Washington, D.C., is a city of museums. One estimate numbers them at over 100 in the greater metro area. At the top of the list are the branches of the Smithsonian Institution, such as the National Museum of American History (sometimes called the Nation’s Attic), the National Museum of Natural History, and the National Air and Space Museum. Then there are the art museums, starting with the National Gallery of Art and including the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the National Museum of African Art, the Phillips Collection, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and quite a few more, both public and private. But art and history are not the only subjects of the museums in the Nation’s Capital; we have lots more, some rather peculiar, collections of objects and exhibits.
When I was a kid, one of the strangest places we could visit--and, perhaps, the most gruesome--was the Army Medical Museum, now called the National Museum of Health and Medicine. In my day, it was housed downtown in one of the many so-called temporary buildings, left over from the FDR administration to accommodate the expanded government for the recovery from the Great Depression and then the conduct of World War II. (Since the change in the museum’s designation, it’s moved to different quarters on the grounds of Walter Reed Army Medical Center.) One exhibit was a display on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln which included not only John Wilkes Booth’s derringer but the vertebrae removed from Lincoln’s body where the fatal bullet had penetrated. Other exhibits in this odd collection resemble a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum (like the one I remember on Times Square when I was little--a mid-20th-century version of Barnum’s dime museum). On display in huge glass bottles and jars were limbs with elephantiasis, the fetus of conjoined twins, the lungs of a smoker (compared with those of a coal miner and an iron miner), the tongue and throat of a person who choked to death on dentures, among other grim--but often instructive--items. Established in 1862, the museum was described by its founder, Army Surgeon General William Hammond, as a collection of "all specimens of morbid anatomy, surgical or medical, which may be regarded as valuable." The Washington Post, however, puts it more succinctly: a visit produces a “shiver-inducing, stomach-churning sensation.”
Other Washington collections include the Newseum, devoted to the news business; the Folger Shakespeare Library, home of the largest collection of Shakespeare materials in the world; the National Archives, where the nation’s founding documents, as well as other historic and significant papers, are kept; the National Building Museum, which focuses on design and architecture; and the National Museum of Crime and Punishment, a relatively new exhibition whose charter is clear from its name. (The entrance to the NMCP, like many such places, is controlled by chains on movable stanchions--but these are fashioned from handcuffs!) And I’m not even counting the government agencies, like the FBI or the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, which have their own displays; the museums and exhibits in nearby Maryland and Virginia; historic sites like Ford’s Theatre, Mount Vernon, Hillwood, and Tudor Place, or the historic downtowns of places like Alexandria, Virginia, or Frederick, Maryland (anyone remember Barbara Fritchie?). One of the most fascinating, however, is the eight-year-old International Spy Museum on Northwest F Street in downtown D.C, right across the street from the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American Art and a short walk from the Verizon Center.
The International Spy Museum is a private, profit-making enterprise (and, therefore, charges admission--currently $18 for adults) built by a Cleveland entertainment, news, and information firm called the Malrite Company at a cost of $40 million. It opened on 19 July 2002 and became an immediate sensation for tourists and metro-area residents as well. (It’s a destination for school groups, especially middle school classes. The biggest group of visitors when I was there was teen and pre-teen boys.) Over the year-end holidays the year the Spy Museum opened, my mother and I attempted to have a look--for professional reasons, of course. We drove by it on three different days--it’s in a bad parking area, unfortunately--and the line was always around the corner. We decided this was because it had just opened and drew all the holiday tourists and vacationing families in town, so we decided to try again when I was in town for a non-holiday visit. (I say they ought to have a special pass for former spooks--professional courtesy and all. Actually, there is an “Intelligence discount”-- not special access, though--for current spook agency workers, but not us ex-spooks.)
In development for over seven years, the museum draws on the knowledge and expertise of former intelligence specialists, both civilian and military, American and foreign. The advisory board includes two former CIA directors, other former U.S. intelligence workers, and retired Maj. Gen. Oleg Danilovich Kalugin of the KGB. The president of Malrite is Dennis Barrie, the former director of the Cincinnati Arts Center who got into a bind in 1990 for showing Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs and the former director of Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; the museum’s chairman and founder is Milton Maltz and the director is Peter Earnest, who was in the CIA for 36 years. They consider the museum’s “mission” is “to educate the public about espionage in an engaging way and to provide a context that fosters understanding of its important role in, and impact on, current and historic events.” It claims to be the only public museum in the U.S. “solely dedicated to espionage” and the only one in the world with a “global perspective.” Other related exhibits, such as the KGB Museum in Moscow, the espionage display in London’s Imperial War Museum, or NSA’s National Cryptologic Museum at Fort Meade near Baltimore, have narrower emphases or a national point of view, assert the Spy Museum’s directors.
