Special Editions 3.27.23
Ep 52 | 3.27.23

An introduction to the National Cryptologic Museum.


Rick Howard: Hey, everybody. Rick here. Have I got a special treat for you. A couple of weeks ago, I got invited to visit the U.S. National Cryptologic Museum just outside the National Security Agency's headquarters in Maryland and meet the director, Dr. Vince Houghton. So after the obligatory Denny's breakfast with sound engineer Tre Hester and producer Liz Irvin, the three of us went up to the museum to get a tour and have a discussion with Dr. Houghton about the exciting new exhibits that he and his team have installed while the rest of us were in COVID lockdown. Enjoy.

Vince Houghton: Hi. My name is Vince Houghton. I'm the director of the National Cryptologic Museum. I've been here since October of 2020. Prior to that, I came from the International Spy Museum, where I was a historian and curator. I was there for 6 1/2 years. Still have the longest tenure as the... 

Rick Howard: (Laughter). 

Vince Houghton: ...Historian and curator there. And I was intimately involved in the planning for everything with the move that Spy Museum made from downtown D.C. to its current location in L'Enfant Plaza. 

Rick Howard: So let's talk about the COVID years - right? - because you had an opportunity to change things. What was all that about? 

Vince Houghton: Well, unlike everyone else, we had to work during COVID. I mean, everyone worked during COVID. We had to come in during COVID, and we took advantage of it. I think that one of the things museums never get a chance to do is take a pause and take a break because you've had visitors going through all day. And visitor services is the No. 1 mission. But we didn't have any, right? And this museum hadn't really been reimagined since it opened in the 1990s. So we took the opportunity to do that. I mean, it was a combination of COVID with new leadership, with new ideas about the direction this museum was going. And so we did everything. If you haven't been here and you've been to the pre-COVID museum, you'll be amazed at how different it is. We changed every exhibit, put new artifacts on display, took old artifacts off display. As far as the - kind of how the museum looks, there's new floors, new ceilings, new walls, new everything. We knocked down walls. We built other walls. We... 

Rick Howard: We spared no expense. OK. 

Vince Houghton: Well, no expenses, though, you know, we made a lot of trips to Home Depot. 

Rick Howard: (Laughter). 

Vince Houghton: I'm very good at demo. Other people can build stuff. I can break stuff down... 

Rick Howard: Yeah. Yeah. 

Vince Houghton: ...Pretty well. And we did a lot of that. We also - opportunity to do a full inventory for the very first time of all of our assets. We have a warehouse. NSA runs a warehouse down the road a bit that had thousands of artifacts in it. And we say this all the time, and - but it's true in this case. It looked like the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." It's a government warehouse, floor-to-ceiling crates. Some of them hadn't been opened in 50 years. Some of them had been just sealed up right after World War II or after Korea, after NSA was formed in 1952 and... 

Rick Howard: Never really looked at? 

Vince Houghton: ...Never looked at again. 

Rick Howard: Really? Yeah. 

Vince Houghton: And, you know, for us, that was really neat. I mean, as a historian... 

Rick Howard: Yeah. 

Vince Houghton: ...I was nerding out a little bit. 

Rick Howard: Yeah. 

Vince Houghton: In many cases, though, it was frustrating because people put stuff in there without the intent of it being seen in a museum later on. So the information they gave us was, like, German cipher machine, World War II, and that was it. And unless it's an Enigma or something similar, we had to do a lot of research to figure out what a lot of this stuff was. Fortunately, we had the time to do that, too. And we have a great archive here. We have the Center for Cryptologic History here. So we're able to kind of team effort, figure out what a lot of this stuff was that no one had ever really looked at before. 

Rick Howard: And decide if you can talk about it - right? - 'cause... 

Vince Houghton: Right... 

Rick Howard: Yeah. 

Vince Houghton: ...A lot of it we had to say, OK, now, I know this is in unclassified storage, but we didn't know what it was. Now that we do... 

Rick Howard: Yeah. 

