Decoding the NSA
The National Security Agency in Ft. Meade is America’s spy factory. It is bigger, more powerful, and more secretive than the CIA. But without the Cold War, it has public relations problems.

       David Kahn is nervous. Abruptly, he swerves into the right-hand lane, cutting off the car behind us. The driver lays on his horn. “I never did anything like that before,” he says quietly. His voice reveals a hint of surprise coupled with excitement, maybe even disbelief at what he’s doing here.

       It’s not the Formula One move he just made that’s making his heart beat faster--later on, he calmly lets another driver cut in front of him on the highway between Baltimore and Washington. No, the reason is me: I’m holding my miniature camera against the window of the car.

       I press the button five times. Without holding the camera at eye level, I take pictures of four unassuming buildings, each a giant box made of glass, concrete, and steel. The glass is opaque, reflective black, and reminds you of the impenetrably dark sunglasses that are so popular in the business that takes place inside these buildings: spying. But I don’t bring up the analogy of the sunglasses. Kahn would just laugh.

       “If anyone sees us, you’ll lose that film. I can guarantee you that,” he says. A moment later, he adds, “And I’ll get in trouble, too.” That’s a possibility he doesn’t take lightly: at the time of our first meeting in November 1995, David Kahn was working part-time for the National Security Agency (NSA), the largest and most powerful secret intelligence agency in North America. The NSA also is the most covert: for decades, most Americans had no idea what the acronym stood for. Those that did often confused its mission with that of the National Security Council, which advises the U.S. President on domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to national security.

       The presidential directive that brought the NSA to life, signed by Harry Truman, remained classified for decades. Truman intentionally picked Nov. 4, 1952--Election Day--to found the agency, confident that the news would get lost in the flurry of election returns. He was right. Virtually unnoticed, the NSA quickly grew to become the largest intelligence agency in the country.

       The NSA is like a giant vacuum cleaner that sucks up every form of electronic communication, from telephone conversations to faxes and e-mails. The agency can perhaps best be described as a child’s impression of God: someone who sits above the clouds and listens to every word written or spoken around the world. By the end of the 1960s, the NSA had a monopoly on everything to do with cryptology--the encoding and decoding of secret writing.

       Then along came David Kahn. A historian and nonfiction author, Kahn’s relationship with the NSA mirrors the agency’s own troubled relationship with the written and printed word. No other governmental agency in the U.S. prints as many pages as the NSA, nor has as many problems getting rid of confidential documents, files, and meeting minutes. And no other U.S. agency has put more effort--largely for naught--into suppressing and censoring books that aren’t to its liking.

       The headquarters of the NSA, at Maryland’s Fort Meade, is like a small town unto itself, with a bakery, barber shop, a church--and its own print shop. A bronze-colored building, referred to simply as Building S, houses the print shop, which is one of the largest and most modern printing operations in the U.S. Hundreds of people work here, printing millions of pages every year.

       How about a tour through the print shop, a reporter asks. A spokesperson for the NSA politely takes my request over the telephone, but turns me down a few days later, without explanation. What types of presses print what kinds of documents? That’s classified, too. Which is exactly why the NSA has its own print shop: Orders to print textbooks about deciphering diplomatic codes, files on military activities and high-ranking politicians, and documentation of meetings between business leaders and heads of state cannot be farmed out to the neighborhood Kinko’s.

       Couriers transport confidential files from Fort Meade to Washington every day. In a single year, the NSA purchased 700 truckloads of paper for $53,000. Cavernous warehouses are stacked to the ceiling with printed documents.

       But finding a way to store mountains of unused paper is a piece of cake compared to figuring out what to do with documents after they have been read, digested, and shredded. The NSA generates about 40 metric tons of waste paper every day. The sheer quantity caused the NSA headaches for years. The material was compacted, packed, and shipped off to an incinerator--after the NSA sent the employees home for 24 hours so its own people could carry out the dirty work of disposing of covert cellulose. The agency wanted to ensure that security would be tight in case a single sliver of paper got loose with someone’s name on it.

