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The International Spy Museum just reopened in a new, larger space in L’Enfant Plaza. But it’s not just the building that’s changed: The museum has also expanded its focus, adding new exhibits that trace the history of intelligence all over the world.
Some of that history happened right here in the D.C. region, which has been — and still is — a hotbed of espionage, from the Civil War to the Cold War to today.
We hear some real-life spy yarns, set right here in Washington.
Produced by Margaret Barthel
- Vince Houghton Historian and Curator, International Spy Museum; Author, "Nuking the Moon (And Other Intelligence Schemes and Military Plots Left On The Drawing Board)"; @intelhistorian
- Jonna Mendez Former Chief of Disguise, CIA; Author, "Moscow Rules: The Secret CIA Tactics That Helped America Win the Cold War"
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast a look at the ground swell of local opposition to some of the consequences of gentrification. But first, the International Spy Museum just reopened in a new building in L'Enfant Plaza in downtown D.C. The museum is expanding its focus adding new and even controversial exhibits that trace the history of intelligence gathering around the world.
KOJO NNAMDISome of that history happened right here in the D.C. region, which has been and still is a hotbed of espionage. From the founding of the city to the Cold War to now, who skulks the streets of D.C.? Joining me in studio is Vince Houghton. He is the Curator and Historian at the International Spy Museum. He's also the author of "Nuking the Moon (And Other Intelligence Schemes and Military Plots Left On the Drawing Board)". Vince Houghton, thank you for joining us.
VINCE HOUGHTONNice to be here.
NNAMDIAlso joining me in studio is Jonna Mendez. She is the author of the upcoming book "Moscow Rules: The Secret CIA Tactics That Helped America Win the Cold War." She's the Former Chief of Disguise for the CIA. Jonna Mendez, thank you for joining us.
JONNA MENDEZThank you.
NNAMDIVince, the International Spy Museum just opened the doors to its new building over the weekend. How did it go? Are you pleased with the response so far?
HOUGHTONOh, absolutely. I think that we -- this has been a five year process to get this museum moved. And it was wonderful to see the public actually get a chance to see all that has gone into this. I mean, hundreds of people over years to put this museum together. And finally to get to introduce it to the public was a pretty wonderful day.
NNAMDIFor listeners who visited the old location, what has changed?
HOUGHTONA lot. Content is the biggest thing. The old museum primarily focused on what we call human intelligence, the spies. The new museum on the other hand is much broader. We can truly be called an intelligence museum in which where -- we're looking at all aspects of intelligence special operations that we never did before. And mainly because we just didn't have the space to do it. If everyone remembers the old museum, we were in four different historic buildings in Chinatown. Couldn't do anything to them and now we have a purpose built building that allows us to do so much more.
NNAMDIAnd the museum isn't just bigger. It's also taking a more diverse and expansive look at the subject matter right?
HOUGHTONOne thing that we set out to do when we started thinking about what we wanted to do -- include for the new museum was to be as diverse as we possibly could be. And that's not just gender or racial diversity. That's chronological diversity. Can we tell stories from the beginning of time all the way up through modern day? Geographical diversity, a lot of the old museum focused exclusively on Europe in the United States can we have stories from Latin America, from Africa, from East Asia? And then, of course, there is gender and racial diversity that we just did not have enough space or time to do before.
HOUGHTONThe key is that espionage not only has happened since the beginning of time, but everyone is doing it. And we want to make sure that the public understands that this is -- no matter what you look like, no matter what your background is, you don't have to look like Daniel Craig. You can look like just about anybody and be important for national security for whatever country you're from.
NNAMDIJonna Mendez, you're a founding member of the Advisory Board at the Spy Museum as well as a former member of the intelligence community yourself. What strikes you when you walk through the new museum?
MENDEZWell, I'm stunned when I walk in. The building itself was designed by an architect from England. And one of the contributors took part in the design of the Pompidou Museum in Paris and you see the connection immediately when you look at our museum. Lots of industrial architecture, lots of color, lots of exposed parts of the building, very transparent, full of glass, it's amazing.
