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Spy Some Cool Souvenirs, Declassified, at NSA Gift Shop

Government: National Security Agency markets its name on gift items and clothing in new venture at its 3-year-old museum in Fort Meade, Md.

August 03, 1997|CHERYL LU-LIEN TAN | BALTIMORE SUN

FORT MEADE, Md. — In an unobtrusive one-story building off Route 32 in Fort Meade is a tiny gift store. With its green carpeting, dark wood shelves and showcases lined with T-shirts, jackets, golf balls and mugs, it looks like a pro golf shop.

It's actually a symbol of a new retail trend--Uncle Sam is learning to run gift stores.

Following the lead of the FBI, which opened a shop in January, the National Security Agency at Fort Meade opened its National Cryptologic Museum gift store two months ago.

The museum has been open to the public for more than three years. That seemed daring enough for the NSA--an intelligence agency so secretive that until the early 1990s it didn't have an outdoor sign with its name on it.

NSA officials now are marketing their agency's name on gift items and planning to make them available soon through mail-order catalogs and over the Internet.

"There used to be an anonymity issue," said Colleen Riley, who put the gift store together. "But now that we're more open, we're trying to do away with that."

NSA employees and laypeople can purchase sweatshirts, baseball caps, pens and tote bags bearing the agency's insignia. The store also started selling books and code-breaking kits a few weeks ago.

When museum planning began in 1991, officials were so focused on exhibits that souvenirs never crossed their minds. As soon as visitors started trickling in, the complaints started.

"People are used to seeing a gift store in a museum," said Jack E. Ingram, the museum's curator. "They kept asking, 'Gee, why don't you have a gift store? When are you getting one?' "

In the museum's first few months, an entrepreneurial visitor went so far as to take a brochure from the museum in the morning and return that afternoon with T-shirts emblazoned with the image of the building. The visitor asked Ingram if he could help set up a gift store. "I said, 'Call Public Affairs,' " Ingram said. "And I never heard back from him."

There also was slight concern about whether it would be a security risk to sell clothing bearing the NSA insignia. The FBI deals with this by not labeling its souvenirs with logos. The agency's merchandise, available to the public at its Washington headquarters, all says "FBI Tour."

Last fall, NSA bigwigs ordered research on a gift store. And Riley, director of the agency's Civilian Welfare Fund, which runs the store, set about meeting vendors at trade fairs and talking to museum retail consultants.

After ordering thousands of items, the store opened in May and has sold out of the first batch of a few thousand T-shirts.

Riley said customers have included museum visitors, employees and former employees. She said she's been getting calls about NSA paraphernalia from such places as North Carolina and Oklahoma.

Dave Martino, a freelance carpenter who stopped by the museum on his way to a job, said he was glad to see the store.

"It all fits in," said the Silver Spring resident. "It's a real museum now."

Said Riley: "People see [the NSA] in the movies, they see it on TV and it fascinates them. There's a certain mystique about it."

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