Politician, general, U.S. president . . . and secret agent? President George Washington, a.k.a. Agent 711, was America’s first spymaster. The newly reopened International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., puts his story—and those of real spies historical and modern—in the spotlight.
Visitors to the museum peek inside the complex workings of a spy network. They’ll learn about ciphers, gadgets, covert operations, intelligence analysis, cyber espionage, and mishaps.
Curator and historian Vince Houghton says the spy museum includes both successes and failures. “We don’t get money from the government,” explains Houghton. He says the museum chooses to stay independent “because there are a lot of stories we need to tell.”
Current or former intelligence officers recount some of those spine-tingling tales. In one exhibit, a former deputy CIA director discusses how spies evaluated the information that led to raiding the hiding place of Osama bin Laden. He was founder of the al-Qaida terrorist organization responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
Another exhibit features Morten Storm, a Danish man turned Islamic radical. Storm later rejected Islam and worked for Danish intelligence as a double agent. He provided valuable intel about terror suspects.
One area recreates life under the secret police in East Germany. That oppressive culture of mass surveillance existed after World War II and before the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
“If you were interrogated harshly by the Stasi (East Germany’s security), chances are you would sweat,” Houghton says. “They’d cut out a piece of the cushion [you were sitting on], and they’d have your scent. They put it in a scent jar and if they needed to track you down, the dogs would be able to go and find you.”
Code-breaking equipment, hidden cameras, disguises . . . The museum features 10,000 such spycraft memorabilia and tools. Other objects include
—a chunk of America’s U2 spy plane shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960
—a piece of a tunnel into East Germany where U.S. spies tapped Soviet communications
—a “stress position” interrogation box that’s too narrow to sit in and too low to stand in
Further, museum visitors can try creating disguises and cracking codes at interactive stations.
Yet for all the modern gadgets at this re-imagined museum, Houghton’s favorite is one of the oldest: a letter Agent 711 wrote creating the first U.S. intelligence agency.
“It’s the Magna Carta for American intelligence,” he says. “It’s the founding document, and we have it. It’s as cool as it gets.”