The Hope Diamond, Spirit of St. Louis and the US Constitution are just a few of the US national treasures on display in Washington, D.C. Now add to that list a brick from Osama bin Laden’s last hideout and the AK -47 found by his side; flight suits worn by clandestine surveillance pilots; and a stuffed rat, used by spies to hide messages during the Cold War.
These artifacts are among hundreds of items on display at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in suburban Virginia, that is, only to those permitted to enter the high-security compound, such as CIA Director William Burns, who suggested a visit from “CBS Evening News Anchor Norah O’Donnell.”
She asked, “Do we still use spy cameras?”
“We still use a lot of, you know, gadgets like that,” he replied, “but it’s a lot more sophisticated now.”
“A little how, like James Bond?
“Yeah, it’s James Bond more, I think, nowadays too,” he laughed.
The CIA museum shines a light on the high-tech side of espionage, but its real purpose is to inspire employees with stories like that of Agent Marti Peterson. In the 1970s, Peterson was assigned to work with a recruited Soviet informant named Trigon.
Burns said: “Marti happened to be the first female CIA agent to serve in Moscow, and that was to take advantage of what was a blind spot for the KGB at the time, because the KGB at that time tended to be very dismissive of women’s ability to conduct intelligence operations.
“They didn’t think a woman would be a CIA spy?” O’Donnell asked.
“They didn’t. So basically what Trigon would do was use cameras like these to photograph documents, he would place the film in either a hollowed-out rock or a hollowed-out brick or old milk cartons, and left it in mutually arranged dead drops and places around Moscow that Marti would then come and collect.”
Eventually the KGB arrested Trigon and he swallowed a suicide pill rather than be interrogated. Soon after, Peterson was captured and expelled from the Soviet Union. It’s a lesson in the risks taken by CIA agents – and those who come to trust them.
O’Donnell asked, “How important is the intelligence you get from human sources?”
“Collecting intelligence from human sources is a very important part of the CIA mission,” Burns said. “Our officers are literally working while we sit here trying to recruit foreign agents and trying to work with them to get intelligence that can directly help keep American lives safe and secure.
“I have a deep obligation as director of the CIA, to protect them,” he said. “On the right side, as I walk in every morning, is our memorial wall, which has 139 stars on this single marble, each honoring a CIA officer killed in the line of duty. So it There isn’t a moment when I walk past this wall when I’m not reminded of my obligation to take care of people, and that means protecting sources and methods.
The past few months have been dominated by reports of former President Donald Trump’s potential mishandling of human source intelligence.
Burns couldn’t comment on what was found at Mar-a-Lago, but he did clarify what was at stake.
O’Donnell asked, “How damaging is it to the agency if human sources come to light or if that human intelligence is compromised?”
“Well, you know, without commenting on any particular investigation, I mean, I think there’s been many instances in the past where compromising, you know, that human intelligence, not protecting it carefully, being reckless to this subject, has cost lives,” he replied.
The CIA museum winks at such failures – assets killed by the betrayal of renegade spy Aldrich Ames in the 1980s; it also covers the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, as well as the agency’s 2003 assessment that the discovery of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq would be “a slam dunk”.
Still, it’s hard not to marvel at operations like Project Azorian, the 1970s rescue of a wrecked Soviet submarine. The CIA enlisted billionaire Howard Hughes to provide a cover story: that his ship, the Glomar Explorer, was searching for minerals on the ocean floor, rather than helping the CIA harvest Soviet military secrets.
“The press found out, didn’t they?” O’Donnell asked.
“They did it. In 1975, a year after the successful rescue of much of the Soviet submarine, the Los Angeles Times broke the story. And the Ford administration, for the first time, used what became known as the ‘Glomar response,’ which was: ‘We can neither confirm nor deny this story,’ which you have heard many times since.”
“I know! And now I finally put it together, because many times ago, as journalists, we asked for information and we got the ‘We can neither confirm nor deny.’ And is that it? Is that where it came from?
“That’s where it all started, yeah,” Burns said.
For the director of the CIA, a new exhibition has a special meaning. It features a model of the house in Kabul, Afghanistan, where the last surviving mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was hiding. Last July, Burns took the template to President Biden to get the go-ahead for the drone strike that would kill the terrorist leader.
“A few days after the strike against Zawahiri, I was in New York and, you know, I had a quiet visit to Ground Zero Memorial,” Burns said. “It gives you an opportunity to reflect a bit, in this case, on what measure of justice Zawahiri’s strike, as well as Bin Laden’s strike 10 years prior, had brought to the victims of 9/11 and their families – but also for the CIA officers who had lost their lives.”
He showed O’Donnell seven stars on display: “These are seven CIA officers who lost their lives searching for Zawahiri 13 years ago in 2009. So for the CIA it’s not something that none of us have ever forgotten.”
Preserving the memory of the missions and the people who accomplish them is the objective of this most unusual museum, dedicated to the secrets kept behind the walls of the intelligence agency.
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Story produced by Ed Forgotson and Olivia Rinaldi. Publisher: Remington Korper.