Written by Lee who got to visit the Spy Museum which really should be called the perfect for Lee museum – Trace
Do me a favor, take a few minutes and watch this with me. It’s fun!
When I was a kid I wasn’t really interested in anything at all, except maybe reading and being in my own head. For a while I lived with a pretty big family that wasn’t mine, and altogether there were seven of us kids, five of them boys. I was the youngest (except for a baby) and the scrawniest, and since I wasn’t interested in sportsball I was largely ignored and left alone, which was fine with me. I was a weird kid. In the summers we would frequently all get piled into this massive old station wagon and go to a drive in, for double features. Some of us would lay on top and watch the movies from up there, and since I was so young most of the movies were way over my head, so I would get bored. I saw a LOT of stuff I was way too young to see. I saw Carrie when I was 8. I saw Jaws. at 7. People don’t understand why I don’t like to swim. I saw lots of terrible “B” horror movies, which is probably why I hate those kinds of movies. Anyway, I always fell asleep long before the first movie was over.
In 1979, we went to a double feature of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, and it completely changed my life. After seeing those movies, I devoured every Ian Fleming book multiple times, and was fascinated by anything even remotely related to James Bond. Of course this was before VHS rentals, so I could only see the movies on the rare occasion they were on TV. And when they were, I would record the audio with a desktop tape recorder and listen to them over and over. To this day I can recite entire chunks of some of those movies from memory.
I’m left handed, so as a kid my handwriting was abysmal. I had to constantly write to improve it, and my Mom suggested I write spy stories, so I did that. I wrote a lot of really bad spy stories that to this day I think were pretty good. My Mom said they were, anyway. After I had read all the Fleming novels multiple times, I started reading other spy novels. Of course, none of them were quite the same, but that world and that topic just fascinated and intrigued me. It sparked a lifelong interest in the unseen parts of world history. It sparked a love of technology. Eventually all those stories I read and wrote and the fascination with technology morphed into an interest in film-making, and I spent almost all of my childhood making really bad spy movies with my friends. I got my first job bussing tables so I could pay for 3 minute rolls of movie film at K-Mart. That job is where I met Tracy. When I was 14 and she was 16 I talked her into being in one of my movies in a negligee because the villain needed a hot chick lounging around in his lair. This is an absolutely true story and shows Lee’s powers of persuasion at a very young age. I will say that I was completely covered in this outfit, but it was a super risque thing to do. To this day I am not sure how he talked me into it. – Trace
When I graduated from high school I joined the Air Force and asked to be sent to England. Ultimately I ended up being stationed at an intelligence base where most of the people who worked there spent all day and all night listening to the Russians. I didn’t work in intelligence, but my girlfriend and most of the people I knew did.
When we came to D.C. one of the first things on my list to see was the International Spy Museum. I was so geeked up about it that I kept putting it off because if it was awful I was afraid it ruin the entire week. I couldn’t believe he kept not going and was so glad when he finally took a day and went. – Trace But just imagine how happy I was when I finally walked in the door and found myself face to face with a 1964 Aston Martin DB5.
It’s almost like they knew I was coming.
The museum has rigged up the car so that every 30 minutes the machine guns come out and vibrate, and the rear window shield pops up and the tire-slasher spins, along with sound and music. It’s pretty cheesy and delightful, and I shot some video of it. The process of trying to figure out how to best present that video turned into a love letter to the 1964 Aston Martin DB5. Enjoy. Lee spent several hours on this. He really does love these cars – Trace
Before I go any further, let me get some basic details out of the way. This place isn’t on the mall, or in the “touristy” area. Spies are supposed to be unsung heroes, after all, living their lives in the shadows, hidden in plan sight. (Although it has often been said that a man who can walk into any bar anywhere in the world and the bartender knows he wants a vodka martini, shaken, not stirred, is the worst spy ever.) The museum is at L’Enfant Plaza, which is fun to say with an exaggerated accent. There’s a metro station nearby, and you can’t miss this place, it’s easy to spot from blocks away.
