Chatter: Cryptography in History and in the Movies with Vince Houghton

David Priess, Vince Houghton
Thursday, November 3, 2022, 12:00 PM

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

Although codemaking and codebreaking often receive less attention in the public imagination than swashbuckling HUMINT operations and ingenious spy gadgets, they have changed history. The under-appreciation of cryptography might stem from a combination of the complexity of encryption, the classified nature of much of its technology, and the difficulty of conveying codebreaking effectively in pop culture.

David Priess spoke with Vince Houghton about the realities and fictional representations of cryptography, as well as the challenges and rewards of making a compelling museum experience out of U.S. codemaking and codebreaking efforts. Houghton is director of the National Cryptologic Museum, the open-to-the-public museum of the National Security Agency. They talked while walking through the newly redesigned museum in Annapolis Junction, Maryland, highlighting various artifacts including early American codebreaking computers, German Enigma machines, the oldest known book of cryptography (from the 16th century), and code generators for U.S. nuclear weapons. They discussed the provenance of highly unusual items and the value of having so many of them on display. And they traded views on movies incorporating ciphers or codes, from The Da Vinci Code to Sneakers to The Empire Strikes Back to The Imitation Game.

Chatter is a production of Lawfare and Goat Rodeo. This episode was produced by Cara Shillenn of Goat Rodeo. Podcast theme by David Priess, featuring music created using Groovepad. See for privacy and opt-out information.

Among the works mentioned in this episode:

The film The Imitation Game

The film The Da Vinci Code

The TV show Andor

The film Rogue One

The film The Empire Strikes Back

The film Sneakers

David Priess is Director of Intelligence at Bedrock Learning, Inc. and a Senior Fellow at the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security. He served during the Clinton and Bush 43 administrations as a CIA officer and has written two books: “The President’s Book of Secrets,” about the top-secret President’s Daily Brief, and "How To Get Rid of a President," describing the ways American presidents have left office.
Vince Houghton is director of the National Cryptologic Museum, the open-to-the-public museum of the National Security Agency.

Subscribe to Lawfare