From the Enigma machine to the Aston Martin of 007
In Washington at the Museum of Spies
by Maria Gabriella PASQUALINI
Very few people know that in the centre of Washington, in the area of the federal institutional buildings, near the Smithsonian Museum, at the National Portrait Gallery, there is an interesting International Spy Museum (1) : the only one in the United States dedicated to this subject. It endeavours to furnish a global view of this “occupation” which necessitates a serious professionalism, far removed from the stereotype that has been fixed in the collective imagination. Perhaps this is the real scope of the Museum: alongside the famous cinema celebrities like James Bond, it brings to the knowledge of the general public, known and less-known Intelligence operators in all their aspects. Certainly, they are not romantic figures like the protagonist delineated by the writer, Ian Fleming, but many have given their lives in the service of their Country.
It is an effective attempt to explain what it really means to be a ‘spy’: hardly ever beautiful women or luxury hotels, but hard and dangerous work, often in uncomfortable places. It is not always an ‘operative’ work: frequently office routine, comprising investigation, analysis, logistics to be able to put together the information found, even in open sources, … to find the clue to unravel the true knowledge of what is happening or what could happen.
The fall of the Berlin Wall, with the implosion of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War permitted the opening of certain particularly interesting Intelligence files, like that of the East-German Stasis, the States that adhered to the Warsaw Pact, revealing previously unknown espionage organizations.
I went to see this Museum out of pure curiosity and with much skepticism, but I must admit that by the end of the visit, to which I dedicated more than two hours, I can out admiring how the subject had been treated, with scientific discretion and adherence to the facts. It is obviously not a place foreseen for professionals in the field, but without a doubt, instructive and useful for the visitors who crowd in large numbers at the box-office, decreeing a great success by the public, attracted by the ‘secret’ theme; the success is even more interesting because, being private, it asks an entrance ticket that is certainly not cheap, $19, from people who are not used to paying entrance to museums, since the federal one are free.
The Museum is well planned, also didactically, and very attentive to the development of espionage although with certain historical superficialities, perhaps dictated by a necessary synthesis.
The brief documentary that the visitors are obliged to view on entry, explains that, in reality, behind the history which is well-known, there is, unknown to most, another history. It cannot be denied that the Intelligence has had, and still has, an important role in the dynamism of events, their enaction and their results: This fact is underlined more than once during the museum tour, seeking to remove an aura of mystery and false impressions on the implications of espionage, so that it can be understood how every State needs institutional organizations of Intelligence to be able to operate, above all, to allow the citizens themselves stability and security.
The Intelligence is certainly one of the instruments used by international politics, which has, however, controversial operative aspects … it is significant that in an explanatory panel, a phrase is reported which seems to have been said by Henry Kissinger: : ““an undercover action is not missionary work …”.
The Museum dedicates an initial sector to the International history of espionage: a first personage remembered is Sun Tzu, who probably lived in China, around 500 B.C..
Actually, it must be said that even before him, in Syria, archeologists found tablets which mention the capture of certain spies: essentially, therefore, an occupation as old as time itself ... together with others which, in a certain way, in times gone by, were crossed and confused with espionage.
Sun Tzu, however, wrote a complete treatise on the Art of war, which is considered to be the first known text regarding war and espionage, an important instrument in conducting a conflict, and not only this.
The Chinese sage, convinced that in no other place were spies as useful as in war, wrote: “five types of secret agents exist; local agents, internal agents, agents of counter-espionage, killing agents and security agents. When the five types of secret agents act in joint accord, but no-one knows the art of their overall mode of employment, one speaks of “supernatural organizational scheme”. It constitutes the treasure of the prince…. only an enlightened prince and a brave commander … will be able to guide the secret agents, drawing on supreme intelligence, … certainly realizing the most excellent results … therefore, the first basics of a defensive and offensive spy organization, with appropriate attention given to the case ….” (the didactic panels in the Museum explain the various categories of agents and their specific professional expertise, beginning with the non-expert and going on to the relative distinctions in the various operative sectors).
It is interesting to recall, according to what is said, that the Japanese military had to read attentively the treatise of Sun Tzu, when they were planning the attack on Pearl Harbour.
