The Magazine

I Spy!

Washington's newest museum is worth investigating.

Mar 10, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 25 • By DEBRA J. SAUNDERS
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WEAR YOUR TRENCH COAT, your coolest shades, dab your gorgeous self with a scent that suggests of mystery and intrigue. You're going to a museum that's more fun than museums are supposed to be: Washington's new International Spy Museum.

You enter on "a need to know basis," and for that you plunk down $11 ($8 for children). Then you're on to your first assignment. It starts with your picking among a small menu for the identity you want to assume for your visit. I choose "Sandra Miller," an American-born Australian who is visiting Austria on a buying trip for my clothing business. Then comes a videotaped briefing on the "realities spies face every day."

Next, a computerized border guard asks you questions--and you're in trouble if you can't remember the details of your cover identity: Where you were born, why you're visiting, how long, and whether you plan to rent a car. (The car rental was the trick question that flustered many afternoon spies the day I visited. I have to brag here. After watching five or so people blow their interrogation, I aced the test and made it into Austria undetected, with no Austrian agents following me.) Other interactive computer video games allow you to find a spy in disguise, pick out suspicious-looking figures in a park near some apartment buildings, or find where secret documents in a park can be "dropped." (Okay, so I didn't ace these games, but the crowds were distracting. "You'll get better with experience," CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield later assures me.) Pint-sized spies may choose to crawl through metal overhead air ducts to see how much noise they make--which is a lot.

The museum, spokeswoman Jennifer Saxon explains, focuses on "human intelligence." Saxon refers to George Washington as "America's first spy master, the father of American intelligence." The museum credits author Daniel Defoe as the father of the British Secret Service. There are displays highlighting spies for France's Cardinal Richelieu and Queen Marie Antoinette. An exhibit on female spies focuses on the dazzling incompetence of Mata Hari, and another exhibit shows the deadly competence of Cheka chief Felix Dzerzhinsky. Others focus on the victories of anonymous "spies--code-breakers and disinformation dispensers--whose less glamorous work saved the lives of compatriots under fire." The exhibits about non-human spying included fascinating "pigeon cam" photographs, taken by a camera attached to a carrier pigeon during World War II.

The "Wilderness of Mirrors" room focuses on notorious spies and double agents who got caught. Two videotapes show how intelligence agents caught and apprehended FBI agent turned traitor Robert Hanssen and CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames. (Ames was so arrogant and sexist, he didn't think the women looking for a CIA mole would target him.) The videos, Saxon explains, also give visitors a welcome opportunity to rest their feet.

The section about the Rosenbergs is refreshingly straightforward: They're guilty. They were spying for the Soviets, and Soviet documents establish their guilt. Their contacts used the boxes of lemon-flavored Jell-O to make themselves known. Alger Hiss, too, is openly declared guilty. The spy museum, as a privately run, for-profit institution, feels no need for the typical hand-wringing disclaimers about how many Americans believe the Rosenbergs are not guilty. The video about the House Committee on un-American Activities features Walt Disney testifying against Communists in Hollywood, without high-minded denunciations.

Then again, since it's a private venture, the museum does not take it upon itself to lecture visitors on who's been naughty and who's been nice. "In a democracy, it is especially important for the public to have a more realistic understanding of the intelligence business so we can appreciate its role in our society and impact upon major world events," the International Spy Museum founder Milton Maltz intones in a press release.

Yeah, sure. Since it's a museum, it has to espouse some higher purpose, instead of confessing to the pure entertainment value of a series of great stories, intriguing history, portraits of patriots and traitors and an early James Bond Jaguar, replete with automatic fire power, rotating license plates, and tire slashers. (The museum store is a good place to buy gag gifts and stocking stuffers.) If you have followed the stories of John Walker, the Navy officer who sold military secrets to the Soviets, Robert Hanssen, and the British agents Sidney Reilly and Kim Philby, then this is the place for you.

Mansfield notes that the CIA has kept itself at "arm's length" from the museum. But, he adds, he knows many CIA employees who have enjoyed visiting. "CIA employees are spy buffs, too."

Spy buffs? Like me? Saunders. Debra J. Saunders. I take my martinis shaken, not stirred.

Debra J. Saunders writes a nationally syndicated column for the San Francisco Chronicle.