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Renovated C.I.A. and N.S.A. Museums Offer a Peek at Spy Secrets — for Some

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WASHINGTON — Two of america’ intelligence agencies have completely renovated their museums of spycraft, displaying dramatic stories of notable U.S. spies and informants, in addition to paraphernalia from intelligence work. But one among the museums will remain off limits to the general public.

In time for its seventy fifth anniversary this 12 months, the Central Intelligence Agency has overhauled and refurbished its museum of secrets. It features spy gadgets each successful (a Tabasco sauce-covered dead rat wherein to cover messages) and never (a pigeon-mounted camera and a mini spy drone designed to seem like a dragonfly). It has fascinating, beautifully arranged artifacts from significant espionage operations.

Nonetheless, the C.I.A. Museum is on the agency’s heavily protected campus in Langley, Va., a location that shouldn’t be open to members of the general public — unless they find themselves summoned to its headquarters. The C.I.A. opened the renovated museum to family of personnel one weekend and to members of the news media Saturday.

Most of the artifacts are celebrations of the agency’s triumphs. The museum has a model of Osama bin Laden’s compound and a brick taken from the location. There’s art made by the nice comic book artist Jack Kirby, utilized by the C.I.A. as props for a fake movie production company in an operation to rescue diplomats in Iran (depicted within the 2012 movie “Argo”). And there are disguises worn by people while working to salvage the wreck of a Soviet submarine carrying nuclear missiles from the ocean’s floor.

There’s a reconstruction of the tunnel under East Berlin that allowed america to tap into Soviet communications for roughly 18 months.

Certainly one of the most recent additions to the gathering of artifacts is a model of the constructing in Kabul where Ayman al-Zawahri, the Qaeda leader, was hiding when he was killed by a U.S. drone strike in July. The C.I.A. placed the model in a picket box when it was delivered to President Biden to debate the operation, and the underside of the box could be seen within the C.I.A. display case.

Perhaps partly since it is restricted from most of the people, the C.I.A. Museum doesn’t shy from the agency’s failures: operatives caught by governments, moles who give away informants, the groupthink of the Iraq war, the Bay of Pigs.

“A giant a part of this museum is for our officers, and for them to know the teachings of the past,” said Robert Byer, the director of the C.I.A. Museum. “For that reason, we cannot just be sugarcoating our history or touting our successes. We actually must make sure that it is a full history of the C.I.A. so that they can understand their history and do a greater job due to it.”

Among the many museum’s fastidiously crafted exhibits is the story of Martha Peterson, the primary female case officer sent to work in Moscow. Her task was to gather and pass information to an operative who was a Soviet diplomat, to whom she would also provide a suicide pill to make use of if he was captured. The diplomat ultimately was seized and died by suicide, resulting in Ms. Peterson’s arrest while she was placing a message in a dead drop.

While the C.I.A. gathers intelligence, conducts evaluation and executes covert operations, the National Security Agency focuses on collecting electronic communications and making and breaking codes. That’s the main target of its reimagined showcase on the National Cryptologic Museum in Annapolis Junction, Md.

The museum of the N.S.A., sometimes called “No Such Agency” in a nod to its secretive practices, was designed to be accessible to the general public, a contrast with the C.I.A. Museum.

“It’s a beautiful paradox that ‘No Such Agency’ has the one museum within the U.S. intelligence community that’s completely open to the general public,” said Vince Houghton, the museum director.

The cryptological museum closed in 2020 amid the Covid pandemic and Dr. Houghton, a former historian and curator at Washington’s popular International Spy Museum, used the time to renovate the constructing and meticulously search the National Security Agency’s archives of apparatus.

“There are things that folks didn’t know existed, and there are things that folks had thought had been lost for a long time,” Dr. Houghton said.

Within the museum, which reopens Oct. 8, Dr. Houghton emphasizes unique artifacts amid exhibits stuffed with strangely fascinating code-making and code-breaking machines. Its collection extends from america’ earliest days to the current. From World War II, there’s the machine that broke Japan’s diplomatic encryption, and one other that broke the German naval codes. There’s also an Enigma machine utilized by Adolf Hitler, displayed behind glass; there are other ones that visitors can touch and use.

Dr. Houghton said just about all the artifacts he displays meet one among three criteria: They’re the one remaining object of their kind; they’re the primary of something; or they were utilized by a selected person.

“I call it the holy trinity of artifacts,” he said.

The museum sticks to its mission of explaining cryptology to a broad section of the general public. It acknowledges some losses: There’s a memorial wall and displays that tell the stories of cryptologists killed in combat. But for probably the most part, the main target is on the machines and the code breakers who ran them.

There’s not much on the turncoats, nonetheless. One exhibit shows the tools that John Walker, a Navy warrant officer and Soviet spy, used to try to steal American codes for the Russians. But there isn’t a mention of Edward Snowden, the N.S.A. contractor who revealed lots of the agency’s secrets after which fled to Russia. (Since the Snowden case is an ongoing Justice Department investigation, the museum is proscribed in what it could possibly say.)

The C.I.A. Museum, however, has multiple examples of spy games ending in failure or tragedy. It highlights the stories of C.I.A. officers wrongly accused of being spies and lays out the damage done by Soviet moles.

Among the many collaborators whose work is widely known is Adolf Tolkachev, an aviation electronics engineer. He reached out multiple times to the C.I.A. to supply his help, angered on the persecution of his wife’s parents under Joseph Stalin. In 1978, he got though to the Americans and used miniature cameras to pass on images of Russian secrets.

The worth of Mr. Tolkachev’s intelligence, which vastly expanded American knowledge of Soviet missiles and fighter planes, earned him the moniker “the billion dollar spy.” While he was good at getting documents, he was not good at taking pictures. The museum features a camera the C.I.A. built for Mr. Tolkachev, with a set focal length to make sure his pictures could be less blurry.

But his story also ends badly. Aldrich Ames and Edward Lee Howard, C.I.A. officers working for the Russians, gave up Mr. Tolkachev’s identity. He was arrested in June 1985 and executed in 1986.

“I feel I even have a responsibility: It can’t be a rah-rah version of history,” Mr. Byer said. “Museums must tell the reality.”

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