I SPY WITH A SECRET GUY
Megan Singleton teams up with a former CIA agent at a Washington museum
WHEN visiting the city administering the global war on terror, adding the International Spy Museum (adjacent to the FBI building) to your itinerary makes for an interesting sidebar.
Visitors to Washington, DC, are there for the White House, museums, monuments and memorials. But I want the lowdown on reallife espionage and skulduggery and so take a former CIA agent with me to check out if a specialist espionage museum really lives up to the hype.
The former head of counter-terrorism was my surrogate dad for a year in the 1980s when I was a wide-eyed exchange student who landed with his family and spent 12 months at high school with his daughters. He was required to get permission from the agency (that’s what those on the inside call it) to host me, and we’ve all become incredibly close over the past 20 years.
We start at the Spy City Cafe adjoining the museum entrance. A Langley Dog for him (all-beef hot dog, chilli, chopped onions and grated cheese), an MI-5 Dog (all-beef hot dog, crunchy onions, bacon and grated English cheese) for my American mother and a Disguise Dog for me (basically anything).
After lunch it’s time to start spying. We buy our tickets and walk through the futuristic, blue-lit corridor into a lift for the third floor. Fans of suave James Bond and lovers of secret surveillance would adore this place. Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 is in the pop-culture room, but first we must assume an identity selected from profiles on the walls and memorise as many details as possible.
The labyrinth of rooms over three floors covers spy history dating from biblical times to the early 20th century, including ancient decoded documents and information on celebrity spies such as Marlene Dietrich and chef Julia Child.
I pore over the history of Cold War spy techniques, with double-crossing agents and wartime starlets-turned-informants and learn how to smuggle seven people into a car to cross a border. A pistol disguised in a lipstick case, used by the KGB, sits alongside other confiscated weapons and phone-taps, which have become tinier over the years.
I watch video interviews of real-life spy stories and intelligence blunders and try my luck with a training video to spot secret drop points and identify dodgy men with thick moustaches at a subway station. However, I am advised to stick to my day job, while the real spy with me does great. Shame he retired, I think, while also wondering where information on today’s spy techniques could be. I don’t find anything, but I suppose it makes sense that people in the process of spying keep their spy secrets secret.
On the way out I take a quiz about my assumed identity and forget to keep all my clues secret. I am mock-arrested but fortunately not tortured.