England has been, and still is, master in the art of Intelligence, which started, perhaps, as an internal instrument of vigilance and evolved also as instrument of foreign policy. Sir Francis Walsingham, Principal Advisor to Queen Elizabeth I of England, as well as Secretary of State, was an attentive “supervisor” of Court and was able to intercept the secret messages that Mary Queen of Scots plotting against Elizabeth, sent to her supporters, in this way, giving her rival concrete evidence to send her to the block. It is said that her Advisor declared that for a competent spy there was never enough money. Walsingham studied at the prestigious University of Cambridge … some centuries later, the Soviets recruited numerous agents from that same University, i.e. Antony Blunt, Kim Philby, John Cairncross, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess. People of importance in the London that counted. They passed many secrets to the Soviets; more than a few agents who worked for the British Intelligence, were discovered, arrested and executed, on the basis of information conveyed by these dangerous spies corrupted by the communist ideology.
Among the Museum sector of ‘figures of the past’, there is also a life-size reproduction of a Ninja: the children are particularly attracted and, in this way, discover that the Ninjas were men in the secret service of the Feudal Lords of Japan … and not an invention of the contemporary Japanese cartoonists.
Continuing in the history sector of espionage, the facsimile copy of an interesting letter by George Washington of February 4th, 1777, which provided for a reward and gave instructions to one of his undercover agents, to obtain, as soon as possible, information on what the enemy, that is, the English, intended to do. Washington had his well tested network of informers: even today, it has not been possible to reveal the secret of all the names of his agents.
Also in those times, there were double-agents and traitors, like the American General, Benedict Arnold, who asked to be nominated Commander at West Point, with the secret intention of surrendering the fortress to the English. When he was discovered, he was able to escape and passed over to the English, who, however, never trusted him, considering him, with reason, a traitor without honour. Destitute and without friends, he died in London, in 1801.
The historical sector (2) , even though greatly synthesized, ties the threads of the history of espionage, presenting also objects of the time, or a copy of same, such as the interesting roller code of Leon Battista Alberti (it had 25 rotating discs with the letters of the alphabet, which gave an infinite number of combinations, difficult to decipher for the epoch). A system which has been fundamental for the realization of the Enigma cipher machine, used by the German military, before and after the 2nd World War.
Cryptology has always been of great interest and utility in war, as in peace. For example, it is sufficient to see the volume of documents preserved in the National Archives of Washington, relative to the 2nd World War and the deciphering of encrypted messages, to understand the efforts made by all belligerent parts, with the scope of mastering the secret codes. The better knowledge of the movements of the enemy could make you win or lose a battle and, therefore, much human effort and financing went into this particular sector. Moreover, it was not enough to decipher a message: it was necessary to understand it, analyze the contents to relate it to what had happened or was ongoing: here the work of the cryptographer begins, with a particular professionalism in understanding the sense of the words in the message which, notwithstanding, it had been decrypted, often resulted incomprehensible in its real content or impossible to evaluate its real significance. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour of 7th December, 1941, which determined the entry into war of the United States, was successful also because the Americans did not have, in this case, efficient cryptographers. The Japanese, instead, with an optimum military Intelligence service, were able to know exactly how and where to find the enemy fleet. In the Battle of the Midway, in June 1942, the situation was reversed: the importance of the information and, in general, of the cryptographer was understood.
Also the telegram of the German Foreign Minister, Zimmerman, sent to the Mexican Government at the beginning of 1917, can be read, in which he offered Texas, Arizona and New Mexico if that Government attacked the United States. The British Intelligence intercepted and decrypted the message, passing it to the allies in Washington, arousing much anger and preoccupation: a short time after, the United States entered the war.
Another section is dedicated to the woman spy and it must be said that, commendably, the female gender has been seen not only as ‘body’ but also as ‘brain’, recognizing in them courage, intelligence, not only those of ‘loose morals’, which they were often called, above all, in the Italian documents relative to the Intelligence, at least until the beginning of the 2nd World War, when the women, in particular in the Resistance, gave a conspicuous contribution to the final victory, often losing their lives.
For example, with regard to the American Civil War, the Museum remembers with splendid daguerreotypes of the epoch, many women who conducted a ‘secret’ life. One of these, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, had a magnificent observation point in the first Battle of Manassas (in East Virginia) and passed information on the tactics of the Unionists to the Confederates; or Belle Boyd, who was arrested twice as a Confederate spy. Released, she continued her espionage activities, notwithstanding the serious danger; at the end of the war, she married a Unionist Navy Officer.