On another trip down to D.C. in May 2004, I again went to the Spy Museum. A cousin of mine and my mom's was in town with her husband and their 12-year-old daughter, so Mother reserved tix for us for the Spy Museum one afternoon. (Mom, who’d gone earlier when someone she knew had a reception there and the museum was opened to the guests for an hour, skipped this trip.) It was a walk down memory lane for me, so to speak. I tell you, I had expected something of a joke--all James Bond and the Avengers or something--or a superficial whitewash, full of gimmicks and mock-ups. It's not. It's actually a serious museum--entertainment more than educations, despite the directorship’s assertions, but not a joke and not all that superficial. I mean, it's cleaned up for general consumption, but it's only romanticized a little, and it covers pretty much the whole business. It is skewed toward the WWII and Cold War eras, perhaps understandably, and it doesn't show much of the philosophically nastier, morally compromising aspects of the field, but it's pretty accurate in what it does show. There are James Bond and Maxwell Smart about--a replica of Bond’s tricked-out Aston Martin DB5 (from Goldfinger) and a big photo of Agent 86 on his shoe phone are on display--but for the most part, these are just what we used to call "eyewash." That was the expression we used in the army for window dressing to keep things lively when we had to deliver a briefing or other presentation. (The museum estimates that these pop-culture exhibits are about 5% of the collection.) The Hollywood-spy stuff contrasts with and spotlights the less glamorous, but more substantial, real-world espionage artifacts and displays.
The Spy Museum takes the definition of "spying" a little broadly, but that's all right in the context. For instance, the museum, which is divided into thematic sections including code-breaking, considers the Rosetta Stone (there’s a replica on display) as the first example of this. The real exhibits are actual artifacts of the spy biz from around the world. The museum promo claims it has the largest collection of such items on public display. (The 600-plus artifacts are supplemented by “historic photographs, interactive exhibits, dramatic audio-visual programming, and film to offer a hands-on and ‘immersive’ museum experience.”) Other exhibits include the Enigma machine, the legendary WWII German cipher device (it looks like a clumsy old typewriter), one of the items illustrating code-making and -breaking operations; a shoe transmitter (not to be confused with Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone), the Soviet eavesdropping device hidden inside the heel of a target’s shoe, one example of the listening apparatuses used by spy services; the type of umbrella a KGB assassin used to fire a poison pellet into the thigh of Bulgarian anticommunist Georgi Markov in London in 1978; and a mock-up of a car hollowed out so that agents, their bodies twisted and bent to conform to the secret compartments, can be hidden in it and infiltrated into a target country surreptitiously. (This last exhibit, by the way, was the same technique used in Berlin for a slightly different purpose when I was there: smuggling would-be refugees out of the East into West Germany or West Berlin. This was a field, called “exfiltration,” in which I was principally engaged for a good part of my assignment in Berlin, as I discuss in “Berlin Station”--ROT, 19 & 22 July 2009.) Represented in one way or another are personalities from Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 spy pilot shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, to Austin Powers. In between, there’s Sun Tzu, who wrote The Art of War two-and-a-half millennia ago; Benedict Arnold, the Revolutionary War general who turned the plans of West Point over to the British; Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the KGB; Kim Philby, the senior MI-6 officer who spied for and later defected to the Soviet Union; CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames, who earned $2.7 million from his KGB handlers; and Robert Hanssen, the FBI mole who spied for the Soviet Union and Russia for 22 years until he was unmasked in 2001.
