I Spy . . . A Museum

This aerial view shows the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, northeast of Brazil, Tuesday, June 2, 2009. AP Photo/Eraldo Peres

Imagine a gun disguised as a silvery tube of lipstick, a camera hidden behind a coat button or a tree stump that's really an eavesdropping device.

Props for the next James Bond movie? Maybe.

They're also genuine tools of spycraft, used by real-life spooks around the world, and these devices and hundreds of other items go on display when the International Spy Museum opens Friday.

Organizers say it's the first public museum in the United States dedicated to espionage, and the only one to provide a global perspective on an art form dating back to biblical times, when Moses assigned 12 Israelites to "spy out the land" of Canaan, promised to them by God.

A particularly prized exhibit, never before seen in public, is a one-page letter Gen. George Washington wrote in February 1777. In it, Washington offers Nathaniel Sackett, a New York political activist and merchant for the Continental Army, $50 a month to set up a network to obtain "the earliest and best intelligence of the designs of the enemy."

Museum officials recently bought the letter from a private collector. It had remained with Sackett's family until a few years ago and was reprinted in a newspaper in 1931.

"Espionage is as old as recorded time, and probably older," says E. Peter Earnest, a 36-year CIA veteran who spent two decades in the agency's clandestine service. He is now the museum's executive director.

Former spies who serve on the museum's advisory boards, including former FBI and CIA chief William Webster and retired KGB Gen. Oleg Kalugin, helped gather more than 1,000 spy tools from the United States and other countries, including England, East Germany and the Soviet Union. About 600 pieces will be displayed initially.

Among the gizmos:

  • The lipstick pistol was issued in the mid-1960s and used during the Cold War by operatives for the KGB, the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency. The 4.5-mm one-shot tube was called "The Kiss of Death."

  • The coat with buttonhole camera was issued in the 1970s and used by the KGB. When triggered by a device inside the pocket, the center of the false button opened to snap a photo.

  • The tree stump listening device was issued by the CIA in the early 1970s. The solar-powered device was stashed in the woods near a Soviet military base to capture secret military radio transmissions.

    Throughout the museum, visitors get quizzed on the details of a cover they're asked to adopt -- name, age and reason for travel.

    They can also create and break secret codes and test their ability to find examples of common surveillance, ordinary-looking spies or dead drops -- prearranged locations where undercover operatives and their handlers exchange messages, money or the goods.

    Exhibitions director Kathleen Coakley says patrons can see whether they measure up as spies.

    "We hope that visitors keep asking themselves that question: 'Could I ever use that? Could I ever do that?'"

    It was at a dead drop in suburban Virginia where Robert Hanssen was arrested last year on charges of spying for Moscow for more than 15 years. The 25-year FBI agent had just dropped off documents for his Russian contacts. Hanssen recently was sentenced to life in prison for his role in what authorities say was one of the most damaging espionage cases in U.S. history.

    His story, and that of CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames, who also fed secrets to Moscow, are among the more modern tales of rogue spying featured. The blue Postal Service mailbox that Ames marked with chalk to signal his handlers also is displayed.

    "You won't go through the museum and become a spy, but you will be sensitized to a number of things that make up the world of espionage," said Earnest, the CIA veteran.

    Hanging from the lobby's ceiling is an imposing sculpture of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, a Polish Communist and founder of the KGB's predecessor. On video, former spies describe life under cover.

    Of course, no spy museum would be complete without a nod to Agent 007. This gallery has a replica of Bond's silver Aston Martin DB5 sports car from the movie "Goldfinger."

    In development since 1996, the $40 million complex encompasses five historic buildings and includes the museum, a restaurant, a cafe and a gift shop. One of the buildings was a district headquarters for the U.S. Communist Party in the 1940s. Admission is $8-$11.

    Other exhibits focus on women spies, World War II espionage and celebrity spies.

    Among the star spies: chef Julia Child, who processed classified documents for the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA's forerunner, and Oscar-winning director John Ford, who ran the OSS photography unit.
    • Jordan Goldman

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