines and massive Cray computers during the Cold War. They had added a new one -- called Frostburg -- that was a futuristic black supercomputer with blinking red lights made by the Thinking Machine Corporation. Back in 1997, it was operating across the street, storing secrets and processing 65 billion complex calculations per minute.
I felt an enormous since of energy during our several-hour tour of the museum, and my skeptical companion was sold on the experience, primarily because of our engaging tour guide. As I was in the gift shop (yes, they have one), buying a NSA-branded rubix cube for my desk so I could always remember who is listening (wink, wink), she came in to tell me that her grandmother, who had fallen earlier in the day at her home in New York, had taken a turn for the worse and that we needed to head up there as soon as possible. We returned home, packed our bags, got some sleep and headed up to New York where we were met by her mother and father, her sister, aunts, uncles and more cousins than you could shake a stick at. I had not seen most of them, including her grandmother, since 1994 at a wedding in Virginia. It was a very different time for me and a very different place. I had yet to write my first article for a professional newspaper.
Over the next two days, we sat vigil at a Christian Science nursing home (Christian Scientists do not use traditional medicine, and instead focus on prayer as a means to healing), watched and played with the kids, read Bible verses to her grandmother and watched as relatives who had not seen each other in some time came together in common purpose. As her grandmother seemed to show some signs of improvement, it was nice to watch all the reconnection. The week was as unplanned for me as it was for everyone else in the entourage, but I am sure, they all found light, as I did, in the darkness. It's surprising the places you can find it.