I joked that the visit was a stroll down memory lane for me--but it really was to a large extent. The museum is something of a rabbit warren inside. (The facility is made up of five connected buildings--some old, some new--so floors, walls, and corridors don’t necessarily line up precisely. There are over 60,000 square feet of exhibit space. Ironically, the complex, which includes one building that was the home of the Communist Party in Washington 70 years ago, is only about a block from the FBI HQ.) When I left one exhibit area and followed a corridor to another, I emerged into a space with a large sign on the opposite wall that read: "BERLIN -- City of Spies"! It was a little stage set--a café table, walls with maps of Berlin, photos of street scenes with Soviet soldiers, and so on--all from the '60s. That's only a few years before my time there (1971-74), and little had changed in appearance between then and my day (except for up-dated uniforms from the post-WWII era to the Vietnam period). Talk about déjà vu!! I might even say, “déjà vu all over again,” since I’d had a sense of returning home when I arrived in Berlin that late-July day in 1971. If you read my reminiscences “Berlin Station” and “The Berlin Wall” (29 November 2009), you’ll see that even in the 1970s, Berlin, unlike West Germany, was still occupied territory and the three western allies continued to operate there much as they had in the years right after WWII at the start of the Cold War. And why not? The former capital of the German Reich was, as the museum asserts, perfectly situated to be the main spy perch for the NATO Allies--110 miles inside the strongest of the Soviet satellites, the Soviet showplace on the border with Western Europe. It was, indeed, the spy capital of Europe. It’s taken the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of European communism, a decade-and-a-half after I left Berlin, to change the political environment in that western enclave. I must have spent a half hour in this little corner of the museum looking over the visual display and the maps, which, after all, covered the territory in which I’d operated for a quarter of a decade thirty years earlier. Ahhh, nostalgia!
The Berlin display, including a reproduction of the tunnel under the Berlin Wall built so that the Western powers could tap into East German and Soviet communications lines, is part of the section called the “War of the Spies,” which focuses on Cold War intel and counterintel campaigns. Other themes in the exhibit are the “School for Spies,” a section that looks at what’s known as “tradecraft”--spying skills, techniques, and methods; “The Secret History of History,” covering the history of the field, including such figures as Mata Hari, who used some of the tricks of the world’s oldest profession to help her in the second-oldest, and Daniel Defoe, the author who was the “father of the British Secret Service”; “Spies Among Us,” which focuses on the espionage of the two world wars, including camera-carrying pigeons in WWI, the Enigma machine, and the Navajo codetalkers of WWII; and “All Is Not What It Seems,” which addresses espionage in the 21st century. If this sounds little like it comes out of a sense of paranoia and leads visitors to feel a little of that, too--well, that’s the nature of espionage. Indeed, there are signs all around the museum informing visitors that they are under surveillance--and there are microphones planted in several locations which other visitors can tap into and overhear you and your friends in conversation. (In 1964, some may know, as many as 40 listening devices were discovered within the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. When a new embassy was built decades later, it was abandoned before it could be occupied because security breaches made the presence of eavesdropping equipment a likelihood. Do you know the Soviet formula for concrete? It’s one part cement, one part sand, and one part microphones. That’s a Russian joke, by the way.)
When I got to Berlin, the officer assigned to smooth my arrival at the unit told me that the Soviets, who were parked in black Moskvitches or Volgas right outside the entrances to our compound, would know my name, rank--we wore civvies and called each other “Mr.” and “Miss” outside the office--and duty assignment within hours. Later, my colleagues and I would often remind each other that what we did, what spies and counterspies do fundamentally, is illegal. We routinely break the laws of the country in which we’re operating. My job in Berlin was to keep the Soviets and East Germans from doing to us exactly what we were trying to do to them--gather clandestine information they didn’t want us to have. This, of course, is the morally questionable aspect of the spy business that the museum doesn’t cover--the fact that lying--I had at least one cover identity--stealing, and sometimes even killing, are basic to the job description for the profession. Maxwell Smart and Austin Powers are made to be humorous and James Bond, Napoleon Solo, and Ilya Kuryakin are romanticized heroes who practice constant derring-do for the betterment of the good guys. (Oh, and the other side believes that’s what they’re doing, too.) But the world real espionage agents see is more like the one Richard Burton faced in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold--grey, often bleak, and morally ambiguous. The International Spy Museum doesn’t want you to think about that side of the subject; it’s not on display anywhere.
(In addition to my own recollections posted on ROT, I also suggest that anyone curious about this field have a look at my column on the German mini-series Der Illegale [ROT, 5 July 2009]. It describes a 1972 German TV docudrama based on a real espionage case from the ‘60s. The mini-series was rebroadcast in Germany recently, so I assume it’s available on video--though probably not dubbed or even with subtitles. That’s too bad, because it’s about as real a depiction of the topic of the International Spy Museum as I’ve ever seen on film or tape while being excellently made and acted. A film that shows Berlin as it was during the Occupation is 1950’s The Big Lift with Montgomery Clift and Paul Douglas. It’s not the greatest movie, but it was filmed in Berlin--with German actors in all the German roles and actual servicemen in the military parts other than the two Hollywood stars--and is a remarkably accurate portrayal of what it was like in the Occupation and, for the most part, right up through my time there. It comes on cable from time to time. Oh, and all that rubble the Berliners are digging out with picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows in the flick? They made a mountain out of it, Teufelsberg, on top of which was the most secret installation in Cold War Berlin, an ASA--that’s the Army Security Agency--listening station. It’s decommissioned now, of course--there’s no one to listen to anymore.)
