It’s Spy vs. Spy, But Deadly Serious

By Karen Rubin

The nation’s capital is all abuzz about Intelligence—and that is just on the line that snakes in front of the new International Spy Museum, which since opening its doors in July 2002, has been intriguing, entertaining, engaging, and ultimately, educating people in the art, science and significance of espionage. You realize how the course of history has often been changed by bold actions as well as missteps, and very literally “intelligence” of these very human agents.

The visitor experience begins a little like Spy v. Spy in Mad Magazine—a tad tongue-in-cheek--but you soon realize that espionage is deadly serious business even as you are struck by how much the fanciful and fantastic of Hollywood’s wildest imagination makes its way into the real spy world–and vice versa.

Spying is, well, intriguing, and particularly so now. Not since the Cold War, when ordinary people lived with the constant threat of atomic war and a nuclear holocaust and unknowingly depended upon secrets kept and secrets unlocked, have Americans been so caught up in the “intelligence”. In the aftermath of 9/11, Intelligence has again come to the forefront as the front line of defense in the War on Terror (in fact, the museum’s very first special exhibit was “The Enemy Within: Terror in America—1776 to Today”).

A visit to the International Spy Museum starts off like “Mission Impossible,” and at some points seems like “Man from Uncle,” “Get Smart” and “James Bond,” but in the end, as in the popular show, it succeeds brilliantly in its complex mission: “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. The Museum focuses on human intelligence and reveals the role spies have played in world events throughout history. It is committed to the apolitical presentation of the history of espionage in order to provide visitors with nonbiased, accurate information.”

In fact, what impressed me most was that the presentation did not seem political or propagandist, nor does it serve as an apologist, but rather puts the important role of espionage into context and gives even-handed presentation (perhaps professional respect) for the KGB and other historical adversaries. If anything, the museum sets a new standard in its engaging presentation.

Though clearly timely, the museum was in planning since 1996. It features the largest collection of international espionage artifacts ever placed on public display—in fact, many have never been seen by the public before. There is a 1777 letter by George Washington authorizing a New York spy network; a 1980s coat with a camera concealed in a button; a diplomat’s shoe, bugged by the KGB with a microphone and transmitter (which called to mind Maxwell Smart’s shoephone), even a car inspired by (what else?) James Bond 007’s Austin Martin in “Goldfinger.”

More than a display, though, there are clever interactive activity and exhibits. You get to crawl through a duct to see how spies have listened in on important conversations; analyze satellite photos, sit at a listening station.

“Covers and Legends”

You begin your visit (it is self-guided and you move at your own pace) in “Covers and Legends,” where there is a large photomural of a foreign checkpoint and guard, and the challenge to adopt a cover identity, memorize specific details about it; in this moment, you get some sense of the pressure on a spy to keep one’s “cover.”
A Briefing Room offers an introductory film about the world of espionage, presented in a theater evocative of an intelligence agency briefing room; the film addresses common preconceptions and misconceptions visitors may have from pop culture and current affairs, and instead, focuses on the realities spies face every day. It turns out that the realities of espionage are probably closer to the fictional depictions than the other way around (There is Markus Wolf, known as “The Man Without a Face” who said of himself, “if I go down in espionage history, it may well be for perfecting the use of sex for spying.”)

In “School for Spies,” you get a sense of what motivates someone to become a spy—patriotism, idealism, egotism, adventurism, greed, desire for knowledge or power—how spies are recruited and trained, how they have to assume a completely different identity, often concealing who they really are from their family (at this point, it sounded like “True Lies”); and the important skills they need, the “Tricks of the Trade.”

There are over 200 espionage devices in this section to illustrate the various technical aspects of spycraft—like a KGB Coat with Buttonhole Camera; a wristwatch camera, a lipstick pistol (KGB, 1965); a microdot the size of a punctuation mark containing an entire document (and how a crafty spy could make it from common materials like cellophane, headache powder, vodka, and potassium bromide); even the CIA’s clever “dog doo transmitter,” used to transmit a radio signal to aircraft (1970).

