Jewish World Review August 6, 2002 /28 Menachem-Av 5762
Covert action is cool again
If anything is unsettling about the new International Spy Museum, Washington's big surprise-hit of the summer, it's the ghostly presence of another spy world, the one you will not see on display.
Pay your admission, which varies from $8 to $11, and you do see a lot. You see more than 600 artifacts in the privately-owned $40 million museum, items dating from the age of the Bible to the age of Osama bin Laden.
What you don't see -- and probably won't notice unless you're looking for it -- is the moral and political ambiguity of what spies do when simple information gathering is not enough.
I looked in vain for some mention of or CIA's involvement in the overthrow of democratically elected governments in Chile and Guatemala, our botched attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, or the CIA's cozy contracts with drug trafficking pilots in Southeast Asia and, more recently, Central America.
This museum has avoided hot-button controversies, such as the one stirred up by the Air and Space Museum's proposed display in the mid-'90s of the partly restored Enola Gay, the bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Curators were forced to withdraw a script for the exhibit that focused heavily on the destruction caused by the bomb -- without mentioning the Japanese atrocities that had led up to the bombing.
The Spy Museum focuses heavily on an us-versus-them view of history. This is an authentic and informative view, thanks in part to an advisory group that includes such espionage veterans as former FBI and CIA director William Webster and the retired chief of KGB foreign counterintelligence, Oleg Kalugin.
With the liveliness of Hollywood, the Spy Museum tends to depict spy work as good guys and bad guys operating with the unflinching moral clarity and certainty of Ian Fleming or Tom Clancy -- minus the self-doubts, second-guessing or moral gray areas of John LeCarre or Graham Greene. Here you are either James Bond or Dr. No, Austin Powers or Dr. Evil, Rocky and Bullwinkle, or Boris and Natasha out to "Kill Moose and Squirrel!"
You'll see snazzy gadgets like a lipstick pistol produced during the '60s by the KGB, a World War II German cipher machine commonly known as Enigma, and a shoe from the '60s with a Soviet listening device embedded in the heel.
You'll see a replica of a plaque in which the Soviets snuck a bugging device into the U.S. embassy in Moscow, along with the actual mailbox used as a "dead drop" by Aldrich Ames, the CIA officer who spied for the Soviet Union in the '80s and '90s.
You'll see an actual 1777 letter from Gen. George Washington promising $50 a month to a New York man "for your care and trouble in this business" of establishing a spy network in the New York region.
There are photo tributes to celebrities not usually associated with spycraft, including the singer Josephine Baker, who worked for the French Resistance, and the famous chef Julia Child, who processed classified documents for the OSS, the World War II predecessor to the CIA.
On the lighter side, you'll see an Aston Martin DB5, outfitted like the James Bond's roadster in "Goldfinger"; an impressive collection of Junior G-man toys; and movie clips featuring Orson Wells to Austin Powers to show how spywork is reflected in pop culture.
In development for at least six years, the Spy Museum could hardly have opened at a more appropriate time. Now, more than any time since World War II, Americans care about their spies, want to enlist more of them and put them on the longest possible leash to destroy the al Qaeda terror network and other mischief-makers.
After the traumatizing attacks of Sept. 11, we hunger for information about our new enemies. But information gathering is only part of spycraft. Espionage is also analyzing information and taking action based on that analysis. Such actions sometimes include the nasty work of sabotage, assassination, disinformation, propaganda, psychological operations and other "black bag" warfare conducted entirely in secret.
In our post-9-11 world, Americans appear to be more than ready to stop worrying and love our spies again. The line of ticket buyers at the Spy Museum has been stretching around the block. The debates on Capitol Hill have focused not so much on how our spies should behave, but on how we need more of them and better analysis of the information they bring in.
But we also must never forget that other spy world, where there are contradictions between the by-any-means-necessary attitude of covert actions and the democratic nation of laws that the spy services are sworn to protect. It is a world in which agents sometimes have to behave in ways that don't make great family viewing. Yet, we Americans cannot afford to pretend this world does not exist.
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