NNAMDILet's talk with Linda in Washington, who might know something about these things. Linda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LINDAHi, Kojo. Hi, Jonna. It's Linda Webster. I'm privileged to me married to a former director and Jonna Mendez is one of our heroes. So I'm thrilled to be talking to you all. I just want to say that the men and women of the intelligence world so often are not -- their story can't be told. And what's so wonderful about this new museum is they now have enough space to tell many of the stories, like Jonna and her incredible husband, Tony. They have stories to tell and now there's a space to at least get a peek into the world of intelligence.
NNAMDILinda should know something about these things. Her husband, William, was both the former director of the CIA and the FBI. Care to comment, Jonna?
MENDEZLinda, it's wonderful to hear your voice. Your husband, Bill Webster, was a big part of my professional life when he was director of the CIA and together we did a few things that still resonate.
NNAMDISo, Linda, you enjoyed it, didn't you?
MENDEZYes, the President Bush episode, which is part of the display in the museum today.
NNAMDIWill you tell that story?
MENDEZLinda, I'm going to tell the story very quickly. I hope Bill is listening. We had -- in Disguise we had come up with a new technology, a new way to disguise a person. It basically was a mask. We had never been able to do it before, a mask that would animate. And I showed it to my office director. We went and showed it to Bill Webster. He said, "We've got to take this to the White House." And we did. I didn't have any identification. I had nothing on paper. He said, "Just hold on to my coattails." We went in. We sat in a circle with Bob Gates, John Sununu, Brent Scowcroft, Bill Webster, and I showed the president, President Bush, who had previously been head of CIA, some photographs --
NNAMDIGeorge H. W. Bush.
MENDEZGeorge H. W. Bush, Photographs of him in disguise. I said, "Well, we've come a long way since then so I'm going to show you the latest and greatest." He said, "Where is it?" I said, "I'm wearing it." I said, "I'm going to take it off and show you." And he said, "No, no." And he got up and walked around and looked from behind, the side. Went and sat down. I took off the mask. The White House photographer took a picture. John Sununu almost fell out of his chair, because he hadn't been paying attention. Anyway, that photograph has been captured for them. And they live on -- they're very funny photographs.
NNAMDIWhat a great story. Linda, thank you so much for your call. You too --
LINDAWhat she's not telling you is she really peeled off her face.
MENDEZYes, I did.
LINDAExtraordinary, imagine she's sitting in the Oval Office peeling off her face in front of the president. It was great (unintelligible).
MENDEZAfter I did it, the photographer came out to the waiting room. The photographer, who had taken a picture and she said, "What did you do?" And I said, "I can't tell you. It's classified."
NNAMDILinda, once again, thank you for your call.
LINDAThe museum is full of all sorts of great stories like that. Bye-bye.
NNAMDIThank you. Vince, there's been some controversy over one of the new exhibits you have on display about interrogation techniques. Torture used in gathering intelligence. What were the discussions around including things like waterboarding in this new museum?
HOUGHTONSo I think it's important to say that, again, this is a five year process and there's nothing that goes in this museum that we didn't put extraordinary thought and consideration into. And I'm thinking this museum that we didn't talk to everyone we could possibly talk to as far as expertise in the field. I'm a little standoffish, when you use the word controversy. I think controversy kind of indicates that we were trying to get people like mad about this. We want the word thought provoking. And I think that in this situation these are issues that we're tackling in the new museum whether it's interrogation or responses to terrorism or surveillance or the public's right to know that we want people to think about, because they're ever present.
HOUGHTONThis is not something that just popped up right now. This is not just something that has appeared in the last 10 years. Part of this exhibit if you look at holistically is looking at interrogation throughout history for intelligence collection. And we're talking going back to the very beginning of time. And so understanding this contextually is important. And we put a lot of thought into trying to figure out, okay, how do we make people one, be able to tackle the news stories they see every day in a much more informed way, because you can't pick up the front page of any major newspaper and not see an intelligence story these somewhere.
