Having a chance to come to Washington DC, I was tempted to check in with the NSA, Langley or even the massive buildings of Homeland Security coordinating the information analysis business along the Beltway, but was afraid I might just fall off the grid, never to be heard from again. Not good. Instead, I decided that a visit to the much lauded International Spy Museum would have a better end game, particularly since I’m pretty sure that my inner Jason Bourne wouldn’t be triggered, though I could uncover my secret SMERSH sleeper status. A chance I was willing to take, because life’s full of risks. Once I had established an airtight alibi with the hotel staff, I took a limo to the popular Washington DC museum for a quick visit.
The limo ride is important because not only did the hotel limo driver prove to be a great source of information about the city, but he had a curiously prescient anecdote about driving Sean Connery years earlier to an event, and mentioning that Mr. Connery should visit the Spy Museum when he had a chance. “Oh? I don’t know much about that subject” Connery responded with his dry wit. “Ah,” you say, “the driver was just blowing smoke” except he pulled a photo album out of his glove compartment and sure enough, showed me a photo of him and Connery standing by a black limo. Very nice indeed.
So it was a sign. If 007 had driven past the museum — and perhaps at some point visited too — then it was time for me to establish a strong cover story, make a few subtle changes to my body language, facial expression and gait, and slip into the International Spy Museum, courtesy of a ticket from the media outreach team. Which, yes, meant that I’d lost my plausible deniability. But I’m sure Flint would have a solution. I just need to figure it out…
And so the first thing that you encounter when you enter the museum is indeed a place where you are invited to choose and memorize a cover identity:
I couldn’t decide whether Le Van Ha or Gary Wozniak would have been a better cover identity for me. 50 year old Vietnamese woman, or 25 year old Kiwi singer. Decisions, decisions…
After an interesting video about the business of espionage, it was into the School for Espionage proper, featuring a variety of Cold War learning stations, including this one about drop signals, marks that denoted a secret package or message hidden in a predetermined other spot, ready for pickup by the spy, spymaster, handler or a third party.
Can you find the four signals in the below photograph?
Hint: One of them is the chalk mark on the front of the second mailbox.
The second part of the “school” was even more interesting, with actual spy gear that only “Q” from the Bond series could love. Except they’re real and were used by spies in the field, both American, English and Russian. Here’s a great example, a cigarette that’s actually a one-shot gun:
I know that “smoking kills” but usually you don’t expect it be so rapid an affair.
Just about everything at the International Spy Museum had a story behind it, because during the height of the Cold War, the Americans and Russians were expending an extraordinary amount of time and energy trying to find each other’s secrets. Like this one, a beautiful wooden sculpture of the great seal of America that Russian school children gave to the US ambassador to the USSR in a fancy ceremony:
It wasn’t until six years after the Ambassador hung the sculpture in his study that technicians found a small audio bug hidden within the seal, a bug that was activated by an ultra-high frequency beam generated by a van parked near the embassy. Six years of it letting the KGB know everything that the US Ambassador was discussing about US / Soviet relations.
There are also some classic espionage and code breaking devices on display, including an Enigma machine, a famous crypto system used by Nazi Germany during World War II to encipher messages to and from its embassies, military troops, U-boats and more. A system that was broken by the 1500 diligent workers — including Alan Turing, famously — at Bletchley Park, an ultra secret facility just an hour’s drive from London:
Indeed, WWII leading into the Cold War, it seems like the zenith of spy tech and gear was from about 1940-1990 or so, as highlighted in some of the WWII-era displays.
And then there was all the gear from the Cold War itself, including this sleek audio recorder issued by the feared Stasi to surreptitiously capture audio:
As with so many devices, it’s hard not to think about how smartphones and microelectronics have completely changed how these sort of devices work. The Nagra recorder can be replaced with an Android app and you’ll get better results too. Even better, someone finds you have a smartphone? That sure doesn’t make you a secret agent, does it?
And the fear and fascination with the Cold War, spies and espionage was fed to children in the toys and games of the 50s too, as highlighted in this particularly interesting display:
Maybe there were some kids on the block who had a a G-Men Fingerprint Set but if they found out anything it was that it’s harder to catch a Commie than it seems in the comic books or movies. Something that the International Spy Museum also touched on in its display.
007 was very much a pervasive presence too, both as a fictitious character from former MI6 spy Ian Fleming and the Bond universe of cinema both. Starting with a beautiful Aston Martin DB5 car, as featured in both Goldfinger and the more recent Skyfall:
Before I could continue my mission, however, I crawled through a top-secret airduct for some real hands-on spying on other visitors to the museum:
It got even more interesting when I headed downstairs to the exhibit of Bond movie memorabilia and famous villains:
There were more movie props than you can shake a stick at, along with some really interesting hands-on exhibits too, like this one that mimicked a scene from The Spy Who Loved Me, when 007 disarms a nuclear warhead, while staying cool and collected:
I didn’t have quite so much luck, so it’s lucky that it was a dud.
One of the things I most enjoyed was the artist’s rendering of the famous “laser room” from the film Goldfinger:
This set was where a Bond villain had perhaps one of the most memorable lines in the entire series: “Do you expect me to talk?” 007 asks Goldfinger, to which he responds “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”
And how about the modified dentist’s chair for one of the more chilling scenes in Spectre:
Bad guys wouldn’t be bad guys if they didn’t have lots of money lying around, and bad guy Donald Greene uses the below case of Euros to try and bribe his way out of a jam in Quantum of Solace:
Ah, if only it were real, eh?
And, finally, perhaps my very favorite item in the entire exhibit, the SPECTRE ring from the film Spectre:
At that point my cover was blown and my alibi was running out, so I ducked out a fire door (after disarming the alarms and sensors, of course), and hoofed it through the back alleys of DC back to my hotel, and then into my room through the service elevator and the good graces of Maria, the gal from housekeeping.
Mission accomplished. And since I haven’t yet been disavowed, a job well done.
The International Spy Museum, 800 F St NW, Washington, DC 20004, spymuseum.org.
Disclosure: The International Spy Museum gave me a ticket to the exhibit so I could explore the museum.