The CIA has renovated its museum. People still can’t go see it.

The CIA museum covers the intelligence agency’s long history – from spying on the Soviets to the Argo mission in Iran – but the latest addition is practically ripped from the headlines: a model of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s compound in Kabul used weeks ago to plan the US drone strike that killed the leader of al-Qaeda.

The model is part of the newly renovated showroom located in the heart of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Like the NSA’s Wall of Spies museum in Bethesda, Maryland, the CIA museum is not open to the public. But it’s not entirely secret either, welcoming CIA employees, official guests, foreign partners, potential recruits – and, early Saturday morning, a handful of carefully observed journalists, including reporters with old-fashioned notepads and pens (electronics are prohibited).

There are lots of fun gadgets to see, like a polygraph in a briefcase and a communication device disguised as a tobacco pipe, used in the 1960s. When a user bit the pipe, the sound traveled through their teeth and jaw to to the ear canal, allowing him to hear messages that no one around him could hear.

There’s a stack of red, green and yellow containers for a pneumatic tube system – like you might see in a bank’s drive-thru – used for interoffice courier service before the advent of email. Different colors denoted different levels of classification. There were “miles and miles” of tubes throughout CIA headquarters, according to Robert Byer, the director of the CIA museum. The containers were also the perfect size for carrying a can of beer or, with a little maneuvering, a sandwich, he added.

There’s an early example of the President’s Daily Brief, which used to be called the PICL (President’s Intelligence Checklist) or “pickle”, basically a little spiral notebook, because that’s how the President John F. Kennedy preferred to receive it. President Biden likes to have both hard copy and tablet options for his daily briefing, Byer said, pointing to a leather binder and tablet case. Reagan apparently preferred the briefing by VHS tape.

Even the ceiling conveys the CIA mission. Crossing it, hanging signs are decorated with Morse code, binary code, and even a “modified” Kryptos, a code from 1991 that has yet to be fully deciphered.

An exhibit honors Soviet spies who helped the CIA, such as Adolf Tolkachev, who shared weapons information that would have saved the US government a billion dollars, earning him the nickname ‘the billion-dollar spy,” and Oleg Penkovskiy, who provided information during the Cuban missile crisis that prevented nuclear war. He received the unbeatable nickname “The Spy Who Saved the World”.

“A lot of these spy stories don’t have happy endings,” one reporter said, noting the frequent mentions of imprisonment and execution. That’s true, Byer replied, but CIA employees need to understand how important it is to protect their informants.

Other screens are dedicated to specific missions, such as reconstructing a tunnel under the Berlin Wall that allowed the CIA to wiretap key East German officials. There are also plenty of Argo and Air America memorabilia.

Byer said his favorite part of the museum covered the Hughes Glomar Explorer mission, which in 1974 sought to secretly recover a sunken Soviet submarine from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean via a very large mechanical claw. The mission was only partially successful – part of the giant claw broke off and dropped a piece of the submarine – but when the Los Angeles Times learned of the mission and attempted to confirm, the now ubiquitous “Glomar Response” was born. It starts with “The CIA can neither confirm nor deny…”

Other things museum officials can neither confirm nor deny: how much the renovation cost, what the codes on the ceiling say, or even how they acquired some of the artifacts.

Take, for example, bricks. There are real bricks on display all over East Berlin, the “Hanoi Hilton”, where Americans were tortured during the Vietnam War, and Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. How were all these bricks acquired?

How long after? On another mission, or was there a whole CIA mission to get a brick for a museum?

“It’s classified,” Byer said. He can neither confirm nor deny…

The museum doesn’t shy away from some of the CIA’s failures, like a “dragonfly drone” that couldn’t handle a light breeze, or a single-shot gun meant to be dropped in the thousands for foreign allies. President Jimmy Carter eventually canceled the program, deciding that a bunch of extra weapons dropped indiscriminately into a war zone wouldn’t actually be useful.

It also explores how “groupthink” at the agency led to the assumption that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, an intelligence failure that led to the war in Iraq.

Even with this candid assessment, whole swaths of the CIA’s unflattering history are missing from the showcase. The entire African continent does not seem to be mentioned, let alone the alleged CIA involvement in the 1961 assassination of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, the 1962 arrest of South African Nelson Mandela, or the Angolan Civil War. 1970s, among others.

Waterboarding doesn’t seem to be mentioned either.

A CIA spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a follow-up email regarding the lack of mentions of waterboarding.

If you’re in the Washington area and want to land one of those “official guest” invites, don’t bother asking your White House connection or that neighbor who works in intelligence. The museum is “operational,” Byer said, meaning if you don’t have a useful reason to see it, sorry, you can’t.

But many of the exhibits – the camera pigeon, the fake dead rat used for ‘dead drops’ – can also be found across the river at the International Spy Museum.

About Carlos V. Mitchell

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