Museum of Spies

Since launching his “war on terror,” George W. Bush has touted the need for extraordinary measures in battling shadowy foes such as al-Qaida. However, revelations that such measures include torture, warrantless wiretapping, and the extra-judicial jailing of alleged terrorists in a network of secret CIA prisons have unsettled many Americans. Although such unsavory activities have tarnished the image of America’s covert forces, a snazzy museum in downtown Washington, DC is doing its utmost to remind people just how vital the spooks corps is to the very survival of the republic.

Since opening in July 2002, the International Spy Museum (ISM) has seen nearly three million visitors pass through its doors to ogle all manner of spy gadgetry and paraphernalia. After forking over the $16 dollar admission fee, visitors can spend hours glimpsing the tools of the trade from the espionage world, ranging from a KGB-designed lipstick-gun to a CIA rectal tool kit.

The ISM’s executive director is Peter Earnest, a former CIA man who logged 36 years of service—including two decades as a covert operative, primarily in Europe and the Middle East. Toward the end of his career, from 1979 to 1981, he was the CIA’s chief point man with the Senate. The museum’s advisory board of directors includes former spy supremos like retired KGB general Oleg Kalugin and former CIA director Stansfield Turner. A bevy of leading cryptologists, intelligence-gathering “authorities,” and former CIA officers round out the museum’s stable of advisers.

Given the pedigree of its advisers, the ISM not surprisingly places a heavy emphasis on the 40-year-long Cold War battle waged primarily between the Soviet Union and the United States. And, given its location, it’s also not surprising that Washington’s operatives come off best in this narrative. Missing from the story, however, are some of the less savory aspects of U.S. covert operations. These gaps also help the museum give a particular spin to its post-September 11 message of continued vigilance.

First the Fun

Despite the clear ideological “America-the-Good” subtext that permeates the museum, a visitor would have to be a complete killjoy not to relish many of its offerings. This is infotainment for the masses. At the outset, in order to get people into the right spirit, visitors are asked to choose a false identity and memorize the details of a cover story for a fictitious spying mission. Upon completing the roughly two-hour tour, a computer “border guard” quizzes visitors about these details and rejects departure requests for those who can’t remember their cover.

Situated in a block of buildings that includes a former headquarters of the U.S. Communist Party, the museum’s three floors brim with a vast array of spy technology that seems to have come straight out of the laboratory of James Bond’s personal weapons-meister, the famous “Q.” Underscoring the point, the museum has a full-size replica of Bond’s car from the movie Goldfinger, complete with its pop-up bulletproof shield, reversible license plate, and machine-gun headlights. But Q would never have inflicted on Bond a painful-looking CIA rectal tool kit, complete with a mini-saw, drill bit, and hatchet.

There are plenty of other gadgets. One display case holds a World War II-era coal-camouflaging explosives kit used by agents dropped behind Nazi lines. A coal-size shell containing explosives, painted to match the color of a given locale’s coal, was dropped into coal piles so as to explode when shoveled into a factory or train furnace.

There is the CIA’s deadly eyeglass frame, which had a cyanide capsule hidden inside. An explanatory plaque says, “Choosing death over torture a captive could usually chew his eyeglasses’ arm without arousing suspicion … until it was too late.” KGB wares are represented by a poison-pellet-firing umbrella gun, used to assassinate dissident Georgi Markov in London in 1978, and the famous “Kiss of Death” lipstick pistol that fired a single .45 mm round.

Now the History

The ISM also tries to provide a historical perspective on spying, with several rooms devoted to tales about famous episodes in the annals of espionage. Engaging in what the museum dubs the world’s “second oldest profession,” Moses sent spies to scout ancient Canaan. Ancient Chinese war strategist Sun Tzu advocated deception as a military tool while Julius Caesar, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are also listed amongst the political and military leaders who devised elaborate codes to keep their secrets safe from the enemy. In the 20th century, filmmaker John Ford, chef Julia Child, and actress Marlene Dietrich all worked in U.S. spy operations.

An entire room is dedicated to homing pigeon spies, who were used extensively during the two world wars. A camera set to automatic shutter, which was hung around their necks, helped in the reconnoitering of enemy positions. A wall plaque states that, of the hundreds of thousands of spy carrier pigeons deployed, “95% completed their missions.” The Bond-like birds also continued their service through the 1950s, “earning more medals of honor than any other animal,” according to the museum.

The museum also highlights some famous Cold War espionage episodes. In 1946, for instance, Soviet schoolchildren gave the U.S. ambassador to the USSR a carved wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States. Ambassador Averell Harriman proudly displayed the gift on the wall of his study. Six years later technicians discovered a small bugging device hidden within the seal that was activated by an ultra-high frequency beam from a van parked near the U.S. embassy.

Now the Rest of the History

The ISM version of the history of clandestine shenanigans is fraught with plenty of omissions as well. Though several references to Soviet torture techniques are made, there is no mention of harsh interrogation methods employed by the United States or its allies during the Cold War. For example, the museum is silent about what are often euphemistically termed “deep interrogation” methods used by the CIA and its School of the Americas-trained allies. With such methods, security forces in places like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras systemically tortured alleged subversives in an effort to root out communist agents.

The CIA’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, along with many U.S. efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro, is chronicled. But the curators fail to discuss the decades of attacks that Cuba alleges the CIA either directly or indirectly mounted in an effort to topple Castro, which ravaged the island’s economy and left over 3,400 dead and thousands injured. These attacks included: infesting Cuban sugarcane and tobacco with crop-destroying insects in the 1960s; starting a swine epidemic in the 1970s that forced the slaughter of 500,000 pigs; and triggering a hemorrhagic dengue fever epidemic in the 1980s that killed 158, including 101 children.

