Area of refuge

Attending a regional wrestling meet at George Meade Senior High School on the grounds of Fort Meade, home of the National Security Agency.

The NSA is so secret that until a few years ago the government denied that it existed. They said NSA stood for No Such Agency. Its mission is global electronic eavesdropping and cracking codes. In vast bombproof, secure, subterranean facilities, the NSA has acres of the world's most powerful computers humming 24 hours a day deciphering signals intelligence and codes.

Today NSA has a cryptology museum and gift shop open to the public.

We like the museum, where they have Enigma machines, encryption and decryption devices, spy artifacts, and supercomputers. Standing by the familiar blue curved contour of a Cray among a half-dozen computers on display, one day I asked a museum docent, retired from the agency, about the power of today's technology if these supercomputers are so obsolete that they're museum pieces.

"That's classified," he said. "I'll you this much; the fastest, most powerful computer you can imagine? It's beyond that."

NSA is Maryland's largest employer. Living in the region, you often meet people who work for Food and Drug Administration, departments of Defense or Education, or some other branch of government. The Social Security Administration is another large employer. I've worked with a former White House staffer and a former Assistant Secretary of Health. But in nearly 25 years in the area, I've never met anybody who admitted working for NSA. Not once.

Fort Meade is an Army base. Driving through a gate in the razor wire-topped fence, a sign informs me that all vehicles subject to search. The high school is ringed by a perimeter of concrete bollards. "Area of refuge" reads signs on the wall beside a cluster of squares painted on the cement at the sheltered front door.

The gym is a cacaphony of voices, buzzers and noise. It smells of sweat. Teenage boys pair off on mats for rounds of mano a mano competition.

"They're all military kids at this school," says my son after pinning his opponent to win the first round.

I'm at the nexus of a global electronic vacuum cleaner, and nobody can get a signal on their cell phones from inside the gym. I think the school may be shielded.


The known unknown

The question may have been planted, but the cheers were not.

Rumsfeld -- and our government -- should be asked the hard questions. And our troops putting their lives on the line deserve answers.

Why, after nearly two years and tens of billions spent on the "war against terror" do soldiers lack basic needs such as adequate armor?

"It isn't a matter of money, it's a matter of physics," Rumsfeld replied in typically oblique fashion.

Physics? How do these guys get away with dishing up such bullshit?

According to a story at Bloomberg.com, the sole source of Humvee armor plating is ready, willing and able to increase production by 22% -- but the Pentgon hasn't asked.

Rumsfeld says that even a heavily armored tank can be blown up. It's true that no amount of armor will protect a Humvee against an RPG. But armor can make a fatal attack survivable.

Our soldiers, and their families, deserve no less.


Killing time

Riding down the elevator in my building after work, a woman I never met before remarked on my hat, a souvenir from a recent visit to the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, the former book depository building where Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly shot John F. Kennedy.

"Been there," she said.

"I've been to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where King was killed," I said. "And I've been to the old Pan American Exhibition building in Buffalo, where McKinley was shot." I thought a moment and added, "I'm through Union Station every day. James Garfield was shot there."

The woman nodded. Pause. "And Ford's Theater," she said.

"Yep, been there too. A few times."

We were silent for a few moments. My mind drifted to the time I attended a conference at the Washington Hilton up Connecticut Avenue in the late 80s, crossing the street and recognizing a familiar curved brick wall, stepping over the curb and looking down at my feet, seeing the storm drain where James Brady lay crumpled with a bullet in his head...

"The Ambassador Hotel," the woman said.

"I beg your pardon?"

"In Los Angeles. I was there, where Bobby Kennedy was killed in '68."

I nodded. The elevator doors opened and we went our separate ways.