HOUGHTONYou know, whether it's drones or enhanced interrogation or surveillance or Snowden or something else, how do we make it so our public can understand these in a much better way? And two, as educators, which all of us are, we love it when people can walk out of the museum with more questions than they had when they walked in and to kind of create conversations that just weren't happening beforehand. So the great thing about this museum is it tackles the grey areas of intelligence that we just didn't do before, the moral, the ethical, the legal issues that we didn't ignore before, we just didn't have the space to deal with it. And so now we're tackling that head on. We're not shying away from some of these more thought provoking issues.
NNAMDIAnother thought provoking topic is domestic surveillance. The FBI or other law enforcement agencies spying on groups or individuals they're suspicious of. For instance, do you cover that?
HOUGHTONOh, absolutely. And, again, we talk about looking out throughout history. One of the most famous cases of this was back in the late 1960s early 1970s where an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania was broken into by some antiwar advocates and they stole a bunch of files not knowing what they were going to find. And it turns out they had discovered a program under the Hoover FBI called, COINTELPRO or counter intelligence program where the FBI had been infiltrating and spying on the antiwar movement, on the Civil Rights movement, on Martin Luther King, on anyone and anyone who could possibly be a threat.
NNAMDIOn a bookstore I happened to be working with during that time.
HOUGHTONOkay. And this is one of the first real sensationalized leaker cases in the United States. They went to The Washington Post and other outlets and Betty Medsger, who was a reporter with The Washington Post decided with people around her to publish these. And this comes on the same time period as a lot of things like the Pentagon Papers and, of course, Watergate. And one of the great things we have with the connections to the museum is we interviewed two of the actual burglars that broke into Media, Pennsylvania including the guy, who picked the lock on the door. And kind of what their motivations were and at the same time we talked to Betty Medsger and tried to get to the point of the -- they knew these were stolen documents.
HOUGHTONThe Washington Post understood that these were stolen from the FBI and that conversation, you know, somewhat dramatized in like the movies like "The Post" is an important conversation to have. What does the public have the right to know? There's an inherent tension in democracy between intelligence agencies, which are secret by definition and democracies, which are supposed to be transparent. How do you have a country that is for the people, by the people, of the people, where you have agencies that by definition have to keep things from the American people in order to be successful.
NNAMDIYou mention a safe house. Jim in Lake Jackson, Virginia wants to talk safe house. Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JIMHey, Kojo. Good to talk with you. Yeah, my wife and I we moved out from D.C. about five years ago into what is purportedly a former CIA safe house. And we heard it from the neighbors and from the realtor. And it was originally owned by a state department diplomatic liaison back in the Eisenhower years. Anyway, I tried to find out more about it. The house is actually described in a British novel called, "A very British Ending" and it's a fictional novel. But the house is described right down to the pond with the Peter Pan fountain, the outdoor bar, the enclosed location. So number one, how could I find out more about what went on here? And was there a high point of CIA safe houses in the area?
MENDEZHaving safe houses not just in the United States, but around the world is simply a part of doing business if you're CIA. A safe house connotes exactly what it is. It's a safe space where you could meet with people, you can debrief people. You can have meetings. You can conduct business without the pressure that you might feel if you were in a more public location like a hotel room somewhere in the public.
MENDEZSo the fact that we use safe houses is just part of doing business at CIA and within the intelligence community widely. As far as how you could find out more about the one that you're in, you probably couldn't. I think we even have a real estate office that keeps track of these things, because it's a revolving account. You don't keep the same place for that long a period of time.
HOUGHTONIt's all together possible that I'm quoted in an article talking about that house. So just do a little Googling and get a little bit information about it. So you bought it. What's interesting about safe houses especially around D.C. is a lot of times the agencies are using these for vetting potential defectors or potential sources. You know, Jonna kind of hinted at this idea. We never take anybody at face value especially somebody, who shows up with some information too good to be true.