The devices are fascinating enough, but some of the displays put them in context that amaze, astound and make them very real: such as how an entire city of “mole” Vietcong lived directly underneath US Army 25th Division in Cambodia; how the KGB had an entire listening room under the U.S. Embassy in the Soviet Union (apparently, Russia has been eavesdropping on the U.S. since the 1800s); and how a Hollywood make-up artist created disguise methods that were used to secret six American diplomats from Tehran by changing their appearance to be disguised as a Canadian film crew.

Another section discusses frankly how spies prepare for the “ultimate end game”—getting caught--and some of the devices, such as a “rectal conceal” that holds a cyanide capsule.

“Spies Among Us”

The Spies Among Us section offers a series of exhibits, films, and videos examining espionage through both World Wars, showcasing real-life spy stories. For example, you listen to the voice of Vera Laska, an Auschwitz survivor who joined the Czech Resistance at the age of 15, who says, “We only knew one person in the chain before us and one after us.” After the war, she came to the U.S. and earned her doctorate.

The role of code-making and code-breaking operations is explored through various exhibits, including: the remarkable Enigma cipher machine; the Navajo Codetalkers, whose native language provided an unbreakable code for the Allied Forces during World War II; and the very beginnings of computer technology. Interactive exhibits teach various ways to create, break, and hide coded messages.
The Museum puts faces to the history of espionage, with important figures, like Harriet Tubman, who spied for the Union and Mata Hari (she was legendary, yet her exploits were mostly imaginary). An exhibit on celebrity spies includes: singer Josephine Baker, who worked for the French Resistance; noted Chef, Julia Child; and actress Marlene Dietrich, who recorded pop songs for the OSS that were broadcast to German soldiers as American propaganda. You learn about Moe Berg, an Ivy League-educated man, fluent in several languages, a pro baseball player, and a Jew who bravely volunteered to spy for the U.S., and met with Nazi scientists in order to discover how close Germany was to building the atomic bomb.

The section covering World War II also details the intelligence blunders surrounding the attack on Pearl Harbor (“Surprise attack, or intelligence failure?” The US had broken the code, but did not decode or analyze the message, a revelation that sounds painfully close to the 9/11 disaster). The blunders were equal on the other side: Eljeza Bazara, a valet for British Ambassador to Turkey tried to pass the code name for D-day, “Overlord,” to Germany, but the Germans dismissed it as too good to be true; when they paid him off using a counterfeit bill, he was arrested.

The hysteria—justified or not—of the early Atomic Age is depicted with great affect. You go into a room with flashing lights that follow the chain of people involved in the controversial Rosenberg case, climaxed with the sound, explosion of lights and rumbling to simulate an atomic bomb going off—a graphic depiction of the fear and panic of what the information the Rosenbergs allegedly provided the Soviet Union.

You then walk down stairs, as if into a Fallout Shelter, and find yourself in the midst of the Red Scare of the 1940s and the Alger Hiss case; in the throes of the McCarthy hearings, reflecting a time in the United States when seemingly no one was above suspicion and spies were sought after in nearly every neighborhood.

Then you find yourself in the narrow streets and crowded cafes of where East met West in Europe in the 1960s (you sit in a Berlin “café” looking through the “window” as the photos change; you go into a telephone booth, pick up the receiver, to hear a narrative; or lean towards a car as spy Werner Juretzka reveals his secrets).

“War of the Spies”

This section, “War of the Spies” depicts the Cold War, a period characterized by mistrust and suspicion. Post-war Berlin is used as the backdrop for extensive exhibits detailing the Berlin Tunnel, a massive CIA and British wiretap of telephone lines between East Berlin’s Soviet military headquarters and Moscow; and the Stasi, the most effective internal security force and external intelligence gathering organization in the world.

So much of what is presented seems oddly familiar or at least contemporary. “America has entered a new way of life. For the first time, in nearly a century, US have been threatened directly by this scourge of war. We must learn to live with it, for it promises to be with us indefinitely.”—If this sounds as if it could represent today, it was a quote by Gen. Benjamin Chidlaw, in Dec. 1954.

