Spies come in from the cold, go on exhibit

At a new museum, visitors may spy the trappings and tales of undercover operatives.

For Culture

March 25, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Once a week in the late 1960s, after each installment of the TV spy adventure series, "Mission: Impossible," the phones would start ringing around Central Intelligence Agency headquarters.

"You'd see a guy peel off his face on the show and people all over the CIA community would call Monday morning and say, `Can we do that?' " recalls Jonna Hiestand Mendez, who was building espionage gadgetry in the CIA's Office of Technical Service at the time. "They also tended to like the electronic communications on the show - everything from talking into your lapel to your ring to your watch to your shoe."

Few seem more fascinated by spy stories than spies themselves. Now, after years in the shadows, they have finally figured out how to make a public tribute to their profession. In an unlikely pairing, former spooks have spent the last two years teaming with museum experts to assemble the new International Spy Museum, a sprawling celebration of agents and their trade set to open a year from now in downtown Washington.

At a time when this city seems to be crawling with intrigue - the arrest of FBI agent and suspected spy Robert Philip Hanssen, the disclosure of a U.S. spy tunnel under the Russian embassy, the U.S. government's ouster of more than 50 Russian diplomats this past week under suspicion of espionage and Russia's ensuing expulsion of American diplomats in Moscow - the museum taps a secret network that experts say has only grown in recent decades.

The end of the Cold War has not diminished the craft of espionage, intelligence officials assert, but it has created a changing landscape that relies more heavily on the trade than ever. Cash-strapped nations want to steal a rival's high-priced defense technology, superpowers try to collect intelligence in an age of international terrorism and, sometimes, even countries that call themselves friends spy just for spying's sake.

The intelligence officers that the spy museum aims to honor are traitors in some countries, heroes in others. The collection, though, will attempt to view them dispassionately, apart from their ideologies. Here, they are simply masters of their profession, people who turned snooping into an art form.

While some former agents cringe at the idea of gum-snapping tourists horning in on their clandestine realm, others look at the museum as the memorial they never had. Finally, the world can know how hard it is to remember which fake name to sign on a document.

"Among the leagues of retired spies around the world, you often hear their frustration - the preamble to so many of their stories is, `If people only knew,' " says H. Keith Melton, a military historian who will provide the museum artifacts from his 6,000-piece, invitation-only spycraft collection in South Florida. "What the International Spy Museum will do is give a glimpse at some of these stories that heretofore have gone untold."

The story of the museum begins with a millionaire broadcasting executive named Milton Maltz. Fascinated by the idea that every other FedEx deliveryman in Washington could be a double-agent - and that spy stories exist everywhere from the Bible to the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs - Maltz decided to build a museum in the heart of spy country devoted to the tales of the centuries-old spy trade.

"It will be," he predicted, "the secret history of history."

Maltz's preoccupation with espionage began when he was in the U.S. Navy in the Korean War, assigned to the super-secret National Security Agency. Later he founded Malrite Communications Group Inc., an operator of big-market radio and TV stations, and a related firm that is building the $30 million for-profit museum.

"I think most people are fascinated by this circumspect group of individuals who risk their lives," says Maltz, 71, now retired and living in South Florida. "It's like that old saying: Nothing is as it seems."

The five-building interactive complex, a block from FBI headquarters, is likely to mix typical sunscreen-and-sneakers Washington tourists with a far more mysterious set of onlookers.

"Oh, I think a lot of our visitors will be spies - I have no doubt," says Dennis Barrie, director of the spy museum project who oversaw the creation of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. "Spies are fascinated with how the story is told and how they're presented."

The museum, which includes CIA agents among its top advisers but is not sanctioned by the agency, will not reveal top-secret material. Still, so much tradecraft has been declassified over the years that organizers say this project easily will become the world's largest museum devoted to the history of espionage when it opens in spring, 2002.

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