HOUGHTONAnd so a lot of these more famous defectors, more famous spies spent a lot of time in safe houses before we started actually believing what they had to say, because the last thing you want is someone we call a dangle, someone who's been sent over here to provide us disinformation, which could be the death knell to any intelligence agency. If they're buying disinformation hook line and sinker that can be the perfect operation for the bad guys and it could really put us in a bad position.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break, when we come back we'll continue this conversation about the spying, because of the new location of the International Spy Museum. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. The International Spy Museum reopened this past weekend in L'Enfant Plaza. We're talking with Vince Houghton. He is the Curator and Historian of the museum. Also author of "Nuking the Moon (And Other Intelligence Schemes and Military Plots Left On The Drawing Board)." Joining us in studio is Jonna Mendez, author of the upcoming book "Moscow Rules: The Secret CIA Tactics That Helped America Win the Cold War." She is the former Chief of Disguise for the CIA. You spent 27 years in the CIA as the Chief of Disguise for the agency. What does the Chief of Disguise for the CIA actually do besides wearing masks?
MENDEZI was part of an office called the Office of Technical Service. We used to think of ourselves as the Mission Impossible piece of the organization or the Q in James Bond. Actually we very much mirrored Q. We would provide you with any of the technical wear with all you needed. If you were a CIA case officer and were running operations overseas, collecting for an intelligence. If you needed a bug in a wall, if you needed to tap a telephone, if you needed a tiny camera in a fountain pen that you could photograph documents on your desk with, you would call us and we would provide you with that and with many many other things.
MENDEZDisguise being one piece of it. As Chief of Disguise I had a worldwide staff positioned around the world forward position like the military would do. So that if we needed to respond quickly to something on the other side of the globe we could get there and take care of it. We had a robust budget. I think the CIA probably funded its Disguise capability in a much more generous way than a lot of the other intelligence services. We actually never saw any other service doing the sophisticated devices that we were able to present.
MENDEZDisguise started out as a form of deniability. You could say, "I was never there." Actually we have a t-shirt at the Spy Museum that you can buy that says, "I was never there." It morphed over time into a form of physical protection. As drugs, as terrorism, reared their heads and it became physically more dangerous to do the work that we were doing, it was no longer just the day of cocktail parties and diplomatic functions and a gentlemen's undertaking. There were a criminal element that started seeping into our work overseas and Disguise was able to respond to that.
NNAMDIYou were disguising and training CIA case officers, who were trained to recruit foreign nationals to feed information to the United States. So the officers aren't pulling a James Bond and collecting information directly themselves, right?
MENDEZTypically they are not. Typically our case officer would find someone, who had access to the information that we needed. It usually was a foreign person. Let's talk about Moscow. It was someone in Moscow, who had access to maybe the minutes of the meeting, maybe the agenda of the meeting, maybe the schematics of the new equipment that they are designing. Our case officer would first of all find that person, recruit that person, and then the hard part begins, which is communicating the information to us.
MENDEZIn Moscow, we wanted to meet face to face with these assets, but we almost didn't dare to do it, because if we led the KGB to them, if they were identified, they would execute them. And they executed a good number of them over the years. They killed them. Disguise was one method to put a layer of deception and illusion between our case officer and the Russian, who was risking his life. If they were apprehended our case officer typically would be persona non grata sent home. Typically the local asset would be shot in the back of the head in Lubyanka.
NNAMDIUnderscoring the seriousness of the business you were involved in. Here now is Wendy in Washington D.C. Wendy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
WENDYHi. I wanted to talk about John Kiriakou. For those of you who don't know who he is, John Kiriakou was the CIA agent who was imprisoned for whistle blowing on the waterboarding in the CIA. And I was wondering if his case is going to be included in the Spy Museum. I think it's a very important case.
HOUGHTONIt's exceptionally to have these conversations particularly, when we're talking about -- we do have a gallery within the space where we focus on the public's right to know as I mentioned prior. Kiriakou himself is someone that we've worked with in the past. We've done programs at the museum with him in the past. He is not specifically detailed, because we want to take a broader approach, because he's not the only person that's had this deep seeded need to let the public know things that the government itself did not want to.
HOUGHTONNow one thing we also want to focus on is this idea of leakers versus whistleblowers. Now we're not necessarily absolutely overt about making that definition, but this is something that people don't understand that well. That there is a process here. There is a process in place. And some people think it doesn't work. We do have a story in the museum of another whistleblower, Thomas Drake, who was at the National Security Agency.
