Editor’s Note: The below is a larger version of a piece published in the current issue of National Review.
If you like espionage — its history, its methods, its moral questions — you will love the new International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. If you don’t especially like espionage — you may still love the museum, for it is an excellent one, even an enthralling one. Personally, I’m not much for museums. I was in full sympathy with Art Buchwald’s classic shtick, “The Six-Minute Louvre.” But the new spy museum, I stuck with as long as my feet held out.
I have said “new.” The museum was established in 2002, in the Penn Quarter of Washington, downtown. Now it is bigger, better, more impressive — in L’Enfant Plaza, just off the National Mall, not far behind the Smithsonian Castle. The spy museum is not part of the Smithsonian, however. It is a private museum.
Who put up the money? Milton and Tamar Maltz, of Cleveland. They are great philanthropists, and museum-builders. They are a big reason that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland. They also established a museum of Jewish heritage in Beachwood, a suburb of that city. Why espionage? For one thing, Mr. Maltz, who earned a fortune in the radio-and-television industry, once worked for the National Security Agency.
In his new museum, there is a plaque, with a statement from him: “Information is powerful. And precious. It can shape battles, shake nations, protect us . . . or control us. Which is why nations spy.”
The lobby features a car, and not just any car: an Aston Martin DB5, i.e., a James Bond–mobile. The license plate reads “JB 007.” In the gift shop, a sign says, “Shaken, Not Stirred.” It advertises a book called “Bond Cocktails: Over 20 Classic Cocktail Recipes for the Secret Agent in All of Us.”
This is what you might dismiss as “boob bait.” The intelligence professionals associated with this museum tend to roll their eyes at it. I have always enjoyed the Bond franchise, but I understand their point.
H. Keith Melton expresses no contempt for Bond, at least to me. But he does say he is not much for spy novels and related entertainment. He prefers nonfiction. If he does read a novel, it will likely be by a former agent, someone who really knows what he’s talking about. He mentions, in particular, Jason Matthews, an ex–CIA man.
Melton is one of the world’s foremost experts on intelligence, or the “shadow world.” He is also, by some accounts, the world’s foremost collector of spyware: the things, the stuff, the equipment, the gadgets, associated with the shadow world. He has collected these items from all over the world. More than 5,000 of them are in this museum.
The items look great on their own, says Melton. But when you put them in a $162 million facility, courtesy the Maltzes, “they look that much better.”
Can Melton name a few of his favorites — a few favorite items or artifacts, big or small? He answers this way: “My wife once said, ‘If a fire started in the collection, what would you save first?’ I answered, ‘I’d probably burn up from indecision.’”
I will mention an outstanding item, however: the ice-climbing ax with which Ramón Mercader, a Spanish agent of Stalin, murdered Leon Trotsky in 1940. I think of William F. Buckley Jr., who thought of Whittaker Chambers, who quoted Trotsky: “If you wish to lead a quiet life, you picked the wrong century to be born in.” Chambers went on to comment that “the point was finally proved when a pickaxe mauled the brain of the man who framed those words.”
To hear a podcast I did with Keith Melton — a Q&A — go here.
Before you really get going in this museum, as you are being introduced, you see fascinating items — fascinating, at least, to those of us steeped in the spy world. A sketchbook owned by Rudolf Abel, the KGB colonel who was a part-time artist. A hat and suitcase belonging to James Jesus Angleton — some of us love to say his full name — the legendary, and highly problematic, American counterintelligence chief.
Labels next to items are like labels next to paintings in art museums — for instance, “Twin Robot surveillance cameras concealed in flower pot/ window box, East Germany (Stasi), 1960s-1970s.”
You, the visitor, can be a secret agent, if you want to. This is gimmicky but possibly fun, especially for youngsters. You go to a computer that says, “We are issuing you a cover identity that will allow you to move covertly while on a mission in a foreign country. You must be convincing and LIVE your cover!” Then: “Let’s assess your personality so we can generate a cover that suits you.” They do this — they assess your personality — by means of a few questions. You pick photos, from groups of photos, that stand out to you.
I play along for a bit. My name — my cover identity — is Hayden Perez. My hometown is Puebla City, Mexico. My occupation is photographer. Where do they send me, on my secret mission? Jakarta. (Never been there, actually. Would like to go.)