Also unmentioned are high-profile bombings such as the 1960 sinking of the ship La Coubre in Havana harbor that killed 101, the in-flight bombing of a Cubana airlines jet in 1976 that killed 73, and the 1997 bombing blitz of Havana tourist hotels that killed an Italian tourist. Cuba alleges that the latter two attacks were the handiwork of Luis Posada Carriles, a now 78-year-old anti-Castro Cuban whose links with the CIA date back to the early 1960s. This month U.S. officials decided to charge Posada only with immigration offenses for entering the country illegally in 2005, while declining to extradite him to Venezuela or Cuba, who both want to put him on trial for the Cubana plane bombing.

Beyond covert U.S. machinations regarding Cuba, the ISM completely ignores such episodes as the CIA’s role in toppling the left-wing governments of Iran’s Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953, Guatemala’s Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, and Chile’s Salvador Allende in 1973.

Nor is the museum any more candid about current events. In these times of extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay’s indefinitely-detained prisoners, and even FOX TV’s anti-terrorist “24” saga (in which hero Jack Bauer often summarily executes anti-U.S. terrorists) the U.S. public has been barraged with the message that U.S. forces will do “whatever it takes” to win. Yet the ISM skirts the issue of alleged CIA involvement in the abuse of prisoners at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison or Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Last May, Amnesty International submitted a report to the UN Committee Against Torture, claiming that torture and abuse of terrorist suspects by the United States is “widespread”—a charge the United States vehemently denies and the ISM chooses not to include in its exhibits.

Instead of delving into these nasty modern realities, the ISM frames espionage and counterinsurgency work in its most genteel form, almost like a gentleman’s game of cloak-and-dagger that is fought with ever increasing ingenuity and sophistication. The damage caused by U.S. operations—measured in body counts or political fallout—gets short shrift.

If anything, visitors are left with an upbeat message. In the corridor that leads out of the last exhibit, wall plaques display some “fun facts.” For instance, there are currently two million spy cameras in Britain, while Washington and New York combined have less than 6,000. And, in a seeming nod to environmentalists in the crowd, one wall informs viewers that pulp produced by the 40,000 pounds of documents shredded every day by the secretive National Security Agency is put to good use. It’s made into pizza boxes. The last stop of the tour is the gift shop, where patrons can purchase all manner of spy toys, games, T-shirts, hidden cameras, and books as happy mementoes.

Before this mercantile moment, however, comes the museum’s final message to its well-primed audience.

Be Vigilant, Always Vigilant

At the conclusion of the spy museum tour, visitors are shown a film entitled “Ground Truths” that emphasizes the value of intelligence gathering in modern America. After listing such potential threats as biological weapons and dirty nuclear bombs, a narrator warns, “For everyone, the consequences of not being prepared are devastating. In the work of intelligence our greatest failure is our failure of imagination.”

In the film, former CIA director James Woolsey sums up the post-Cold War world by saying, “It’s as if we’ve been struggling with a dragon for 45 years and finally killed it and then found ourselves standing in the middle of a jungle with a lot of poisonous snakes. In a lot of ways the snakes are harder to keep track of than the dragon was.” Scenes of New York’s Twin Towers collapsing are also shown as eerie music rises, and the narrator again warns that “global power, global technology, global wealth—hasn’t made us more secure. It’s made us more vulnerable. It’s made all of us the target.”

And, just in case any visitors have been too thick to understand the thrust of the film, along with much of the museum itself, the narrator adds: “Intelligence—providing a view of the world not as we would like it to be, but as it is. It is ground truth.”

The message is clear: These are perilous times in which the threat of a shadowy enemy demands that the United States sustain and beef up its own covert forces in order to safeguard the “homeland” from catastrophe. Cynics might be forgiven for believing that the new Islamic terrorist threat rises at an all-too-convenient time to replace the vanished Soviet bogeyman. And certainly the vast legions of spies from the CIA, NSA, and FBI—many of whom have been employed for decades at an enormous cost to taxpayers—have likely breathed a collective sigh of relief that a new and deadly foe has been found. The Spy Museum doesn’t reflect on the role of the U.S. spy team in building up the careers of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein during the Cold War to stymie the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Iranians in the Middle East. The fact that bin Laden and Hussein had their own agendas may have never occurred to their U.S. contacts, but their subsequent strengthening and anti-U.S. posturing represents a blow-back of sorts for American covert Cold War policies in the volatile landscape of the Islamic world.

Still, enemies such as al-Qaida cannot be easily dismissed as mere constructs of a spy corps desperate to save its own skin or oblivious to the unintended consequences of its actions. Such forces do indeed passionately, and in many cases violently, oppose America and all that it represents.

Their numbers have grown since the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Museums such as the International Spy Museum, while in some ways satiating the long-held curiosity of the U.S. public for sexy, espionage-related trivia, also serves to remind the public that covert ops are needed now more than ever.

The museum’s presentation of these allegedly upstanding shadow warriors maintaining their relentless vigil in defense of the realm also gives the public a far more positive image of spooks than the media has presented in stories on secretive rendition flights and torture allegations at hidden CIA jails. And don’t forget the bottom line. Such positive PR will no doubt make the budgetary bean counters at the CIA, NSA, and FBI more sanguine about their chances of keeping copious quantities of government money flowing their way for many years to come.

Jim Dee is a freelance journalist based in Massachusetts.