In from the cold

Spy Museum opens its doors to the world

Spy Museum opens its doors to the world

July 25, 2002|by KATE COLEMAN

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to visit the International Spy Museum, the 68,000-square-foot, $40-million complex that opened July 19 in Washington, D.C.

The complex is impressive - five structurally connected buildings in Penn Quarter, one of Washington, D.C.'s oldest neighborhoods. Open interior space accommodates the museum's exhibitions, offices, the Spy City Cafe - a spot for a quick bite - and Zola, an upscale 6,000-square-foot restaurant.

What's the museum all about? James Bond? Maxwell Smart? Austin Powers?

Although these legends of popular spy lore have a place in the International Spy Museum, its purpose is not the stuff of film and fantasy.

The museum's mission is to help people understand the role of espionage in world affairs. Espionage makes the difference between peace and war, between victory and defeat, said E. Peter Earnest, executive director, a 36-year veteran of the CIA in a press preview last week.


"I am proud to be part of this museum," he said.

Espionage is important, and the museum sets out to show how and why.

There was a little friendly sparring last week between members of the advisory board of directors and council - one from the technology side of espionage, the other from the operations, on-the-job side, of the business.

S. Eugene Poteat, a former senior officer with the CIA's Scientific and Technical Directorate, called technology the crown jewels of espionage.

But David G. Major, 24-year FBI veteran, says technology is merely the tools of the agents.

Poteat was an electrical engineer and physicist at Cape Canaveral when he was recruited by the CIA to evaluate Russian missiles. Oleg Penkovsky, a Russian military intelligence officer who spied for the United States, had provided manuals on Russian missile construction. By looking at U-2 spy plane photos of the construction of Russian missiles in Cuba, the CIA knew how much time President Kennedy had before the missiles would be ready to fire.

"Thirteen days," Poteat said.

"We were within hours of nuclear annihilation," Major said. "It almost happened."

The story they told emphasized that both technology and human beings - together - are essential. The museum shows both sides - the people and the gadgets.

There's a lot to be learned about the "secret history of history."

A display tells visitors that Moses sent spies to Canaan. Julius Caesar and Thomas Jefferson used codes. There's an invisible ink letter from "spymaster" George Washington and an exhibit on women who were spies, including Martinsburg, W.Va.'s Confederate spy Belle Boyd.

There is an exhibit on Russian Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of "Cheka," the secret police responsible for the Red Terror. Cheka grew into the KGB, the bureaucracy of terror and torture that executed millions.

A small room explains how the secret of the atomic bomb was kept and was lost. Flashing lights, the sounds of explosion and a quaking floor follow the countdown to the 1949 testing of the Russian's bomb.

Exhibits include artifacts such as the KGB's lipstick pistol, buttonhole camera and shoe transmitter. You also can learn the stories of celebrities, including Marlene Deitrich and Julia Child, who helped Allied espionage efforts during World War II.

Interactive displays invite visitors to adopt a cover identity, memorize details about it and learn the importance of keeping that cover. Visitors are tested on skills of observation, threat analysis, surveillance and disguise and identification.

"We don't give away any secrets," says Milton Maltz, the museum's founder.

What does the Central Intelligence Agency have to say about the International Spy Museum

"As an agency, we don't have a comment," said Paul Nowack, spokesman for the Central Intelligence Agency.

Of course not.

But Nowack said that a couple of "our folks" attended the opening gala. He added, with a chuckle, he'd like to go.

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