The Central Intelligence Agency museum has been called "the best museum you never saw" because its location in the CIA headquarters building makes it off limits to visitors. The museum is filled with artifacts and pictures from the 60 year history of the CIA, and the agency's World War II-era predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services or OSS. A new exhibit was recently opened in the museum, and VOA correspondent Gary Thomas was granted rare access to visit it.
The 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States sparked the dispatch of a small cadre of CIA officers and Special Forces troops to Afghanistan. There, they helped insurgents in the campaign to topple the Taliban government, which had sheltered al-Qaeda terrorists.
The CIA has opened a new exhibit on that recent piece of history in its in-house museum. This is the first time it has been shown to outsiders. CIA historian and museum curator Toni Hiley says it commemorates the cooperative effort between the CIA, Special Forces, and the Afghan Northern Alliance.
"It was that partnership, human intelligence at the core, wrapped in technology - 100 air sorties a day - that in just weeks overthrew the Taliban, killed or captured two-thirds of the al-Qaida leadership, and denied a major terrorist organization safe haven," Hiley said.
The exhibit makes no mention of any touchy topics - such as the failure to capture or kill Osama bin Laden in the immediate post-9/11 days or the resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaida in Pakistan's rugged tribal areas along the Afghan border.
But the purpose of the secret museum is not to educate the public at large. Instead, it is to educate and motivate the thousands of operations officers, analysts, scientists, and technicians that make up the work force of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Hiley says every photograph of the new exhibit was taken by CIA officers on the ground in Afghanistan. Some are still operating undercover…
So their faces are blurred, even a sniffer dog, appropriately named "Whisper," remains a secret agent.
Hiley says the exhibit was designed to show how today's CIA officers operating in Afghanistan are much like their World War Two predecessors of the OSS.
"Our officers told me that as they went into Afghanistan 15 days after 9/11 they felt just like their World War II predecessors - OSS, the Office of Strategic Services Jedburghs, paramilitary operations officers,” Hiley said. “So that gave us the idea to position the exhibit with a comparison between our World War II predecessor and our officers in Afghanistan to say that the more it changes, the more it stays the same. It's still about that intelligence officer on the ground providing real-time intelligence to shape the battlefield."
So OSS equipment and CIA equipment are displayed side by side.
An AK-47 assault rifle used by a CIA officer in Afghanistan is hung up to next to a World War II submachine gun.
And this particular submachine gun has an interesting bit of history that was discovered when it turned up in the former Yugoslavia.
"This weapon had been issued to the OSS in 1943, OSSers had carried it into Yugoslavia in '44 to help arm Tito's partisans,” Hiley said. “It had stayed in country for 60 years, well-used in the intervening time until along came one of our officers who recognized it as a historical weapon."
As the CIA's covert operators learned in the rough and wild terrain of Afghanistan, weapons and equipment may evolve but some of the skills of the intelligence world are timeless.