By Chris McBeath

Today, it is estimated that there are 42 active counter-intelligence agencies in the world, spending over US$30 billion per year. That’s about $82,191,780 per day.

We were given two minutes to accept our mission before the room darkened and shielded us from the evidence. Just two minutes to assume our legend – our cover – which was to be our only protection over the next three hours as we lied, side-stepped and tried to stay alive in the cold, unforgiving world of espionage. It’s a world few of us ever realize up close, but at Washington DC’s International Spy Museum, it’s one which is as captivating as it is imaginative, from the moment you step out of the ‘briefing’ room. Assuming, of course, that you’ve accepted your mission.

Spy People

Like an open invitation to become a legend in your own lifetime, the International Spy Museum is hard to resist. If only for an afternoon, it lets you join the ranks of celebrated spies such as John Ford, Sterling Hayden, Marlene Dietrich, Josephine Baker and yes, even the culinary queen, Julia Child.
Put together by a crack team of spy experts, this $38 million museum explores the history, practice and craftsmanship of espionage.  The museum is an immersive experience, headed by Executive Director, L. Peter Earnest who himself worked for the CIA for 36 years, 20 of which were in the Agency’s Clandestine Service.

An orientation video whets your appetite, and outlines the motivations, tools and techniques of real-life spies. Thus primed, you enter a room called Covers and Legends where you are given a cover identity and two minutes to memorize specific details such as your occupation, the reason for your travel, and your birthday. From here, you move through a ‘check-point’ into a room filled with interactive games that test your ability to maintain your cover identity. In other words, a real spy game, and you’re it!

Spy Gadgets

But a spy without gadgets would surely be no match for 007 and as you move through a series of rooms, you’ll discover the world’s largest permanent collection of international spy-related artifacts as well as the wannabe variety: James Bond’s silver Aston Martin DB5 with all the bells and whistles. Real-life tools of the trade have included the ‘ultimate kiss of death’: a lipstick pistol from the 60s developed by the KGB as a 4.5mm single shot weapon, hollow coins and shaving cans used to conceal items, a shoe with heel transmitter that could monitor secret conversations, a typewriter that would emit signals of documents as they were typed, and the proverbial trench coat with a camera built into one of the buttons.

One inter-active section deals exclusively with codes, from simple letter/number codes to the elaborate Enigma cipher machine of WWII, and the Vietnam prisoner’s tap-code which was the sole communication between soldiers being held in solitary confinement.

The museum quickly seduces you into its world of shadows. Before long, you find yourself learning about espionage tactics used by ancient cultures and bygone eras. Indeed, snooping around other people’s business is a time-honoured tradition. There is a replica of the ancient Rosetta Stone, which the Egyptians used as a cipher device against invaders; a history of the Japanese spy-assassins, the Ninjas; and a revealing account of Sun Tsu, the ancient Chinese military strategist and author of The Art of War, the world’s first do-it-yourself war manual written some 2,000 years ago. Sun Tzu was an active proponent of spying and his tactics were later formalized by Sir Francis Walsingham when he created a network of secret servants, intrigues and innovative codes that helped keep Queen Elizabeth I on the throne for 45 years.

The Cold Era

Most visitors associate the hey-day of spying with the Cold War, an era which the museum has highlighted propaganda, training films and even a replica of the Berlin Wall Tunnel. Many East Germans used this underground railroad to escape to the West and surprisingly, the tunnel even contains a washer and dryer so that people who were digging the tunnel could come out clean so as not to arouse suspicion.  At that time, Berlin swarmed with the most spies in the world – over 8,000 of them – so it’s little wonder to learn that the East Germans knew of the tunnel from its inception, and allowed it to continue so as to maintain the cover of some high-placed agents.

Several of these agents emerged as some of the most notorious modern-day spies and traitors: the Cambridge Five in England, Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent who sold secrets for cash and diamonds to the Soviets for over 15 years, and the most injurious turncoat of all, Aldrich Ames. As head of the CIA’s Soviet counterintelligence, Ames sold damaging secrets to the Soviets for over a decade. Ten10 of the spies revealed by Ames were later executed by the Soviets.

Spies Tell All (almost)

One of the best parts of the museum is towards the end, where you have the opportunity of meeting with an ex-intelligence officer.  During our visit, a very pregnant, 30-something woman, supposedly called Cynthia, chatted about anything you could throw at her.  Standing against a backdrop of backlit murals of different countries, showing important-looking grid lines and red lights, some flashing – she answered questions on how to get into the Secret Service (if you have a 3.5 average and a college degree, it can be as simple as attending a job fair); how to maintain your cover (keep it really dull and always simple); and what training you receive (everything from basic weaponry to more sophisticated tactics depending on your assignment). The hardest thing for her, Cynthia confided, was to keep quiet. “You’re advised to tell at least one person the truth about what you do, but I was a real blabbermouth. I told my husband, my mother, father, sister and a couple of my best friends.”

Step into the 5,000 square foot store, and this spy-stuff takes on a less serious dimension, with items such as pens with invisible ink and fingerprint powder for sale alongside logo-embossed t-shirts and baseball caps. All the same, you leave the museum wondering. Today, Washington DC has the highest concentration of spies of any city in the world, and since the spy credo is to trust no-one, nothing is as it seems, you have to wonder whether your cabbie is, in fact, living a legend.

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