NNAMDIWho was a guest on this broadcast.
HOUGHTONVery high level with the NSA. His first day at NSA was on 9-11. And he was in a position where he didn't think that the NSA was doing what it was supposed to do. And he in fact went to every level he could possibly go to whistle blow. And at the end realized that nothing was going to get done and decided to go to the Baltimore Sun with unclassified information. And the reaction to that was pretty extraordinary. And we do tell his story. As do we talk about the idea in a broader sense of what happens when information that's supposed to remain secret becomes public and the reaction to that.
HOUGHTONAnd certainly you can think of some people that we might mention when we do that. I mean Edward Snowden certainly comes up. We don't spend a lot of time on him, because his story is not history yet. We're still kind of dealing with what's going on with Snowden. It's still -- absolutely. It's fresh. And it's so fresh that it's still happening every day. But one thing that we do have is a quote on quote talking head in one of our films specifically in this area is Ben Wizner, who is the ACLU privacy specialist. He's one of Edward Snowden's lawyers. So we tackle this head on. We don't shy away from it. And in doing so, again, we use this concept, thought provoking, we want people to have these conversations.
NNAMDIWe had a conversation with John Kiriakou in 2015. You can look that up in our archives. Go ahead, please.
MENDEZIt's one of the things that the Spy Museum provides is a platform to have a lot of discussions of these kinds of issues and there are lots of these issues. Our education department, which is one of the most robust pieces of the museum schedules events all during the week on the weekends, sometimes at noon. We bring in speakers. We bring in authors and we have what I would call some very interesting conversations about subjects that don't get raised otherwise. Not in a back and forth sort of situation. So it's unique in that way.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Wendy. Here now is Diane in Laurel, Maryland. Diane, your turn.
DIANEHi, Kojo. I think this is a very interesting conversation, because I can tell you some firsthand experience. There are in fact spies among us and in plain sight. My landlord was a spy for Red China, 35 years ago, when I lived in Alexandria, Virginia. And when I left the area and watched the NBC Nightly News and saw that he was being arrested by the feds and being put in the feds cars, that's when my eyes were truly open that I had my James Bond moment.
DIANEAnd I will you tell you this. The interesting thing about that, even though I was quite young at the time, and you're never really prepared for these things, nobody tells you about these things and the world that they exist, is that my instincts were dead on, because I always felt that he was something other than what he appeared to be, because he led a kind of not quite in the norm kind of boundaries kind of lifestyle.
NNAMDI(laugh) Vince Houghton.
HOUGHTONSure. At the beginning of the Cold War, Vienna and Berlin were the hotbed of spies around the world, but today there are more spies in Washington D.C. than any other city in the world. They're everywhere. Spies, we're not talking -- you say, "Sure. Well, the CIA." No, I'm not talking about our guys. I'm talking about people from around the world doing intelligence collection and recruitment here inside Washington.
HOUGHTONNow we're not always the target. The vast majority of the people working here, yes, are targeting us whether it's Congress or the defense community or, you know, the agencies. But there are a lot of spies here in Washington targeting other countries. You have -- everyone is here, we're the country where you have embassy row. If you're driving up Massachusetts Avenue along the embassies, you are statistically guaranteed to be staring at a spy when you're driving up the street.
MENDEZIt's like a smorgasbord.
HOUGHTONRight. They're everywhere and mainly because, you know, embassies is a hotbed of espionage. And so we are in a position in Washington D.C. where it's the perfect place to have a museum like ours. But also it's likely that if you kind of think maybe somebody is a spy, well, it's not -- we're not in Des Moines, Iowa. We're in Washington D.C. It's a chance they might be.
NNAMDIGot an email from Rodger, who said, "I work with Gene Petit (sp?) a few years back. He was very modest about his CIA career. So I was floored when I saw his name inscribed on the Spy Museum entrance." Is he still involved?