Once all this is established, you proceed to a briefing room, where you watch a film narrated by Morgan Freeman (the actor who is America’s Narrator). “What is it that might attract you?” he says. “Intrigue? The seduction of danger? Or maybe a sense of adventure? To become a spy requires a commitment to secrecy. A life hidden in the shadows. To collect that one piece of information, make that one connection, that could make allll the difference.”
He continues, “To be a spy is to be on the front lines of an ongoing secret war for information.”
As you tour the museum, you can engage in interactive exercises, to test your spy skills — or you can ignore all of this, and treat the museum as a regular museum, so to speak.
The museum is a combination of the neato and the serious, even the very grave. “Spy stuff is cooler than regular stuff,” says a poster. True. Of course, the neato and the grave sometimes blend. Gadgets help an agent in the carrying out of a dangerous assignment, for an extremely serious purpose. You see this in the Bond movies, when Q gives 007 his equipment, his gadgetry.
The real Q was an Englishman named Charles Fraser-Smith, about whom you can learn in the new spy museum. He is quoted as having said, “Knowing when something of mine went well — a gadget really worked out and out-foxed the enemy, perhaps helping to save a valuable life — was all I needed by way of inspiration.”
In the museum, you see objects large and small. There is a lipstick pistol (small). And there is a “Sleeping Beauty,” a “motorized submersible canoe” used by the Brits in World War II (at the time Fraser-Smith was working). “How do you sneak up on a warship?” the museum asks you. Why, with a Sleeping Beauty.
Bigger than this underwater canoe — a lot bigger — is a section of the Berlin Tunnel. This is a massive relic of a failed U.S.-U.K. operation in the 1950s. (The Soviets found out about it early, from their British mole George Blake.) In fact, there is an extensive exhibit on Berlin, “City of Spies.”
We see the spy-kit that agents received after graduation from Stasi school. (Rubber gloves to avoid fingerprints, test tubes for the storing of hair and fiber samples, etc.) We see a replica of a room in the Palasthotel — East Berlin — fitted out for surveillance.
Keith Melton has told me a little about the East Germans: “They were a formidable intelligence service. They were the one service that the KGB almost looked up to. Their camera technique is still startling for its sophistication.”
On a monitor, you can watch propaganda videos, from various countries in various periods. I take note of a recent one: a Chinese rap video, made in 2017. The rap is called “No to THAAD” — those initials being an acronym for the U.S. missile-defense system installed in South Korea.
You get to the ax, of course — the Trotsky ax — but you don’t see it in isolation. You get the whole story, including this: How did Mercader happen to be in Trotsky’s Mexican compound, so heavily guarded? (To begin with, Mercader spent two years seducing the sister of Trotsky’s former secretary.) In addition, you see the spectacles that Mercader wore on the fateful day — shattered, because he was immediately beaten up by Trotsky’s guards — and the gold watch that the Kremlin gave him in appreciation.
(After 20 years in a Mexican prison, Mercader lived out his life in the Soviet Union and Cuba — sort of like the way an American goes from the Northeast or Midwest to Florida, for the winter.)
The International Spy Museum is a history lesson — stretching back to Sir Francis Walsingham, the spymaster of Queen Elizabeth I. A video shows an actor and an actress playing that pair. The queen says to him, “You are a cunning devil. Indeed, we would have your head were it not so nobly employed defending our own.”
Actually, the history lesson stretches back a long way before that — to Sun Tzu: “An army without agents is like a man without eyes and ears.” Actually, it stretches back a long way before that — to the Trojan Horse, that fantastic ruse.
In American Revolutionary times, we meet a slave, James Armistead — later, James Lafayette. He spied for the Continental Army, reporting to Lafayette. Or did he spy for the British general Cornwallis? A little of each? James Armistead Lafayette is a fascinating story.
I am reminded that my onetime colleague Alexander Rose wrote a book: Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring.
The accent in the museum, however, is on the 20th century. We walk through World War I; the Bolshevik Revolution; World War II; the Cold War, and the hot wars fought within it, including Vietnam; Chinese Communism; and so on. Then we go into the 21st century, with the War on Terror — including “The Hunt for bin Laden” — and other contemporary concerns.
