Espionage and the tricks of the spy trade are at heart of a new museum that opened earlier this year in Washington. The International Spy Museum has become one of the city's most popular tourist attractions.
The first thing you hear when you step inside Washington's new International Spy Museum is a stream of tense and solemn voices admonishing you never to reveal anything about the exhibit you are about to see.
The mock warning is a reminder of the deep-rooted secrecy underpinning the business of espionage - a trade whose practices and history the museum set out to relate when it opened this summer.
Jennifer Saxon, the Museum's Director of Media Relations, says the privately run museum has been a success so far, with some 200,000 visitors since it opened its doors. Besides, she says the museum's founders could scarcely have chosen a better place than Washington to put it. "DC was a real natural place for them to put it," she said. "DC is probably filled with more spies today than it ever was before and many people argue that there are probably more spies in Washington than there are any place else. This is where all the information comes, not only from the United States, but internationally, so this is where all the analysts are, this is where everyone is if they want to find out that kind of information about international affairs."
The museum, which puts great emphasis on artifacts, is filled with tools of the spy business: Cipher machines, a Soviet-era coat with buttonhole camera and, of course, the famous "Bulgarian Umbrella," a poisoned umbrella tip the Soviet KGB used to fatally stab Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London in 1978.
Then, towards the middle of the exhibit, the visitors are invited to get on all fours and crawl through a 10-meter-long duct in which they can listen in on Cuban leader Fidel Castro as he discusses his national security policy with aides. The point of the conversation, which is not real, is to show how easy it is to spy, and how no one, whether common citizen or high-ranking official, can trust his or her surroundings.
For all the James Bond type aura with which popular culture has surrounded the spy business, the museum also makes it clear that espionage is a very old trade, going back at least 2,400 years. The museum's Jennifer Saxon says Sir Francis Walsingham, an Englishman serving Queen Elizabeth I, organized the first known spy network, in the second half of the 16th century. "He organized that for Queen Elizabeth to help keep her on the throne," said Jennifer Saxon. "It was actually his spy network that was able to track down Mary Queen of Scots in her plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and also was able to get the evidence against Mary Queen of Scots to try her for treason. "
Of course, the museum tells the stories of some of the great spies in history, especially those who worked for the Soviet KGB: Englishman Kim Philby, Americans Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and, of course, some who have recently committed treason against the United States. Again, Jennifer Saxon. "Aldrich Ames, who worked for the CIA, who spied for the Soviet Union and later the Russians; Robert Hanssen, who worked for the FBI, also spied for the Soviet Union and the Russians, for decades for both of them, just gave a number of names to the Soviet Union and Russia about spies the U.S. had in Russia," she said. "Both, it's argued were very responsible for the death of individuals who were undercover in the Soviet Union."
In fact, some espionage experts say there were at least as many Russian spies in Washington in the late 1990s as there had been Soviet spies at the height of the Cold War.
Now, forget that you ever heard this report.
All images courtesy International Spy Museum