Vince Houghton: ...Is there a kind of reevaluation of the classification level? And there was, in some cases. We also have a classified storage area, which - stuff hadn't been looked at in 60 years. We're like, look. This was put in classified in 1955. Is it still classified? And that was a great experience, also, because we were able to say, if it was classified in 1955 and now isn't, then we can present to the public and legitimately say, you are the first people to ever see this... 

Rick Howard: Right. Yeah. 

Vince Houghton: ...Except for the guys that put it in the crate back... 

Rick Howard: It's exciting, yeah. 

Vince Houghton: Yeah. And it's really cool, as... 

Rick Howard: Yeah. 

Vince Houghton: You know, you don't tend to get that very often in a museum where - you know, and that's the good and the bad part about working for NSA - is that we are in a position to show people something for the very first time. That's true for one of the new exhibit areas that we have in this museum that we'll certainly - I definitely will talk about. That was in the summer before we opened, and we opened in October of 2022 - so just a couple months ago. The summer before we opened, that hadn't been outside of the NSA headquarters, ever. And we finally got it over here a couple of months before we opened. And so the first groups that went through the museum were the first eyes to see some of these artifacts, ever, except for the people that worked on them at NSA. 

Rick Howard: Well, let's talk about some of the mechanics a little bit, 'cause you were mentioning you had offsite storage, both classified and unclassified. I know the Smithsonian has big facilities today, but you guys are not associated together. You're not working together on this, though. This is your own... 

Vince Houghton: Yeah, no, we partner with the Smithsonian on a lot... 

Rick Howard: Yeah. Yeah. 

Vince Houghton: ...Of things, but we're completely different entities. We're under - NSA, for those that don't know, we have two bosses - one in the Department of Defense and one of the office of the Director of National Intelligence and not the Smithsonian, right? So we are NSA employees, everyone who works here. Everyone who works here is cleared, like every other NSA employee, even though we work in a completely unclassified environment. I think one of the advantages of that is that we are able to see what's coming down the pipeline. So I can interact with the classified artifacts - especially the ones that might be unclassified at some point soon - so we can start planning exhibits. So the minute something is unclassified, I can put it on display and say for the first time ever, come see this. And that's kind of a really interesting dynamic that I think you don't see other places. No, but our warehouse is NSA-controlled. It's not just our stuff. There's other things there, as well. 

Rick Howard: Sure. 

Vince Houghton: And we took it from - I believe we had something close to 8,000 artifacts, which is nothing. I mean, the Smithsonian has 800,000. 

Rick Howard: Yeah. 

Vince Houghton: And pared it down, which is - usually don't do, but we pared it down because some of these crates just had a bunch of power cords in them that had no machines they... 

Rick Howard: Like my house. 

Vince Houghton: ...Went to. 

Rick Howard: Yeah (laughter). 

Vince Houghton: Yeah. Or, you know, chairs that someone said, the museum will want this. I'm like, it's just a desk chair. Why would - it's not, like, a desk chair that some director sat in. It was just a desk chair. So we pared it down to about 5,000, which was much more manageable. And those 5,000 artifacts are a combination of things that are in the museum right now, that one day might be in the museum, but also things that we loan out. I think that, you know, people may not realize how many artifacts we have loaned out other places. There are almost 40 institutions around the country that have our artifacts. Basically, if you go on a trip somewhere, and you go to a museum, and there's an Enigma in that museum, it probably is my Enigma. It's one of the ways we get our names out there, and it's one of the ways that we can kind of fulfill the mission of educating the public about cryptologic history. 

Rick Howard: So you just don't have to come here. You can go to your local museum, let's say, and see something. 

Vince Houghton: Yeah, if you're near a presidential library because there's a lot of stuff we send to presidential libraries. We do that for, again, for several reasons. One is they get - it's advertising for us, letting people know we exist. But also it's - our mission first and foremost is not to get people to want to join the NSA. It's to get people to learn about the history of cryptology. 

Rick Howard: Sure. 

