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.


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