When I visited, CoVid precautions have all but one entrance closed, and the price of a ticket was pretty steep.
Adult (13-64) – $24.95
Youth (7-12) – $16.95
Child (6 and under) – FREE
Senior / Military / Law Enforcement /Intelligence Community / College Student* (with valid ID) – $22.95
I didn’t mind, but as always I immediately thought of the hypothetical family of four that lives in my head and can’t afford to do much. $83 is pretty pricey for those guys, but luckily, I was all alone. I was tempted to ask them how people in the Intelligence community were supposed to get the discount because they’re mostly not supposed to tell people they’re in the intelligence community. But I got yelled at for taking my mask off to grab that Aston Martin selfie (which I absolutely should not have done, but i was so excited I just forgot there were other people in the world) and I didn’t want to be thrown out before I even got in. So I shut the hell up and paid my money. The fact that Lee shut up and paid his money tells you everything you need to know about how excited he was – Trace
Once you pay your money you go to a bank of elevators, and you get a credit card that you use to participate in this whole complex immersion experience. You create an undercover identity and as you move through the museum you do various interactive activities which in my opinion amounts to waiting in line for your turn to poke at a screen for a few minutes.
I don’t know how that’s different from sitting at home playing games on an iPad so after the first minute or so of becoming Robin Sato, a freelance photographer from Puebla City, Mexico with the code name “Hourglass” I tossed the card in the trash and just enjoyed the exhibits.
And, oh my, the exhibits. If you are a Sportsball fan, imagine being able to go to a museum where they have the very first ball, and/or the uniform or some other holy relic of every Sportsball hero you’ve ever heard of. I got to see (really, really closely) things I have been reading about since I was a little boy. It was absolute heaven. Initially I was so excited I ran from display to display trying to see everything all at once. In the first room I was thinking, “Holy crap I can’t believe they have that. That thing is legendary. It was considered a myth, a unicorn, for decades. And it’s right in front of me. There’s just a quarter inch of glass between it and me, I can smash that glass and grab it and keep it forever!” While most other kids were arguing with each other about sports and Star Wars, my friends and I argued about whether or not gadgets used in movies were real or not. And here they all were, spread out like a feast of righteousness. All my childhood friends who said they didn’t exist can bite me. What can I say this place brings out the little kid and Lee. And little kid Lee needs a firm talking to about manners lol – Trace
The museum is organized into logical galleries and exhibits that are presented very well. The entire place has good flow, good lighting, and good signage. There’s a LOT of material, and for those who are into it, LOTS of interactive stuff, although most of that was closed/turned off/locked up due to CoVid measures.
When spies need to plant a bug, secretly snap a photo, communicate covertly, or don a disguise, they turn to Technical Operations or Tech Ops. Meet the inventors, engineers, scientists, computer whizzes, artists, and tinkerers who fuse imagination and technical know-how to create the devices agents and handlers need to overcome challenges in the field.
This is one of the things I was the most excited to see with my own eyes. This is “The Thing”, as called by western intelligence for decades. I’ve been reading about this since I was a teenager. In 1945 a group of school children visiting the US embassy in Moscow gave this beautiful hand carved seal of the US to the ambassador. It hung in his office until 1952 when technicians discovered it contained a brand new and remarkable listening device. It had no battery and no circuitry, so nobody could figure out how it worked.
It took two months for British Intelligence to figure it out. “The Thing” was a passive cavity resonator, activated by a radio beam from a van outside. When people talked, sound waves entered tiny holes under the eagle’s beak, vibrating a thin membrane which modulated the radio wave, sending it back to the van as an audio signal.
The United States and Russia played this game so hard that it is estimated that the construction of their respective embassies cost as much as 10x what they should have due to constant changes as bugs and other trickery were discovered. At one point during the early 1980’s construction of the US embassy in Moscow, the building was found to be so riddled with bugs that two entire floors were torn down and rebuilt.