Rick Howard: Come right back. 

Rick Howard: Talk to me about this building because we - the way we described it, pulling up here, it feels like it's an old 1960s schoolhouse. Is that... 

Vince Houghton: You're almost right. 

Rick Howard: Yeah. 

Vince Houghton: It's an old 1960s motel. 

Rick Howard: Motel. 

Vince Houghton: Yeah. 

Rick Howard: Yeah. That's... 

Vince Houghton: So this was the Colony Seven Motel. Where we're sitting right now was, like, the main building. And then the parking lot in the back would have been the high-rise motel rooms. Those were all knocked down for the parking lot. And then this main building was changed into what is now the museum. Essentially, this was the motel right outside the gate at NSA where people would come if they were being recruited, or if they were visiting, they could keep them nearby. When the motel was going to be sold, NSA snatched it up for a number of reasons. One is they wanted the property, but two is they're not going to let somebody else buy the motel right next to NSA... 

Rick Howard: (Laughter) Right. Hmm, I wonder why. I can't imagine... 

Vince Houghton: ...With high-rise buildings looking down into the parking lot. In the 1990s, the director at the time decided it'd be a really good place to have a small museum. And really the first museum was just, like, a hallway with some artifacts in it. And then in 1995 it opened to the public, and it was a little bit more to it. It's been built upon over the last couple of decades to what it was pre-COVID. And I loved this museum. I came here all the time because of my background. So when the job opened up, I kind of jumped at it because I had ideas. There's such great bones to this museum. And it wasn't coming in and trying to improve it. It was coming in and trying to modernize it more than anything, right? Because it just hadn't been done in so long. 

Rick Howard: So how do you get to this part in your career? How do you get to be a museum curator for the NSA? What is that crooked path? 

Vince Houghton: It's very crooked. 

Rick Howard: (Laughter). 

Vince Houghton: It's extremely crooked. I started at the University of Texas as an undergrad. I changed majors five times. I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I did the one mature thing in my life and said, I'm going to stop wasting my parents' money, and I'm going to stop going to school, join the Army and figure out life. When I was in the Army - a lot of hurry up and wait, a lot of downtime. In the Balkans, we had this little library where I just - I read every book in there, and I read a couple of history books and I got hooked. When I got out of the military, where my bio allows me to say, I worked with both civilian and military intelligence agencies in multiple capacities. I went to grad school, got my PhD and my masters along the way with the intent of doing something focused on nuclear weapons, which I've written two books on now. And my intent was to go into the community. 

Vince Houghton: I had a conversation with the Department of Energy, which has a very small but pretty awesome intelligence agency focused on mainly counterintelligence for nuclear facilities around the country, whether it's a lab like Los Alamos or Livermore. So there's counterintelligence aspects within DOE. That was my intent, and actually I'd gotten pretty far in the process. My predecessor at the Spy Museum, Mark Stout, who was the historian and curator before me, was leaving around that same time. And so I just said, you know, let me go talk to them. Let me go kind of - you know, I didn't - I had no intention of taking the job at the Spy Museum - none whatsoever. 

Rick Howard: Might be a fun - just to go see what they're doing kind of thing. 

Vince Houghton: Just a chat, right? Just, you know, why not? So I had nothing to do that day. So I went in and chatted. And I met with the former executive director, Peter Earnest, who spent 36 years at CIA - operations guy, great, great guy - and then my soon-to-be boss, who was the head of all content from the museum. And they - it was an interview. And I was so laid back because I had no intention whatsoever of working there that it was probably the weirdest interview they'd ever had. The first question my future boss asked me was, what do you love about museums? And my answer was, I don't really like museums. They bore me. And she was like, what? Why are you here? And I clarified it a little bit, like, look, there's museums I love. Like, I grew up in Miami, but I was born in D.C. So we went up here - came up here all the time because their friends were still up here. So I went to Air and Space a hundred times as a kid. I love the U.S. History Museum. I love museums that have the things. Like, the museums, the regional ones, that have, like, here's an example of a something or other - that bores me. But if I can see Apollo 11, I'm in. 

