New International Spy Museum a D.C. landmark
The wedge of glass and red steel sticking out of the landscape of Brutalist architecture at L’Enfant Plaza is full of secrets, and it’s starting to attract a lot of attention.
At a cost of some $162 million, the new International Spy Museum is preparing to open its doors to the public amid the era of cyberespionage, data theft and disinformation.
The 140,000-square-foot building will reveal the “back stairs of history,” where intelligence and espionage have altered war and peace.
“There’s no time greater than now,” said Chris Costa, who signed on as the museum’s executive director in April after a 25-year career as a special operations intelligence officer and a year heading counterterrorism policy for President Trump’s National Security Council.
Spying, Mr. Costa said, is “something I know a little bit about.”
L’Enfant Plaza’s new landmark, which is scheduled to be completed next year, will boast a reimagined and immersive exhibit space for interactive learning.
Two floors will be devoted to permanent exhibitions devoted to the how and why of spying, and one floor will be set aside for theater space and special exhibitions.
Museum official Aliza Bran said the idea is to “look at each of the moments in the process of intelligence and try to bring that to life for visitors.”
Massive sections of the Berlin Wall and a piece of the Berlin Tunnel that British and American spies built into the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany during the Cold War will form the centerpieces of a “City of Spies” exhibit. There, visitors will cross the border and find interrogation rooms and a Stasi office.
“We have a lot of stuff from East Germany, and the way we’re going to lay that out and the stories that we’re going to tell are really going to excite people,” Mr. Costa said.
The trove of artifacts will be triple the size of the collection at the museum’s current location at 800 F St. NW in Chinatown. They include the listening device a Russian spy employed to bug a chair rail in the seventh-floor offices of Madeline K. Albright’s State Department.
Also in the collection are the laptop that Danish double agent Morten Storm used to communicate with al Qaeda recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki before his death by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011, an intact flight manual from an aircraft that brought down one of the World Trade Center towers and much more.
“Despite the fact that it’s kind of macabre,” Mr. Costa said, “my personal favorite is the ice ax that killed [Bolshevik revolutionary Leon] Trotsky.”
There’s also Sleeping Beauty, the miniature submarine used by British special ops during World War II to infiltrate enemy coastlines and attach limpet mines to ships, and the CIA’s 1960s-era rectal tool kit a suppository of escape tools.
Milton Maltz, who founded the International Spy Museum 16 years ago, developed a passion for code-breaking at the National Security Agency during the Korean War.
At that time, “few people outside the profession understood” how the “secret history of history” shaped the world, Mr. Maltz said.
It has been 241 years since George Washington tasked, via a letter, the first American intelligence director with setting up a network of spies. After the Revolutionary War, a British intelligence officer is reported to have said, “Washington didn’t really outfight the British. He simply outspied us.”
Mr. Maltz, who owns a copy of George Washington’s letter, relayed its story with an ominous punchline, “If George Washington hadn’t been there, hadn’t done this, you and I would be speaking with a British accent.”
If not for Mr. Maltz, the history this building is set to reveal when it opens in the spring would still be confined to the back stairs.