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.
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.
Can he name a few favorites? 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 axe 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.”
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, which, by means of a few questions, assesses your personality and gives you a cover identity. There is this admonition: “You must be convincing and LIVE your cover!” You proceed to a briefing room, where you watch a film narrated by the actor Morgan Freeman (who is America’s narrator). “What is it that might attract you? Intrigue? The seduction of danger? Or maybe a sense of adventure?”
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. Of course, these things sometimes blend. Neato gadgets help an agent in the carrying out of a dangerous assignment, for an extremely serious purpose. We see small items such as a lipstick pistol. We see larger items such as a “Sleeping Beauty” — a “motorized submersible canoe” used by the Brits in World War II. “How do you sneak up on a warship?” the museum asks you. Why, with a Sleeping Beauty.
A few items are a lot bigger than that — such as a section of the Berlin Tunnel, that failed Anglo-American operation from 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.”
Keith Melton has told me a little bit about the East Germans, in particular. “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 axe, of course — the Trotsky axe — 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.
The International Spy Museum is a history lesson — stretching back to Sir Francis Walsingham, the spymaster of Queen Elizabeth I. (A “cunning devil,” she called him.) Actually, the 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.
But the accent is on the 20th century. We walk through World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, World War II, the Cold War, Chinese Communism, hot wars within the Cold War, including Vietnam — and on into the 21st century, with the War on Terror and other contemporary concerns. One exhibit is entitled “Cyber: The New Battlefield.” I think of John McCain, the late senator, whom I interviewed in 2015. He had recently received a briefing on cyber threats — and said it was the “most disturbing” briefing he had ever received.
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). This 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.
Morten Storm is a marked man, the subject of a fatwa, a call for his death. Last year, he spoke into a camera. He 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.
Storm says that he asks himself, “Was it worth it?” 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 . . .
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?”
Keith 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.”