Vince Houghton: So that's kind of my answer, was like, I don't really like museums all that much. I'm not a museum person, but there are certain museums I do like. I kind of explain it and then they drop the bomb on me that - anyone who knows me, I - a kind word is ambitious. An unkind word is egotistical. And they said, you know what? We're redesigning the whole museum. We're actually going to move. We're going to spend a lot of money, and we're going to create a brand-new Spy Museum. And the person who comes in and does this job will have a big say in the content and the artifacts and the exhibits in the new museum. Like, that was - you could not say anything that was more tantalizing to me than the chance to design the new Spy Museum. So I took the job and spent 6 1/2 years there working on creating what is now there in L'Enfant Plaza. And then I discovered after we opened that I really love the idea of designing and building a museum. The day-to-day operations of it kind of bored me a little bit. So I was getting a little bit antsy when this job popped open. And it was one of these things where - serendipitous timing, you know. 

Vince Houghton: Patrick Weadon, who had been the longtime curator here at the museum, was retiring. There was an open spot to work at NSA, which I never, ever in a million years imagined I would be doing. And I said, let me go talk to them. It was another one of those let me go talk to them things. And the idea was that one day there's going to be a new building. It's going to need to get designed. In the meantime, we're in the middle of COVID right now, so there's a lot of opportunity to do some cool stuff. And I said, OK, let's do this. And what's really interesting is there's a joint leadership here at the museum that is like a dream come true for someone like me because I have a co-leader. She's called the chief of the museum. So she does all the bureaucratic stuff. You know, like, most museum directors, half their job, if not more than half, is, like, personnel issues or... 

Rick Howard: Yeah. 

Vince Houghton: ...You know, budget - running the nuts and bolts. 

Rick Howard: Yeah. 

Vince Houghton: I don't do any of that stuff. Basically, I'm the creative team. Like, I sit there thinking about new exhibits. I sit around thinking about programming and what cool stuff we can do, and I don't have to worry about the other end of things, which - there's no better situation for someone like me, who - my staff will tell you, when we were thinking about designing this museum, I sat in the middle of the floor and just kind of looked around and said - and imagined things in my head about where things could go and what we could put places. It looked like I was taking a nap in the middle of the floor, and then I'd stand up and be like, give me some paper. Let me write this down. So there's - somewhere back in a drawer, there's a bunch of drawings. I'm not very good at it. So there's a bunch of, like - looks like a third-grader did a bunch of drawings in the museum. I'm like, we can put this here. We can put this here, put this here. And then I'd hand it to a real designer and say, can you make something out of this? And they did. 

Rick Howard: So we're getting ready to take a tour here. What is the theme that we're going to see here currently? Is there a thread that kind of walks everything through? or... 

Vince Houghton: It's not a chronological thread. So there's - we decided to design this to where you didn't have to go in order, like a linear path, for the museum. I think the big theme is what I call the holy trinity of artifacts, and that is artifacts that are the first of something, so serial number zero or the prototype; artifacts that are the only one of something, so maybe they made a thousand of them, and there's only one left, and we've got it; or artifacts that were used by an individual, very specific person or in a specific historical event. My goal is to get to 100% of our artifacts on display fall within one or more of those three categories. Right now, we're at about 80%. So the thread is - you're seeing, in every direction you look, things you can only see here. We're in Washington, D.C., area. We're competing for eyes, right? We're competing with the Smithsonians, with the Spy Museum, with all the great stuff you can do in Washington, D.C. You've got to make a point to come up here. It's a little bit of a drive. It's not terrible, but, you know, it's not like walking along the Mall and popping... 

Rick Howard: Right. 

Vince Houghton: ...Into one of the museums. So how do we draw people here? We draw people here with the assets that we have that no one else does. 

Rick Howard: So do you have a favorite of each of those categories? I know it's hard to say, these are my babies, but... 

