One of the world's most secretive professions is now longer quite so mysterious, thanks to a new museum in Washington, D.C. The International Spy Museum opened its doors to the public on July 19, and crowds have been lining up to look at the museum's massive collection of historical documents, artifacts and interactive exhibits.
It looks like just another weatherbeaten mailbox, the kind you'd expect to find on any street corner in the United States. But this mailbox played a central role in the case of Aldrich Ames, the former American intelligence agent who spied for the Russians.
"This is the mailbox that Ames used to notify the KGB he had documents for them. He would put a white chalk mark on the side. That meant there was a document waiting, and they would have a meeting place," says Milton Maltz, the American business executive who founded the International Spy Museum. His interest in espionage dates back half a century, to his work with the National Security Agency during the Korean War.
He believes intelligence gathering has played a vital role in international politics, and he cites the Cold War as an example. "It never got into a hot war. And spying going on for 40 years kept the world still somewhat at peace."
It also left the world a legacy of ingenious gadgetry and sophisticated technology, secret agent movies and countless real life dramas of treachery and intrigue. A vast array of relics from that era, together with other spy related materials from throughout history, have been assembled into what's billed as the world's largest collection of its kind.
Retired Lieutenant General Claudia Kennedy, who was a high ranking U.S. Army Intelligence officer herself, served on the museum's advisory board. "This museum not only reaches out to people who are intelligence professionals, but it also reaches out to sixth grade D.C. school children," she says. "There will be a curriculum where things the students see in the museum will link to some subject they're study in the classroom.
"So, you think you could be a spy. Now it's time to assume your cover. Learn the craft of espionage. Test yourself. Your trip will be through a different history of civilization. The secret history of history..."
An orientation film invites visitors to assume a new identity and go undercover themselvesat least for as long as they're in the Spy Museum. Milton Maltz points out a wall listing the names and descriptions of intelligence agents. "You will pick on this wall somebody who will be you for the rest of this trip and it will be your job to memorize who you were," says Mr. Maltz.
"Ready, set, identify…"
As they move through the five historic buildings that house the museum, visitors learn to spot an enemy, pick locks, and break codes. And they get a taste of what it's like to function in a world where nothing is quite what it seems. Milton Maltz points out what looks like a tree stump. "That tree stump contained a highly sophisticated monitoring device. There was a forest near one of the Russian runways inside the Soviet Union where this tree stump was planted," says Mr. Maltz. "Every time a mig or a Russian aircraft left, we picked up its signal from this control tower and relayed it to our own listening post."
Historical exhibits take visitors back more than two thousand years, to a display honoring Sun Tzu, the Chinese author of "The Art of War". "He wrote the definitive work on espionage and it's still being used by students in almost every military school in the United States and Europe, and in the Far East of course," says Mr. Maltz.
Other historical exhibits are devoted to celebrity spies over the centuriesincluding some not usually thought of as spies. "Here's a woman you've seen on television many times but she didn't look like this. That's Julia Child. And Julia worked for the Office of Strategic Services. She was stationed in Ceylon and there she is in her youth."
Now known as a television chef and cookbook author, Julia Child is one of many women the museum honors for their clandestine activities. General Claudia Kennedy believes their role in espionage has been underrated. "As a woman in intelligence I'm very interested in what stories those tell. The role that women have played has been much more robust, much more substantive than the public knows," she says.
The museum has an extensive section devoted to Russian espionage, with curiosities like a shoe designed to monitor secret conversations, and a lipstick tube that doubles as a pistol.
Former KGB General Oleg Kalugin once recruited Americans to spy for the Soviet Union. Now he's a museum board member, who helped assemble the exhibits. "I would provide consulting services in some of the specifics of intelligence operation, some of the people I was involved with, so they would be projected on the walls in a balanced way, unbiased. This is not a Cold War museum. It is an international espionage museum. And all points of view should be represented."
The museum's international scope points up the blurred morality of spycraft. One country's traitor can be another country's hero. General Claudia Kennedy hopes visitors will not only be entertained and informed by the exhibits, but leave with some questions as well: "I think it's an important starting point for parents to talk to their children about ethics, values, patriotism, about what it means to support your country not only in times of war but in times of peace when the stakes are even higher, because they're less clear."
Visitors of all ages stood in line for as long as an hour and a half to get into the International Spy Museum on opening day. But everyone said it was worth the wait: "There was a lot more stuff in there than I thought there would be. I read Tom Clancy, and he doesn't have nearly as much."
"What was your favorite part of the exhibit?"
"A sniper camera."
"I liked the part where you got to adopt a cover identity and then they tested you on it."
"I liked the James Bond car. The headlights are like guns that shoot out, things come out of the hubcaps."
"It was interesting to see how they broke the German codes during World War Two, which was obviously a very important part of our history."
Those remarks were offered on the record. But visitors are warned that secret listening devices are planted in the International Spy Museum. They transmit random crowd comments to surveillance stations elsewhere in the museum, where anyone who likes can put on a set of headphones and polish their eavesdropping skills.