       However, the NSA was unable to find a trash incineration company that was consistently willing to turn its facility over to the NSA for a day, or that was interested in burning the NSA!s top secret by-products. Classified documents began to stack up at Fort Meade. Eventually, the NSA launched project “White Elephant”: building its own incinerator. When the facility was finally completed, NSA officials discovered to their horror that charred, still-legible slivers of paper were floating into the sky and fluttering to the ground below. Security guards were sent running around the compound, snatching up the tiny flakes like children catching fireflies.

       A thorn in the side of the NSA. For our interview, Kahn selects a restaurant without windows, located on a railway line near the NSA compound. He talks about his definitive anthology of codebreaking, which was recently updated and re-released. The original version of his book, published in 1967, was in the running for a Pulitzer Prize nomination when two philosophers garnered the majority of votes. No one knew quite what to do with cryptology in the 1960s.

       Long before he introduced the world to the NSA, Kahn, a passionate amateur cryptologist, had become a particular thorn in the side of the agency. Kahn was 31 years old and an editor at Newsday, a New York paper, when he was contracted by a publishing house to write a compendium of cryptology--a field on which the government’s wiretapping specialists thought they owned a monopoly. Kahn went right to work and composed a massive, 1,161-page work called The Codebreakers. One chapter was devoted exclusively to the NSA, an agency no one had heard of at the time.

       When the NSA got wind of his intentions, the agency directors tried every avenue they could to halt the book’s publication. They failed. So their next tactic was to spread rumors: Kahn doesn’t know what he’s talking about, they said; his research is unreliable, etc. None of this would have happened, of course, if Kahn had accepted the job that the NSA offered him--although the agency could have halted publication of the book as soon as he signed the employment agreement.

       The NSA was most anxious about the passages in which Kahn described how the agency had even spied on England, the U.S.’s closest ally. Kahn finally agreed to delete the passages. The directors at the NSA were relieved. But the spymasters failed to notice that Kahn had included all the important information in the footnotes, which he did not delete. The Codebreakers is still the one book that secret intelligence agencies of other countries assign to their new students to help them understand the all-powerful NSA.

       Public relations for the NSA. The New York Times calls Kahn the world’s leading historian in cryptology. His book became a bestseller, and Kahn, who seemed to have an inside scoop on everything, became an enigmatic figure, shrouded in mystery. Does this Kahn even exist, NSA staffers would ask? Or is that a pseudonym for a defector? When they finally meet a man in the NSA cafeteria who claims he’s David Kahn, the reaction is always the same: a soft, respectful groan of acknowledgement, coupled with a look of astonishment that seems to say: I can’t believe I’m looking at you.

       Kahn owes his presence here to the fact that the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. Overnight, the existence of secret intelligence agencies like NSA appeared threatened. The NSA believed it had to take a more public stance in order to survive. Kahn suddenly became important, because he was able to explain to the public the importance of national security (and to justify and ensure the continued funding of the NSA).

       An older gentleman, slight of build and with an endearing smile, Kahn looks like he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Years ago, this man personally struck terror and fear into the hearts of the leaders of the most powerful secret intelligence agency in the world. Kahn survived their attacks. And now, they have asked him to help them. David Kahn’s assignment is to publicize the NSA. As a visiting historian, he is writing a book about the first head of the Armed Forces Security Agency, the predecessor to the NSA. It’s slated to be the first book the NSA will make available to the public.

       Lest anyone gets too carried away with this new policy of openness, however, the publication of the book shows that old ways die hard at NSA. A spokesperson for the NSA recently confirmed that his book has not yet been released for publication: the spy agency still has a couple of details to iron out with the author. In any event, the NSA seems determined not to make the same mistake twice: this time, the agency owns the publishing rights to the book.

Thomas Schuler is a writer based in Berlin, Germany. This article is reprinted, with permission, from issue No. 7/99 B 46089 of Print Process, a publication of Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG. This international trade publication is available on the Internet at

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This story was published on May 3, 2000.