Osama bin Laden’s assault rifle. A singed al-Qaeda training manual. A desiccated rat corpse designed to pass secret messages. A letter from an American operative on a sheet of Adolf Hitler’s personal stationery. A painting of the real story behind “Argo.” And a remote-controlled robotic dragonfly that may be the ancestor of today’s drones.
These are some of the things on display at the Central Intelligence Agency’s astonishing private museum in Langley, Va.
Yahoo News got an exclusive on-camera guided tour of what could be the coolest collection you’ll probably never get to see. It’s burrowed deep inside CIA headquarters just outside Washington, DC, secreted away behind the thick layers of security that stand between the George Bush Center for Intelligence and the public, protecting America’s top secrets from prying eyes.
As part of being allowed a rare look inside, Yahoo News had to rely on a CIA crew to film the building’s exterior. Cell phones and wireless microphones – that is to say, anything with a broadcasting capability – were forbidden. And the agency took precautions to make sure that our visit did not inadvertently reveal the identity of any CIA staff, setting the shoot for a Saturday when there’d be less foot traffic in the cavernous hallways. Just to be doubly sure, vigilant CIA officials blocked off hallways near the Yahoo News crew with signs warning of an “uncleared” media presence, and obscured the names of some rooms and corridors—a reminder that the news media is, in effect, in the business of gathering intelligence
For the last 15 years, Toni Hiley has been at the helm of the CIA Museum’s curation, collecting artifacts and information and commissioning works of art to bring the agency’s history to life. (Hers was also the only face we were allowed to record.)
It’s serious business. The various galleries contain about 800 objects and take up about 14,000 square feet. And that’s not counting the special 3,200-square-foot storage facility, kept at 68 degrees and 43 percent humidity year round. That facility, which Hiley described as resembling the last scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” is home to roughly 18,000 artifacts – many of them classified.
There’s nothing like having a target audience of CIA analysis and operatives to heighten the pressure to be accurate.
This painting, “Cast of a Few, Courage of a Nation,” shows a Russian-built Mi-17 helicopter, modified by the CIA, flying cash, food, and equipment to an agency team in Afghanistan shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Note the tail number. See the strange red “star” in the upper left-hand corner, representing airborne support for teams on the ground. Now look carefully at the AK-47 strapped to the back of the operative shaking hands under the rotor.
Not long before the painting was revealed, an astute observer noted that it showed the barrel of the AK-47 pointing up – an absolute no-no when under a helicopter’s rotor. The artist scraped the original assault rifle off the painting, then replaced it with one with the barrel pointing at the ground.
The same intense scrutiny applied to the painting commissioned to commemorate the operation to get five Americans out of Iran after that country’s Islamic Revolution – a caper recently immortalized in the Hollywood blockbuster “Argo,” starring Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez, the CIA operative who led it.
“Tony Mendez was able to come in and set the still-life exactly as he remembered it that day in Tehran,” Hiley explained. Many of the objects on the table remain in the museum collection. The other officer is painted from the back because he remains under cover.
The collection doesn’t aim to provide a complete, warts-and-all recounting of the agency’s history – there’s no “Bay of Pigs” wing, for instance, or in-depth look at the intelligence underpinning the case for the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. The museum focuses chiefly on the CIA’s successes, from its World War II days as the “Office of Strategic Services” to the war on terrorism, with a special focus on the war in Afghanistan. But the more than 100 stars on the CIA’s memorial wall – 31 one of them anonymous -- serve as a reminder that sometimes things go tragically wrong.
Unlike its far more famous cousins downtown – like the National Air and Space Museum or the National Archives -- the CIA museum itself does not have a gift shop. The Agency, though, does have one, with well-stocked shelves of CIA-themed souvenirs like pens, cigar cutters, mugs, water bottles, and ponchos. The gift shop, too, has its own special rules: A sign next to the register reminds under-cover operatives to use cash only.
Video by Andrew John Rothschild