Spy Games

At a D.C. museum, young sleuths on a sleepover break codes, exchange secret passwords and maybe even gather a little intelligence.

March 02, 2004|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a dark corner of "East Berlin," a nondescript phone booth stands alongside a cobblestone road. A band of young "spies" loiter in the area, trying hard to be inconspicuous. Some examine a nearby empty black sedan, others gather by cafe tables. Finally, one of them slips into the booth. He emerges moments later, a slight grin on his face, and his shadowy group melts into the night.

Chad Arrendell, a tall 15-year-old wearing a dark curly wig for this assignment, had managed to accomplish his mission - a dead drop. He'd placed a coded message, wrapped tightly and stuffed inside a cocktail straw, inside the phone booth. About eight hours later, after a night of fitful sleep, another team of youthful spies planned to pick up the message and decode it. The message, they'd been told, would help to reveal a mole in their midst.

Such were the missions executed at Washington's International Spy Museum this past weekend as part of Operation Secret Slumber, the 18-month-old museum's first public "sleepover." Amid serious talk of critical intelligence failures and sobering chats with actual spies, some 42 youngsters attended "spy school," parents toured the maze-like corridors of the 68,000-square-foot museum, and everyone tried to get at least a little sleep.

Not your typical Saturday night sleepover - after all, how often do you get to unroll a sleeping bag below a mock-up of the Rosetta Stone or beside a full-sized imitation silver Aston Martin?

The night was a not-so-stealthy exercise in building both an audience for the for-profit museum - and a little knowledge among kids who may only know spies from movies such as Spy Kids and The Bourne Identity. The profession's glamorous image, made popular by James Bond or Mission: Impossible, can bring people in the door - and then allow the museum to debunk it.

"The idea here is not to create little spies," said Peter Earnest, the executive director of the museum. "The idea is to familiarize kids with the [actual] tools of intelligence collecting."

To that end, the museum offered up an overnight course that included developing concealment devices, establishing secret identities and cover stories, designing and deciphering codes, and slipping into disguises.

But the real goal of each youngster's mission was to learn to work with strangers and build teamwork - something Earnest said is an invaluable part of real spying. And he ought to know. Among other achievements in a 36-year career as a CIA operative, he led at team of roughly 25 others in handling the defection of Arkady Shevchenko - the highest-ranked Soviet official ever to defect to the United States.

Truth or fiction?

For the kids, spy school included bits and pieces of spy lore, both real and fictional.

Each, for instance, received an oddly cut piece of a Jell-O box to take with them to a "mocktail" party. While mingling, they had to drop a phrase and listen for the counter phrase to find a partner with the matching portion of the box, a method reputedly used by convicted 1950s spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Another edible secret message needed to be committed to memory before everyone on the team tore up chunks of it and ate it.

Pop culture references poked up on occasion. The tape-recorded messages guiding the children through their exercises, for example, included the warning: "Turn off the tape or in 10 seconds this machine will self-destruct" - a play off the old Mission: Impossible catchphrase.

One of the professional spies present for the event surely would have cringed at that.

"I think everything in pop culture about espionage is wrong," said Burton Gerber, a former covert CIA operative. "I never had an Aston Martin, I never had Halle Berry."

Gerber was one of two former spies - both tall, beefy former cold warriors - who gave the parents a tour of the museum while their children were busy with activities. It was a more sober undertaking than the children were experiencing, a fact brought home when Gerber's partner declined to be interviewed, or even named, for fear that his former activities in current hot spots might still bring him harm.

Gerber was not nearly as reticent, but just as serious-minded. He spent more than 30 years in the CIA, he said, serving as the top intelligence officer in Moscow, Sofia and Belgrade at different times.

"The real thing," he said of his profession, "is not entertainment. It is deadly serious business.

"Pop culture has to be spectacular. Most spying is exact, patient, focused and careful - and my life would not be a story," though, he added: "Some spy operations would be stories."

Gerber says he rarely reads fiction, but conceded that John Le Carre's A Perfect Spy is pretty darn close to "a perfect spy book."

Uncovering abilities

The overnight campers at the Spy Museum had a broad range of aptitude for intelligence work.

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