Spy Museum

Spies and counterspies museum, Washington

Visitors to the new International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, see an introductory movie and are encouraged to choose one of a dozen or more “spy identities”. Additional identity information may be gathered during the self-paced tour and a computerised interrogation towards the end evaluates how successful they might be as spies. Or maybe they are more likely to be shot. The whole thoroughly entertaining and highly educational experience is a credit to the designers.


Spy Museum
The International Spy Museum building, at 800 F Street, Washington, DC, coincidentally used to house
the headquarters of the Fourth District, US Communist Party.

Modern terrorist operations are inextricably intertwined with intelligence and counter-intelligence interactions. A recent visit to the museum coincided with press comment about the death of A.M. (Abe) Rosenthal, the legendary New York Times editor, in early May 2006. It also coincided with the replacement of Porter Goss, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other senior American intelligence and counter-intelligence leaders in the wake of a number of related fiascos.

Spying, as the museum points out, is a craft based on lying and deception. It is made easier if those guarding secrets are less than loyal and capable. Goss, a G.W. Bush political appointee, distinguished himself by replacing senior professional intelligence specialists with cronies and party hacks. He pursued a number of inept policies, including using the CIA in largely vain attempts to track dozens of government-sourced press leaks. He has been accused of directing vast agency effort more towards the suppression of the airing of administration dirty laundry, than of protecting the country.

Who is the traitor?

The museum vividly demonstrates how spies and “traitor-whistleblowers” have flourished since Biblical times. It shows clearly that there is a very big spy iceberg under the tip that is known to the public. It also shows that there are very few important “state secrets” not known to the “other side” and there are very few important bureaucracies not infiltrated by “spies” of some sort. Red herrings and whistleblowers are everywhere, it seems, and none more so than in a country that has an educated, aggressive and free press, the sine qua non of any democracy.

Who is the spy and who is the traitor? Pulitzer Prize winner and never politically correct Rosenthal won international acclaim for eloquently reporting the horror of German extermination camps after WWII. Remember the Nazi guards who later claimed to be merely “doing their duty”?

Later, Rosenthal was denounced as “treasonous” by the Nixon administration in 1971, when he had the intestinal fortitude to publish the Pentagon Papers, the secret US Government history of the Vietnam War.

Frank Rich

Frank Rich in a 14 May 2006 Times Op-Ed piece also asks who is the real enemy? Is it the whistleblower and publisher or the government official who tries to cover up top level mistakes and corruption with lies and deception?

Rich went on to say, recalling the Vietnam era, “Today we know who the real traitors were: the officials who squandered American blood and treasure on an ill-considered war and then tried to cover up their lies and mistakes.” Despite earnest-looking endeavours to control terrorism, he warns how this situation might endure today. For instance, he warns that the “warrantless spying on Americans by the National Security Agency (NSA)” and the CIA might have serious counterproductive consequences.

Mundane donkey-work, such as the routine analysis of billions of telephone company records, can divert precious time and expertise away from the main threat. It is one thing to shape a giant effort to crack an Enigma cipher or to protect D-Day secrets. It is another to trawl millions of telephone records hoping to find terrorist-related calling nodes or other information.

Data overload

The NSA wiretaps produced a “gusher of data”, Rich asserts, that “wasted FBI time and manpower on wild-goose chases and minor leads while uncovering no new Qaeda (sic) plots.” It happened before. The NSA intercepted a vital Al Qaeda message on 10 September 2001 saying “Tomorrow is zero hour”. Under General Michael Hayden (recently promoted to head the CIA) the NSA failed to translate that message until 12 September, the day after the terrorists attacked.

The International Spy Museum shows how espionage intrigue, obfuscation and misplaced trust, frequently based on an old boy network, not only protected dozens of real spies over the centuries but even persecuted innocent scapegoats.

DreyfusEmile Zola
CAPT Alfred Dreyfus (left) was wrongly convicted of “spying” and spent five years as a Devils Island prisoner.
The author Émile Zola was wrongly convicted of libel and sentenced to prison, but he escaped to the UK.

Some spies and their spymasters are brilliant. They obtain priceless information using consummate skill. Others fail to see the obvious, make stupid errors of judgement or are betrayed by trusted fellow workers. As the exhibition suggests, paranoia and expediency are never far away when it comes to protecting state secrets. Sometimes scapegoats, such as Captain Alfred Dreyfus, are tried and wrongly punished for “traitorous activity”. Novellist/journalist Émile Zola’s “J’accuse!” famously unmasked the real culprit, but the French Army had to be pushed into prosecuting the real spy and pushed even harder to reinstate Dreyfus. Meanwhile, Zola was tried for libel and sentenced to jail, but he escaped to England.

Aldrich Ames

In one very interesting museum film clip, two self-styled “dumb blonde” counter-intelligence agents discuss how in 1994 they brilliantly caught out Aldrich Ames, a senior fellow CIA counter-intelligence operative who had been passing vital secrets to the Soviet Union for nine years. Ames was responsible for the most damaging penetration ever of the CIA. His efforts led to the identification and ultimate execution of many American spies and the compromise of more than 100 covert operations during the Cold War. Ames is presently serving a life sentence without hope of parole.


Aldrich Ames
Aldrich Ames, a very senior CIA counter-intelligence officer, betrayed
his fellow co-workers and his country. He is serving a life sentence.

In contrast, not that far removed from reality in a temporary movie-related special exhibit, Emma Peel’s seductive leather pants stand alongside John Steed’s lethal bowler hat. A selection of 007’s paraphernalia shares display space with Max Smart’s shoe telephone. Nearby, a real-life but seemingly fictional video tape features the late and unlamented Senator Joe McCarthy in full “reds-under-the-bed” flight.

Book first

The International Spy Museum may be found on F Street between 8th and 9th in downtown Washington DC. Bookings are required (advance internet bookings are accepted) and adult tickets cost $15 ($14 for seniors and less for children). Plan to stay at least two hours. Four hours will permit a fuller exploration of each boutique-style exhibit and time to watch the videos that accompany most of them. Two-hour street parking is cheap but not easy to find (go early), but the museum is close to a Metrorail station and parking garages.

Check further details and book your tickets on http://www.spymuseum.org.