Vince Houghton: So my baby is one of the things that we brought in - I even alluded to this already - are things that, until we opened, most of the public didn't know NSA actually did, and that's nuclear command and control. When I got here, after a little while of kind of figuring out what our assets were, we got a phone call from what we call NC2, Nuclear Command and Control, and they said, hey, look; all of our stuff is now obsolete. So a whole generation of equipment that we used is no longer secret, or it's going to be declassified very soon. Would you want it for the museum? And I'm like, yeah, of course. I'm like, what are we talking about here? Well, we're talking about the DEC Alpha, and, well, the DEC Alpha made the nuclear codes. I'm like, what do you mean the nuclear codes? Do you mean the the nuclear codes? And, like, oh, yeah, the the nuclear codes. 

Vince Houghton: So now we have the servers in the museum that created the nuclear codes for the president from the 1980s all the way up through just a couple years ago. And I'm like, oh, that's awesome. That's great. And like, but the - wait. There's more. We're also giving you the MP37. I'm like, well, what the hell is the MP37? Well, it's a nine-piece machine. I'm like, we don't want all nine pieces. Like, all right, well, you can take two of them or whatever. So there's two on display. It's the machine that made the biscuit. And the biscuit is kind of the nickname for the sealed authentication system. So these are the cards that go inside the nuclear submarines, the missile silos, the bombers that, in the movies... 

Rick Howard: That we see in all the movies, the... 

Vince Houghton: In the movies - right? - when the president sends the start World War III message, they go to the safe, and one guy opens one safe, and another guy opens the other safe. They pull the card out. They break it. And inside is the authentication code for that message from the president. 

Rick Howard: I just thought that was movie magic. OK (laughter). 

Vince Houghton: It is not movie magic. So we have the actual server and machine that created those from the 1980s all the way up through just a couple years ago. And I'm like, you're giving me these? Like, oh, yeah, we've got a couple other things, too, for you. We've got the encryption system from a Minuteman III nuclear silo. We've got the encryption equipment from kind of what we nicknamed the Looking Glass aircraft. All of those things are now obsolete, and there's no reason you can't have them because there's nothing in them that can give any of our adversaries ideas about how we do things. And, like, that's great. That's awesome. How many people know about this? And they're like, no one. And I'm like, when's the last time someone other than someone at NSA has ever set eyes on this equipment? They're like, never. And actually, most of NSA itself hadn't set eyes... 

Rick Howard: Yeah. 

Vince Houghton: ...Because this is not something that you just kind of wander into as you're walking around the agency. This is behind doors behind doors behind doors. And so even for our workforce, when we put this stuff on display, they were coming over like, we've never seen this. And to me, being a nuke guy, it's one of the coolest things. I mean, it's hard to get the point across to a lot of the visitors that this made the - right? - not some of the nuclear codes or - like, the nuclear codes. And we now have them inside this museum, which... 

Rick Howard: That's awesome. 

Vince Houghton: ...It's cool as it gets. And then, historically, we have some, you know, game-changing artifacts, whether it's the U.S. Navy cryptanalytic bombe, which is a big five-ton machine that is the only remaining version of about 100-plus machines that we made to break - German Navy U-boat four-rotor Enigma that Winston Churchill said shortened World War II by two years. The other hundred-and-so-odd of them were melted down because they were five tons of steel. There's only one remaining, and it's here in the museum. Its importance to history is really hard to overstate. And then we - the one thing we didn't change was the fact that we have two Enigma machines, real, captured German Enigma machines that the visitors can use and actually operate. And they still work. They still light up. They still encrypt messages. They're walking by right now, carrying them in their hand because we're... 

Rick Howard: (Laughter). 

Vince Houghton: We check them to make sure that they're talking to each other because Enigmas, you have to have them at the exact right settings in order for them to communicate. So we want to make sure that they're having - they're in the right settings. So it doesn't - it's not always the case. Those are things that kind of stand out as, like, uber-nerdy for me and really make this museum worth the trip because there's just nowhere else on Earth you can see this stuff.