There is a kind of “Hall of Shame,” done with mirrors and videos (in a section aptly called “All Is Not As It Seems”), depicting the moles and double-agents, like John Walker, who said, “Kmart has better security than the Navy,” right up to Robert Hanssen, who was caught only a few years ago. There is an effort to make the presentation up to the minute: the Museum’s Operations Center tracks current events in the fast breaking world of international espionage. At various times, temporary exhibits on current espionage-related issues will also be displayed.

The museum offers educational programs, including KidSpy programs for children (there is even a sleepover).

The Museum's 5,000 sq. ft. store features a diverse selection of merchandise that mirrors the Museum's presentation of the tradecraft and history of espionage as well as popular interpretations of that profession (and worthwhile visiting, even if you do not go through the museum). The store offers over 500 books, maps and prints; a wide range of spy-related toys and educational products; pop culture merchandise; disguise kits and paraphernalia; spycraft items; exhibit-related products; one-of-a-kind spy collectibles; spy logo and souvenir items.

It’s really a complete destination: there is a pleasant Spy Café (it is a good idea to break up your visit with a meal, and then return; there is just so much to see and absorb, you can easily spend six hours here). There is also a very trendy, upscale restaurant, Zola. Created and operated by Star Restaurant Group, LLC, owner of Washington, DC's 4-star Red Sage Restaurant, Zola is an elegant, modern American restaurant. Zola also provides cuisine for the Museum's special events and other private functions in its loft-style event space seating 150 guests. This 6000 sq. ft. restaurant and bar is located at the corner of 8th and F Streets, NW. Zola is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day, and seats 175 patrons.

But if anything, you come away with a fascination for the science, the art, the courage, the importance and the fallibility of this profession. I fully expect a whole new room dedicated to September 11, 2001 and the War on Terror. Indeed, the museum has opened just this month its first special exhibit, “The Enemy Within: Terror in America—1776 to Today.”

The International Spy Museum is appropriately housed in an architecturally intriguing complex of historic buildings and new construction. One of these, the 1872 Warder-Atlas Building, housed the former headquarters for the fourth district of the U.S. Communist Party from 1941-1948 (the original door leading to these offices was carefully identified during construction and has been preserved and is on display at the museum). In fact, it is at the epicenter of an architectural renaissance of this historic district.

The International Spy Museum is located at 800 F Street, NW in Washington, DC's historic Penn Quarter, within 4 blocks of the National Mall, directly across the street from the National Portrait Gallery, steps away from the MCI Center, and within one block of FBI headquarters, Ford's Theatre, and the 7th Street Arts Walk. The Museum is conveniently located near the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metrorail station serviced by the Red, Yellow, and Green lines.

General Admission rates are $13, Adults; $12 Seniors (65+), Active Duty Military, and the Intelligence Community; and $10, children ages 5 - 18. Advance Tickets are recommended. Insider Intelligence: tickets are in highest demand on weekends and holidays

The International Spy Museum is open daily at 10 am except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day. Last Admission is 7 pm, April through October and 5 pm, November through March. The Museum closes one hour after Last Admission. Hours are subject to change; for the most up-to-date information visit spymuseum.org or phone the 24-Hour SPY-Line: 202.393.7798 (202.EYE.SPY.U). Visitors should plan to spend two hours touring the Museum (though you can easily spend four to six hours, but you can leave and return the same day); when you arrive, you purchase a timed ticket for entry.


1. Interior of Spy Museum
2. Coat camera

Pictures are ©Courtesy of the International Spy Museum.


We were so intrigued by the International Spy Museum, we made it the central purpose of our visit to Washington, D.C., and chose as our accommodation The Hotel Monaco, located just a few steps away. The Hotel Monaco proved ideal in every way—the atmosphere (it occupies a phenomenal landmark structure, the former General Post Office), made me feel I had been transported to a bygone era, and I fully expected to see Hercule Poirot come around a corner (The Hotel Monaco, 700 F Street NW, is the subject for another article, but in the meantime, call 877-202-5411, or visit www.monaco-dc.com).


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