January 07, 2019
Students at the National Cryptologic Museum

Sixteen students from the Catholic University Intelligence Club (CUIC) recently visited the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), one of the “big five” U.S. intelligence agencies. The NRO, though relatively little-known, is immensely important because it builds and operates our nation’s intelligence satellites — including those that are used for taking pictures (imagery) or for capturing signals and communications.  

CUIC regularly sponsors field trips to U.S. intelligence organizations in cooperation with the University’s Intelligence Studies Program.  

NRO’s headquarters, located in Chantilly, Va., is rarely visited by the public. Nicholas Dujmovic, director of the University’s intelligence program and a retired CIA officer, arranged the trip and accompanied the students. He told them that one could easily spend an entire career in U.S. intelligence without ever setting foot in the NRO.

After going through the outer layer of security checks and barriers, the students found themselves in a sleek, modern interior. They saw historic satellites and learned about their origins during a VIP tour of the NRO’s exhibit areas. Later, an NRO historian briefed the students about the history of the organization and its programs.

Students also heard a declassified version of the briefing the NRO gives to new policymakers and intelligence partners to explain the significance of space and the importance of space-based intelligence platforms, as well as their limitations. Dujmovic said the students were especially interested to learn, through an interactive video showing satellite orbits, how much “space junk” is “up there” posing challenges to current operations.  

The trip to the NRO followed the Intelligence Club’s October trip to the museum of the National Security Agency. The National Cryptologic Museum (NCM), located just outside the heavily guarded NSA facility, is open to the public and is staffed with currently serving and retired NSA officers. Patrick Weadon, who graduated from Catholic University with a degree in politics in 1980, is the curator of the museum, and he assured the visiting students that NSA hires employees with humanities and political science degrees — it’s not all mathematics and computer science.

Weadon, who’s worked with the NSA for more than 30 years, presented a fascinating history of the value of codebreaking during World War II.  Another NSA employee took the group through the museum, which covers the history of cryptography and code-breaking from ancient to modern times.

Sophomore Gregory McKeon, a politics major pursuing a Certificate in Intelligence Studies, said he enjoyed hearing Weadon talk about his time at Catholic and his journey to the NSA. In addition to his talk, “we received a personal, thorough, and literally hands-on briefing on the Enigma machine’s role in World War II, which must be exclusive to the NCM. There is no other museum in the greater D.C. area with as much educational value per square footage for free, and I never would have known about it without [field trips with] CUIC.”

Although students at many universities study intelligence and learn about the NRO, McKeon said, “Thanks to the CUIC and our professor's contacts, we had the rare opportunity to actually visit the NRO and learn more about the satellites the NRO has built, from actively serving intelligence professionals themselves.”

The Catholic University Intelligence Club is planning more field trips, including one to the Central Intelligence Agency in April. The club is open to students of all majors interested in intelligence.  For more information on intelligence courses and the Certificate in Intelligence Studies, contact Dujmovic at dujmovic@cua.edu.