The Hope Diamond, Spirit of St. Louis and the US Constitution are just some of America’s national treasures on display in Washington, DC Now add to the list a brick from Osama bin Laden’s last hideout and the AK-47 found by his side; flight suits worn by secret surveillance pilots; and a rat used by spies to hide messages during the Cold War.
Those artifacts are among the hundreds on display at Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in suburban Virginia — only to those cleared to enter the high-security compound, such as CIA Director William Burns, who offered a tour on “CBS Evening News ” anchors Norah O’Donnell.
She asked, “Do we still use spy cameras?”
“We still use a lot, you know, gadgets like this,” he replied, “but it’s a lot more sophisticated now.”
“Like, James Bond?”
“Yeah, it’s James Bond plus, I guess, these days too,” he laughed.
The CIA’s museum highlights the high-tech side of spycraft, but its true purpose is to inspire employees with stories like Agent Marti Peterson’s. In the 1970s, Peterson was assigned to work with a recruited Soviet informant codenamed Trigon.
Burns said: “Marti happened to be the first female CIA case officer to serve in Moscow, and this was to take advantage of what was a blind spot for the KGB at the time, because the KGB in those years tended to be very dismissive. of women’s capacity to conduct intelligence operations.”
“They didn’t think a woman would be a CIA spy?” O’Donnell asked.
“They didn’t. So basically what Trigon would do was use cameras like these to photograph documents, he’d put the film either in a hollowed-out rock or a hollowed-out brick or old milk cartons and leave it in mutually arranged dead drops and places around Moscow, which Marti would then come and collect.”
Eventually the KGB arrested Trigon and he swallowed a suicide pill rather than be questioned. Soon after, Peterson was captured and expelled from the Soviet Union. It’s a lesson in the risks CIA agents take—and those who come to trust them.
O’Donnell asked, “How important is the intelligence you get from human sources?”
“Gathering intelligence from human sources is a very important part of the CIA’s mission,” Burns said. “Our officers are literally working as we sit here to try to recruit foreign agents and try to work with them to obtain intelligence that can directly help ensure the safety and security of American lives.
“I have a deep obligation as director of the CIA to protect them,” he said. “On the right side when I walk in every morning is our memorial wall, which has 139 stars on the simple marble, each one honoring a CIA officer who was killed in the line of duty. So there’s not a moment when I walking past that wall when I’m not reminded of my obligation to care for people. And that means protecting sources and methods.”
The past few months have been dominated by reports of former President Donald Trump’s potential mishandling of human intelligence.
Burns couldn’t talk about what was found at Mar-a-Lago, but he made it clear what was at stake.
O’Donnell asked, “How damaging is it to the agency if human sources are exposed or if that human intelligence is compromised?”
“Well, you know, without commenting on any particular investigation, I mean, I think there are many cases in the past where you compromised, you know, human intelligence, failing to protect it carefully, being reckless with it has cost lives,” he replied.
The CIA museum nods to such failures—assets killed because of undercover spy Aldrich Ames’ betrayal in the 1980s; it also covers the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, as well as the agency’s 2003 assessment that finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq would be “a slam dunk.”
Still, it’s hard not to wonder about operations like Project Azorian, the 1970s salvage of a wrecked Soviet submarine. The CIA hired billionaire Howard Hughes to provide a cover story: that his ship, the Glomar Explorer, was looking for minerals on the ocean floor instead of helping the CIA harvest Soviet military secrets.
“The press found out, didn’t they?” O’Donnell asked.
“They did. In 1975, a year after the successful recovery of a large portion of the Soviet submarine, the Los Angeles Time broke the story. And the Ford administration used for the first time what became known as the ‘Glomar response,’ ” which was, ‘We can neither confirm nor deny this story,’ which you’ve heard a few times since then.
“I know! And now I’ve finally put it together, because there are many times as journalists we’ve asked for information and we get, ‘We can neither confirm nor deny.’ And that’s it? That’s it, that came from?”
“That’s where it all started, yeah,” Burns said.
For the CIA director, a new exhibition has special significance. It shows a model of the house in Kabul, Afghanistan, where the last surviving mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Ayman al-Zawahiri, hid. Last July, Burns took the model to President Biden to get the go-ahead for the drone strike that would kill the terrorist leader.
“A few days after the strike against Zawahiri, I was in New York City and, you know, I visited the Ground Zero Memorial,” Burns said. “It gives you an opportunity, in this case, to reflect a little bit on the degree of justice that the Zawahiri strike, as well as the bin Laden strike 10 years before, had brought to the 9/11 victims and their families – but also to the CIA -officers who had lost their lives.”
He showed O’Donnell seven stars on display: “These are seven CIA officers who lost their lives in the hunt for Zawahiri 13 years ago in 2009. So for the CIA, it’s not something any of us have ever forgotten.”
Preserving the memories of the missions and the people who carry them out is the purpose of this most unusual museum, dedicated to the secrets kept behind the walls of the intelligence service.
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Story produced by Ed Forgotson and Olivia Rinaldi. Editor: Remington Korper.