“How open is your social media?” the museum asks. “What can be learned from your online presence?”
There is an exhibit entitled “Cyber: The New Battlefield.” I think of John McCain, the late senator, whom I interviewed in 2015, and who had recently received a briefing on cyber threats. He said it was “the most disturbing” briefing he had ever received.
Almost ten years ago, I wrote a history of the Nobel Peace Prize. I found that, inadvertently — through the lens of a prize — I was writing a history of the 20th century (with a spillover into the next one). The new spy museum, whether it intends to be or not, is a museum of 20th-century history (with the same spillover).
Best of all, however, it tells you what it’s like to be a spy. Or a handler. Or a director. There are many videos of professionals giving testimony. There is no substitute for their experience, their realism — which can be more hair-raising than any novel or movie.
“How long can a spy live a double life?” asks the museum. Naveed Jamali has an answer. He is an American who worked for the FBI while the Russians thought he was working for them. “Four years,” he says. “That’s about as long as I think someone can live this double life. . . . I began to do stupid things . . . that could’ve gotten me caught. It was like I wanted it to end. That’s when I knew I was done.”
Mosab Hassan Yousef is a Palestinian, the son of one of the founders of Hamas — therefore a “green prince.” (Green is the color of Hamas and other Islamist movements.) He spied for Israel for ten years. He saved a lot of lives. His handler — his contact on the Israeli side — was Gonen Ben-Yitzhak. Can you imagine the trust that an agent must place in his handler — his lifeline?
Then there is Morten Storm, a marked man, the subject of a fatwa (a call for his death). Last year, he spoke into a camera. We see him and watch him, in the museum. Storm is a Dane who grew up rough. At 16, he joined a Muslim gang, and later he was a soldier in a worldwide jihad. But he had a change of heart, horrified at what he was part of. At enormous risk to himself, he decided to betray his jihad friends — and spy for the Danes, the Brits, and us Americans. His information led us to Anwar al-Awlaki, a key figure in al-Qaeda, who was in Yemen. (He was a U.S. citizen, incidentally.) We killed him by drone.
In the exhibit on Morten Storm, we see a bunch of old cellphones — eleven of them. They were the ones carried by Storm, and he had to juggle them. He had to know which one was for which purpose. The museum asks — and it is a very good question — “Can you imagine intending to send a text to CIA . . . but accidentally sending it to Al Qaeda instead?” That would be a fatal mistake.
Talking to us in that video, Storm says he asks himself, “Was it worth it?” Did he make the right decision to spy for the West, against his fellow jihadists? His answer is yes — he saved a lot of lives. But, in so doing, he put his own in peril, and he essentially gave up his freedom for the rest of his life, because he can’t live openly. Also, there are severe complications for his family, obviously. He has a message for anyone who might consider spying in the future: Weigh the consequences carefully. Ask yourself, “Is it worth dying for?” If it isn’t, don’t do it. If it is . . .
“Who was a good spy, a great spy?” That is a question I put to Keith Melton. There have been many, of course, but one of them — the one he cites — is Oleg Penkovsky. The museum suggests that he was the spy “who saved the world.” He was a Russian who lived from 1919 to 1963, when he was executed by the Soviets. He had spied for the West, providing critical information about nuclear weapons, which was of great use to President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis (which could have sparked a third world war).
When intelligence pros get together — when they gather from various parts of the world — they talk shop. They don’t talk about politics or morality. They don’t get gooey. They are fellow practitioners, and they talk craft. Yet there is a moral dimension of espionage: a dimension of right and wrong, of “What is your purpose?”
Melton says, “Intelligence is our first line of defense. I would submit to you that more wars are fought because of bad intelligence than good intelligence, and good intelligence keeps us safe, and it is a very, very dangerous world we live in, and thank heavens for the men and women of our intelligence services, who are out there risking their lives.”
I think of Vernon Walters, the late diplomat, general, and spymaster (CIA). I came to know him a bit, late in his life. But, long before that, when I was in high school, I read his memoirs, Silent Missions, published in 1978. Before getting to the first page, I was struck by the dedication: “To the brave men and women who have laid down their lives on the invisible battlefield that we might live free.”