As I said, the museum focuses heavily on WWII and, especially, the Cold War, and is therefore tilted toward the U.S./NATO-Soviet rivalry of the middle of the 20th century. Though it makes a claim to being “international” and non-ideological in its outlook, the Spy Museum doesn’t make much mention of other intelligence conflicts of the present and recent past, such as Mossad vs. the Arab and Muslim adversaries of Israel, the conflict between India and Pakistan, or the efforts of the People’s Republic of China to spy on . . . well, just about everyone. (There were Chinese spies in Berlin when I was there--among those you’d expect in the European arena, such as the Czechs, Poles, Bulgarians, French, British, and Canadians. By the time the Spy Museum was conceived, the Chinese were involved as much in industrial espionage as political and military spying--and almost everyone is a potential target. PRC spies haven’t been Wo Fat vs. Steve McGarrett for decades!) Maybe the museum’s focus will broaden now that it’s gotten established a little, but when I went, it was still 1980 inside the museum.
I don’t want to give the impression that the Spy Museum is an irretrievably flawed experience. If it doesn’t cover every aspect of the intelligence field, what it does cover is truthful, interesting, and engaging. My cousins and I were at the museum for about two hours--Mother had allowed us 1½ hours for her to go and come back to get us--and we had to rush through the last third. As the Washington Post’s Michael O'Sullivan remarks, the museum’s exhibits do suggest, however implicitly, “that lying for a living isn't as easy as it sounds.” (I can attest, from personal experience, that it’s an isolating and often lonely occupation. Army people love to talk shop when they socialize, and we could only talk shop with our fellow spooks. That severely circumscribed our social interaction.) The exhibits obviously will change from time to time, of course, and there’ll be special displays on operations and events of significance, including current developments, as the staff sees them. The museum recommends ordering advanced tix (which can be done on line at www.spymuseum.org) that are date-and-time-specific. (There are plenty of eating places nearby, including the museum’s own restaurants, the Spy City Café and Zola, where you can while away an hour or two. The Crime & Punishment Museum is nearby, and the Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum across the street are free.)
It’s clear that the spy genre is still popular in storytelling. The Bond movies are still going strong (though I don’t find the new ones, since the demise of the Soviet Union as a foe, as much fun as the old ones with Connery and Moore--which Spike, the cable net, makes a habit of running regularly), John Le Carré is still writing spy thrillers (though they, too, aren’t as engrossing as his classics like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People), and a popular cable series is about an ex-spy in the “equalizer” biz now. Earlier this month, I watched an episode of one of the regular broadcast series that was plotted around an old Cold War espionage intrigue, with a former deputy CIA director involved with elements of the Stasi, the East German secret police. There’s still something in us that gravitates to the old spy tales. Back when I was still in college, when the Cold War was at its height, my dad was a diplomat in Germany. In 1968, East Germany published a book called Who’s Who in CIA (yes, that was its slightly ungrammatical title), which purported to list everyone in “the civil and military branches of the secret services of the USA in 120 countries.” Back in Washington, everyone rushed to see who was in the book. If you were named, you were “somebody” around town; if not, you were in the out crowd. Dad, who was a cultural attaché and wasn’t involved with any kind of intelligence work, was listed. (He went out and bought a copy of the book, of course.) Interestingly, the book has my dad’s bio details essentially correct, except for one small inaccuracy. For his military service during WWII, the book asserts that Dad was a captain in the CIC, the Counterintelligence Corps (the precursor to Military Intelligence Branch, in which I served thirty years later). In truth, Dad was an artillery battery commander; after VE day, during the beginning of the Occupation--before he was shipped to the Pacific--he was detailed briefly to the CIC because he spoke German, which the army needed to interrogate German detainees they suspected of having been Nazis or Reich officials. That was the extent of my father’s intelligence work for the United States. The ironic coda to the story is that the actual CIA officer in the Bonn embassy (whom I won’t name, though I suspect she’s dead by now)--not an agent, of course, because her position was overt--isn’t listed in the book.