HOUGHTONHe is -- you should not use Gene Petit in past tense. He's still alive and kicking. This is a man -- he's incredibly humble and particularly, when you find out how much he's done. He's one of the innovators in overhead recognizance. One of the guys from the very beginning who redefined and reshaped how we do that kind of intelligence collection. If you think about during the Cold War, we weren't all that good until Jonna came around, her time period, in infiltrating Moscow and behind the Eastern Bloc with human intelligence sources, most of them were rounded up and most of them were executed.
HOUGHTONSo we looked at technical collection to do our job for us whether this was the U2 spy plane or the SR71 or early satellites. And Gene and others like him of that early -- that generation in the 60s and 70s are truly the innovators in finding ways to look down and get information from places that no one ever could before him.
NNAMDIAnd, of course, we know how much technology has changed the world of spying. But Jonna as far as you know how much has digital and biometric technology changed the world of Disguise?
MENDEZYou know, that's an interesting question. And I'm not sure that I can fully respond. The book that I just wrote deals in great detail with the kinds of Disguise materials and techniques that we used to use in the Cold War. The fact that the left it all in my manuscript, you know, I submitted for review and they have their magic markers in their hands ready to redact. And they left most of that in there, which makes me think we're not using exactly those same methods today.
MENDEZAnd I know for a fact that you can't just show up with a new face without all the digital accoutrement that goes with it. You have to have a digital record of that face. It's much more difficult. I know that. I also know, though, that it probably goes both ways. Every time something becomes more difficult for us it becomes something that we can use with great success offensively.
HOUGHTONThe power ebbs and flows between counter intelligence and intelligence and is kind of this cat and mouse back and forth game. But today, because of the digital world, because everyone really kind of has some kind of social media presence creating a cover or a legend is so much more difficult. It used to be back in the 60s and 70s, you could create some fake ids. A little bit we call pocket liter, you know, some fake ticket stubs. Like if you say you're from Toronto, you probably should have a Toronto make belief ticket stub in your wallet or a dry cleaning slip from a Toronto dry cleaner.
HOUGHTONToday you have to manufacture Facebook pages going back to when you were in elementary school, twitter feeds. All these things that backup what you're saying you actually are. And there are people within CIA, a lot of them, who work in a department, a director of science and technology in logistics that build these covers and these backstories where our people operating overseas wouldn't stand a chance without these people helping them do this.
NNAMDIAlmost out of time, but especially since you mentioned cat and mouse, in your book "Nuking the Moon" are some of the crazier ideas that have come out of the intelligence community and which were often tested here in D.C. Tell us one of your favorite crazy spy stories involving, oh, a cat.
HOUGHTONYeah. So the book leads off with a story called Acoustic Kitty and Jonna knows this well. She's laughing along with it. In the 1960s the CIA tried to turn a common house cat into a covert listening device. And I don't mean just kind of put a bug on them. They opened it up. They did surgery on it and they wired it up to create a robo-kitty bug for use here in D.C. and around the world. And if you think about it, you don't pay attention to a cat just kind of walking up and sitting down.
HOUGHTONWell, if you're having a clandestine meeting and a conversation a kitty sitting there won't raise any alarms. And maybe you have that conversation in front of said cat not realizing that it was a CIA listening device. The book is full of things that don't happen. So I'm kind of giving away the ending on this. The CIA was unable to effectively create this. But they spent a lot of our money doing it and testing it. And right here in D.C. theoretically part of one of the stories that they had a full-fledged field test of the cat right up the street here on Connecticut Avenue.
NNAMDIFascinating story involving I think a D.C. cab driver at some point.
NNAMDIVince Houghton is the Curator and Historian of the International Spy Museum. He's also the author of "Nuking the Moon (And Other Intelligence Schemes and Military Plots Left On the Drawing Board)." Thank you for joining us.
HOUGHTONI'm happy to be here.
NNAMDIJonna Mendez is the author of the book "Moscow Rules: The Secret CIA Tactics that Helped Win the Cold War." She's the former Chief of Disguise for the CIA. Jonna Mendez, thank you for joining us.
MENDEZIt was a pleasure.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break, when we come back a look at the ground swell of local opposition to some of the consequences of gentrification. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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