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U.S. Has Made ‘Dramatic Change’ in Technology Used for Nuclear Code System


FORT MEADE, Md.—The museum of one of the nation’s most secretive government agencies has recently reopened following a two-year pandemic closure, and among its new exhibits is one that provides a rare window into a technological upgrade to the nation’s nuclear command and control system.

The National Cryptologic Museum located outside Washington, D.C. is now home to several pieces of equipment that were in operation until just a few years ago to generate the codes the president could use to authorize the launch of nuclear weapons. The placement of the retired equipment in the National Security Agency’s museum reveals an upgrade to the classified system that is rarely talked about by government officials.

“We had the opportunity, during this time where we were down for Covid, when the entire country’s nuclear code system went through a dramatic change in our technology,” said museum director Vince Houghton. “And so we have on display the servers and machines that created the nuclear codes for the United States from the 1980s all the way through a couple years ago.”

The unveiling of the retired code-making machinery comes, by coincidence, just weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened nuclear strikes in Ukraine, garnering renewed attention on Cold War era concerns. Those threats prompted President Biden to warn of “the prospect of Armageddon” unseen since the Cuban missile crisis.

The National Security Agency’s National Cryptologic Museum recently reopened following a two-year pandemic closure.

The machinery of nuclear Armageddon, as the upgrade to the nuclear-code system demonstrates, isn’t a thing of the past. Yet the acknowledgment of the recent technology refresh surprised several nuclear and security experts, who said they had no prior indication the code-generating equipment had been overhauled.

“We never, ever, ever, ever get to hear about the process for generating these things,” said nuclear-arms policy expert Jeffrey Lewis at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “I’m still sitting here and thinking, are you guys sure you want to share this?”

It appears the NSA—so notorious for its lack of public information that it used to be jokingly called “no such agency”—has decided that displaying the code-generating system at a public museum poses no threat. The agency referred questions on updates to the system to the Defense Department, which didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The new exhibit “suggests to me that there’s been some dramatic improvements in the capability in what we have today, that nothing’s going to be compromised by showing you something that was used all the way through 2019,” said Larry Pfeiffer, director of the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security at George Mason University.

On display are several pieces of equipment involved in the code generation, including a computer server called the DEC Alpha that generated secret keys a president would use to initiate a nuclear attack, and the MP37 machine that manufactured the physical Sealed Authenticator System cards with nuclear launch codes used to verify orders from Strategic Command to local commanders of nuclear weapons.

A part of the MP37 biscuit maker. U.S. presidents are said to carry a card with nuclear launch codes nicknamed the biscuit.

A DEC Alpha computer server that generated secret keys a president would use to initiate a nuclear attack.

“People have seen this in movies, where the submarine or the nuclear silo or the bomber gets a message to start World War Three,” said Mr. Houghton, a nuclear intelligence scholar who took the helm of the museum in late 2020. “But before they do that, they go into their safe and they pull out a little card that they break to make sure the message is actually from the president.”

The U.S. government has in the past disclosed little information about the cards, though Stephen Schwartz, a specialist in nuclear weapons and a senior fellow at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said the U.S. president carries a card nicknamed the biscuit at all times.

“It’s basically a special laminated card around the size of a credit card sealed inside this plastic case that you crack open,” Mr. Schwartz said.

When President

Ronald Reagan

was shot in 1981, the FBI grabbed his clothes from the operating-room floor of George Washington University Hospital as evidence, sparking a fight with the White House Military Office over the biscuit believed to be among the garments, Mr. Schwartz recalled. President

Jimmy Carter

inadvertently sent his biscuit to a dry cleaner in a suit jacket, and President

Bill Clinton

reportedly lost his biscuit, he added.

The reopening of the NSA museum this month in Fort Meade, Md., coincided with the overhaul of the Central Intelligence Agency’s museum in Langley, Va. That museum is largely closed to the public, instead serving the CIA’s officers, foreign partners and prospective employees.

The ‘Russian Fish’ instrument was used by the Germans during World War II.

Mr. Houghton, the NSA museum director, said staff combed the archives to refresh the historical exhibits. He described the “Russian Fish”—a dark gray steel instrument Germans used during World War II to intercept Russian radio signals spread over nine different frequencies—as “one of our great finds inside of our warehouse.” The Allies captured it from the Germans in 1945.

“We brought it back to the Allied side and started using it to listen in to Soviet communications because they were our new adversary,” Mr. Houghton said.

Other museum highlights include a cipher reel used by the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and a variant of the Enigma coding machine said to have been used by Adolf Hitler and his high command.

One notable omission is any mention of Edward Snowden, the former U.S. intelligence contractor who in 2013 leaked files about the NSA’s domestic and international eavesdropping. Mr. Snowden sought asylum in Russia after flying there in June 2013 and last month was granted citizenship by Mr. Putin.

James Bamford, an author of three books on the NSA, said he thought it was a mistake for the museum not to acknowledge Mr. Snowden. Before Mr. Snowden’s disclosures, “the public had very little knowledge about the enormous extent of NSA’s illegal eavesdropping on U.S. citizens,” Mr. Bamford said.

The B variant Enigma coding machine
A cipher reel used by the Confederate Army during the Civil War.

The B variant Enigma coding machine, and a cipher reel used by the Confederate Army during the Civil War.

Mr. Houghton said he did not mention Mr. Snowden in the redesigned museum because of a continuing Justice Department investigation.

“Even if I could talk about him, I wouldn’t, not because of anything nefarious, but because it’s not history yet,” he said. “We don’t know the end of the story yet.”

The museum’s focus on the NSA’s historical work targeting Russia—rather than more contemporary controversies over surveillance—has turned out to be timely.

Mr. Pfeiffer, who spent more than 30 years at the NSA and CIA, said the war in Ukraine has refocused U.S. attention on Russia.

“I think most people see this Russian threat as a smaller concern than the China threat,” Mr. Pfeiffer said. “But I think there are probably resources being applied to the Russia problem today that two years ago nobody thought would be necessary.”

When he began working at the eavesdropping agency in 1983, at the height of the Cold War, Russia was the top adversary. That shifted with the breakup of the Soviet Union, later the al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, and the rise of China.

“What I will say though,” Mr. Pfeiffer added, “is we’ve never discounted the Russian nuclear threat.”

Staff at the National Cryptologic Museum combed the archives to refresh the historical exhibits.

Write to Daniella Cheslow at [email protected]

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