The head of field operations for Operation Spy is incredulous. “You told each other your real names?” she asks our group of 10 novice intelligence officers. We’ve just finished a round of introductions. “But you are spies! Spies don’t use their real names. Let’s try that again.”
Chastened, we stand quietly, pondering what code names we might use. A bespectacled mother with a Midwestern twang is first to reintroduce herself. “I am Mata Hari,” she says sheepishly.
Her brace-faced teenage son is next: “I’m Bond. James Bond.”
Soon Spiky, Cosmos, Indy (as in Indiana Jones), Screech, Jack, Nikita, and J. Edgar have introduced themselves. My 16-year-old son is last. He points to the aviator sunglasses perched on top of his head. “Call me Shades,” he says.
And with that, the 10 strangers who signed up for the 10:45 a.m. time slot of the make-believe adventure Operation Spy at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., become a team. For the next hour, we race through a maze of movie-set-calibre rooms and passageways, working together to decode messages, carry out surveillance, disable security cameras, search premises, and even interrogate a suspected traitor in hopes of finding a nuclear trigger before it falls into the wrong hands.
In the end, we locate the device but fail to remove it from where it’s cached. As we sprint up a flight of stairs to safety, we hear the thump-thump-thump of a helicopter bringing in the special-ops team that will finish the job.
At the mission debriefing, the staff person who has acted as our head of field operations, explains that Operation Spy is based on a number of real-life espionage cases. She awards our team a score of three out of five for our handling of the challenges. A score of less than three would mean we were terrible spies. “?”˜Terrible spies’ is a real descriptor,” she assures us, though it’s hard to know if she’s telling the truth.
I’m tempted to believe she is, because everything else about the International Spy Museum appears firmly rooted in reality.
The museum’s authenticity comes right from the top—executive director Peter Earnest was with the CIA for 36 years, including two decades spent in the agency’s National Clandestine Service—as well as from the museum’s directors and advisers, who include a former chief of KGB foreign counterintelligence, director general of MI5, chief of disguise for the CIA, and director of the FBI.
Visitors meet these experts and their intelligence-community colleagues through numerous video clips, written quotes, and interviews in longer “briefing room” movies. I’m particularly struck by the comments of two former spies, one of whom talks about how he wished he could have explained to his children what Daddy did for a living, and a retired CIA agent—the spitting image of my matronly Grade 1 teacher—who looks directly at the camera and recalls, “You got used to living a lie.”
In addition to the personal stories and mission details, the museum has gathered an assortment of spy tools that form, according to promotional materials, the largest collection of international spy-related artifacts ever placed on display.
How cool are the tools? The first half of the museum is dedicated to spy techniques and gizmos that include a lipstick pistol (a single-shot weapon disguised as a tube of lipstick), a poison-gas gun, a KGB coat with a camera hidden behind a false front button, and a shoe with a microphone, a transmitter, and batteries embedded in the heel.
Set among these displays are interactive stations where visitors can test their spy abilities in terms of observing scenes accurately (I’m not bad), assessing risks and responding swiftly (I’m excellent, but then I’ve raised two kids), and spotting disguised criminals (I suck).
The second half of the museum focuses on how spy technology has been used throughout history. I’m dumbstruck by all the things I didn’t know. Moses sent spies to Canaan! George Washington set up an intelligence network! The American and British governments tunnelled under the Berlin Wall to tap Soviet telecommunications lines! Pigeons are spies! (At least, they were in World War I, when they flew over military installations with tiny cameras strapped to their bodies.)
All the nifty artifacts and educational tidbits convince me that Sun Tzu was right when, in around the sixth century BC, he wrote in The Art of War, “There is nowhere you cannot put spies to good use.”
Certainly Hollywood glommed on to their entertainment value. The museum covers pop culture’s take on this shadowy profession, displaying a re-creation of the Aston Martin DB5 seen in the James Bond movie Goldfinger—complete with tire-shredding hubcaps and front-grill guns that kick into action every 10 minutes—and entertaining visitors with a collection of video clips, board games, and comics inspired by shows such as I Spy, The Avengers, Get Smart, and Austin Powers.
Midway through our visit, my son and I break for lunch at the museum’s Spy City Café. The song “Live and Let Die”, from the James Bond movie of the same name, plays as we stand at the counter ordering two MI5 hot dogs that come with “disguises”—bacon, crunchy onions, and Cheddar.
The cashier asks for a name to call when the order is ready, and I answer before my son can open his mouth.
“Call Shades,” I say coolly.
ACCESS: The writer visited as a guest of the museum. Admission is US$18 for adults and US$15 for children aged five to 11 years old. Operation Spy is an additional US$14. When purchased as a package, the cost is $28. For more information, see spymuseum.org.