During WWII, the British Intelligence officer Charles Fraser Smith was the original “Q” from the Bond movies. He was orphaned at 11 and eventually became a Christian missionary in Morocco. He learned valuable skills in getting by with almost nothing there, and began giving speeches around the country on the importance of creativity in procuring supplies with little to no resources. Impressed with his approach, visiting officers put British Intelligence onto him and he was offered the most unique role in all of intelligence.
Throughout his life he referred to his work as a “funny job in London”. He worked at the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and is credited with the ingenious gadgets that became a hallmark of tradecraft that endures to this day. After his first job, copying Spanish Army uniforms to infiltrate SOE agents into Spain, he then went on to develop and master the entire field of gadgetry, equipment and weapons. Perhaps his most famous invention was using a “left handed thread” to operate the screw on cover of a concealment container he theorized this design would evade detection because no German would ever think of trying to unscrew something the wrong way! He was also famous for his tools designed to allow escape. As someone of German descent I have to say this is genius. I probably never would have thought to turn the screw the wrong way! – Trace
In addition to the various bugs and concealed weapons, there is an equally amazing number of ways to conceal and use cameras. Literally anything you can think of can be used.
And don’t tell me the Germans didn’t attach cameras to pigeons, because they did.
It just goes on and on and on. There are exhibits covering just about every period of modern history and the role espionage played in that history , up to today.
Here are some of my favorite highlights from the collection.
They have an Enigma machine, critical to Allies winning WWII. If you don’t know the Enigma story, it’s a pretty good one. Using the Enigma cipher machine, Germany was able to communicate with the U-boat fleet, and sink more than 5,000 ships, and 13 million tons of critical supplies and cargo. Few people know that Polish Intelligence cracked the Enigma long before WWII began, and after Poland was invaded, the two chief engineers who worked on the project were exfiltrated from Poland and eventually ended up at Bletchley Park.
Bletchley was the center of code breaking efforts and between the astonishing Alan Turing’s achievements in computing, and the accomplishments of women (75% of the workforce at Bletchley were women!) the length of the war was shortened by as much as four years. Sadly Alan Turing’s efforts were never recognized during his lifetime, and as a homosexual (which was illegal in England at that time) he was convicted and his personal and professional life was ruined. His conviction led to the revocation of his security clearance, and rendered him unable to come to the United States and start a new life. He committed suicide a year or so later. It wasn’t until 2009 that the British government apologized for the appalling treatment of Turing, and he is now universally understood to be the father of modern computing. The efforts to obtain a pardon for his conviction led to the eventual passing of a law that posthumously pardoned 50,000 other gay men who were convicted and/or imprisoned for the same crime.
The secret of what went on at Bletchley Park was kept for over 30 years and today, it is a museum and memorial to code breaking.
There is an interesting exhibit on Leon Trotsky and they have some artifacts from his life and assassination, including the ice axe that was used to kill him. When Ramon Mercader, the assassin and agent of the NKVD, attacked Trotsky in his home, the blow to the head was not immediately fatal, and a struggle ensued. Trotsky’s bodyguards entered the room and beat Mercader nearly to death until Trotsky told them to stop so Mercader could be questioned. Mercader’s glasses were broken during the fight.
Trotsky died the next day following surgery, and Mercader served 20 years in Mexico for the murder. The KGB awarded him the order of Lenin while he was in prison. Following his release he lived in the Soviet Union and Cuba, and was given the gold watch by the NKVD and made a Hero of the Soviet Union, their highest honor. I should note I have never heard of these people either, but Lee knows their stories like many people know about Babe Ruth or Johnny Unitas.
Virginia Halls’s Radio
Virginia Hall was a legendary badass, there is just no other word for her. There are many, many fictional novel and film characters that are straight ripoffs of this woman. She was an American who worked for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the American Office of Special Services (OSS) during WWII as a specialist in sabotage and espionage. She was placed in France in 1941, the first female agent to arrive with instructions from the Prime Minister to “set Europe ablaze.” She obliged, and created an entire network of resistance in France, operating safe houses, helping downed pilots to escape and just generally being a massive pain in the ass to the Nazis.
