FORT MEADE — The military intelligence complex an hour outside Washington where the WikiLeaks case goes to court this week is known as a cloak-and-dagger sanctum off-limits to the public — a reputation that’s only partly true.
Only one small part of the base houses the super-secure compound of the code-breaking National Security Agency.
Yet that juxtaposition still provides the greatest irony: Pfc. Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of one of the largest intelligence heists in U.S. history, will stand trial in a military courtroom on the same post as the intelligence agency charged with covertly collecting and cracking secrets.
Manning’s case, a cause celebre for anti-secrecy activists, hackers and even human rights groups, is subject to unprecedented security restrictions.
The military says Fort Meade was chosen for the Manning hearing not because of its secure location but because the garrison’s Magistrate Court has the largest military courtroom in the Washington area. It’s where you would go to argue your case if military police pulled you over for breaking the 15 to 35 mph speed limit.
Like any Army post, Fort Meade does have security. If you’re on the entry list at the garrison’s front gate, you can drive in unescorted after a routine check of your vehicle.
NSA is located on a separate, far-harder-to-enter compound, contiguous with the main base. Entry requires the highest of clearances or the most diligent of escorts, and NSA’s own elite detail provides security. The compound is equipped with various electronic means to ward off an attack by hackers.
The compound’s experts include cryptologists, computer hackers and “siginters,” the signals intelligence experts who can track a conversation inside an Iranian nuclear scientist’s office from the vibrations of the windows.
Yet despite their focus on cracking secrets, the agency itself is hardly hidden. NSA’s main complex is visible from a major highway, and features a U-shaped building with a couple of 1980s-style glass office blocks attached, surrounded on all sides by a parking lot and a chain-link fence.
You can study the buildings at your leisure, in photos posted to the NSA’s own online photo gallery. And you can test your own code-breaking skills at the agency’s National Cryptologic Museum, open to the public just outside the NSA compound. After punching a code or two into a genuine World War II German Enigma code-making machine, you can pick up a “No Such Agency” T-shirt at the gift shop.
The throngs of reporters covering the Manning trial probably won’t have time to see any of that. They’ll be busy following the case against a defendant alleged to be so devious and creative that he came up with a way to spirit away hundreds of thousands of classified files, armed only with guile, a low-level clearance and a Lady Gaga CD.
The prosecution can only hope that their arguments, or the evidence, will reveal the secrets of how, and why, so much classified information ended up online, for all the world to read.
Even the NSA’s experts might want to know that.