Legend has it that the head of the Gestapo routinely said he would give almost anything to “get my hands on that limping bitch”. She escaped France after helping 12 (!!!) agents escape from a Nazi jail and walked over a 7500′ mountain pass in the Pyrennes to Spain, where she was arrested for illegally crossing the border. America secured her release and she WENT BACK a year later to do it all over again. The Gestapo considered her to be the most dangerous woman in Europe. Oh, sorry, I forgot to mention: In 1933, at the age of 27 she shot herself accidentally in a hunting accident, and her leg had to be amputated, so all of that was done with a wooden leg.
This is the radio she used to communicate with British Intelligence. It was powered by a car battery that she recharged by connecting it to a bicycle and generator that she would pedal.
Spies Among Us
One of the most fascinating things I read about as a kid, and that people were constantly saying was complete nonsense, were “illegals”. Trace and I are currently re-watching “The Americans”, so this well done exhibit was particularly interesting to me. The Illegals Program was the Russian sleeper agent network of agents under unofficial cover. Most spies are related officially to embassies. If someone is a “cultural attache” or some other garbage title, they are usually spies acting under diplomatic cover. But the illegals were people who were extensively trained for 7-10 years in Russia to look, sound, and act like Americans. If you haven’t watched this show I highly recommend it. The acting is exquisite and the two main characters Keri Russel and Matthew Rhys have amazing chemistry and actually fell in love and got married in real life during the run of the show. – Trace
They would eventually be “planted” here and live their lives, making contacts with specific types of people in order to get access to valuable intelligence that could be sent back to Russia. As I mentioned, during the Cold War this was like a ghost story, but now of course we know it was all true. (Rudolf Abel was an illegal, and he was arrested in 1957. Nowadays most espionage scholars are convinced that illegals have been operating in the US since the early 1950s, and almost all of them completely undetected.
We have seen satellite photos of the mock up American towns in Russia where training took place and lots of sleepers came “out of the cold” when the Cold War ended. And the head of Directorate S, the KGB department that ran the illegals program, Yuri Drozdov, gave many interviews after the Cold War about the program. What was once a thing that “absolutely never happened” is now “common knowledge”. What we didn’t know was the program never stopped. In 2010 an entire ring of 10 sleepers were arrested. There is an amazing exhibit showing photos of these people, and the documents that were used to establish their identities, among other artifacts.
Richard, a stay at home Dad, and Cynthia, an accountant with a big NY firm.
Were actually Vladimir and Lydia. KGB agents that worked to provide money and supplies to other agents, and obtain intelligence on American activities in Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear program, and arms reduction talks.
There are also some great exhibits about other modern spies, traitors to the US. Aldrich Ames, John Walker, the Goldbergs, and others.
One of my favorite exhibits was about how the Allies employed magicians, theater, and filmmaking experts to develop ways to create an artificial army, to fool the Germans into thinking we were going to invade at Calais, instead of Normandy. Other galleries include Covert Actions, Spying Throughout History, Making Sense of Secrets, and many more. All in all there five floors of thousands and thousands of artifacts and well done exhibits. Their Covid mitigation is excellent, and although lots of the stuff for younger folks is not available for sanitizing reasons, it’s still an excellent way to spend a day indoors. There’s also an excellent gift shop with one of the largest book sections I have ever seen in a gift shop, and probably 90% non-fiction. I stayed away. I was shocked by this but Lee’s book section in the RV is completely full!! – Trace
I could go on and on and on about this place, but I have to stop somewhere (I have six other posts I have to write about our time in DC), so this seems like a good place to stop. Hopefully I’ve provided enough of an overview to pique your interest and encourage you to go. It’s pretty amazing. I took well over 800 pictures and struggled for days to cull them down to what I included here. I cannot recommend this place highly enough, even if you aren’t an espionage junkie. You should go.
Meanwhile, 42 years after my first encounter, James Bond is still my personal hero, even with all of his flaws. And after over 40 novels, 27 movies and 66 years, he’s still a favorite of the entire world.
Deny everything. Leave no evidence. And I, was never here.
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