Among the contemporary female figures, Virginia Hall is remembered, whom the Gestapo considered one of the most dangerous enemy agents: native of Baltimore, Virginia worked for both the American OSS and with the British SOE, during the 2nd World War. She had a portable radio and managed, with precision, to inform her correspondents on the movements of Nazi troops in France; she had aid sent to the Resistance, almost always risking discovery. She received from Donovan, Director of the OSS, the Distinguished Service Cross, in 1945, for courage, and continued working fro the CIA until the end of the War. It is impossible not to remember Violette Szabò, among those who had a tragic end. Violette was a parachute saboteur agent in France, in the days of the allied landing to help the domestic front invasion. She was captured, tortured and executed at the age of 24. In the 1st World War, among others, Edith Cavell is remembered, who helped, in Germany, the escape of allied soldiers from Belgium, occupied by the Germans. The German Authorities arrested her and had her judged by a Court-Martial and she was executed.
These three women were not the only ones to fight in this world of spies and saboteurs. The Museum winks a compliant eye also at figures known to the general public, like, for example, Marthe Zelle, alias Mata Hari, certainly not a clever spy, if she had ever really been one. It is to be noted that two years ago the French Army Military Archive made public the personal dossier relative to the ‘Eastern’ dancer, who was not Eastern. Another well-known example in the feminine artistic field is that of Josephine Baker, a real spy in the service of the French Deuxième Bureau, who managed to deliver to the Resistance messages written in invisible ink on her sheet music.
A vast section of the Museum is dedicated to the instruments of the spy, wittily called ‘tools of the trade’. A large series of showcases is dedicated to special watches used by the Stasis of East Germany, which in reality, could spread lethal gas; detonators shaped like a pen, such as, for example, those supplied to the French Resistance during the conflict in 1943-44; buttons that hide compasses or mini-video cameras; physician bags with an entire supply of instruments; simple tools, such as sets of keys and other instruments to open doors without housebreaking; gloves for not leaving signs; cigarette cases with prying eyes …; sets of various makeup, wigs, fake moustaches for eventual disguise. In short, from the most innocuous instruments to the most lethal. Obviously, this showcase attracts the public because they seem curiosities, but are, in reality, collections of real objects, used in the past. Just like another curiosity used to listen to the conversations of others: the great official seal of the United States, the one with the Eagle, shown in its time to the United Nations as proof of the Soviet penetration into the offices of the Ambassador in Moscow: in fact, in the eye of this emblem hanging on the study wall of the diplomat, the Soviets had inserted a miniature microphone (bug), which for some time has escaped discovery during the cleaning of that Office.
Continuing in the sector of interceptions, three counters have been reconstructed with headphones used for this scope, where the public can sit and with the headphones discover how the interceptive world of Intelligence functions: counters which are taken by storm by grown-ups and children alike, out of curiosity, but which teaches some peculiarities, by now perhaps, in disuse by the profession.
There are many organized sections: among these, the one relative to the spies in the so-called ‘Cold War’ and in the fight of the United States against communism is very interesting. It was a conflict without quarter with many double and triple agents. When, in 1949, the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb, the American Community understood that spies had sold important national secrets to the enemy. Through a Soviet agent passed to the Western world in Canada, the Americans received information of a spy circuit on their own soil, the so-called ‘atomic spies’, among whom were the famous couple, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed on the electric chair. In 1995, the National Security Agency declassified the documents of the VENONA project, which concerned: a programme of massive secrecy, the scope of which was to decrypt, examine and use the Soviet diplomatic communications: in these documents are found, according to the experts, the evidence of the ties between the Rosenbergs and the Soviets, as well as the names of all the Americans who took part in that espionage circuit.
An interesting space was given to Berlin, considered the ‘City of the spies’, until the fall of the Wall in 1989. The atmosphere of the West Berlin in the years of the Cold War has been recreated with a certain spectacularity, remembering also what happened since the Wall was erected in 1961, unbeknown to all the world of Western Intelligence present in force in the Western sector. The objects of the Stasis recuperated after the fall of the Wall are numerous: among these, one of the cars which the communist agents used for service and a specimen – almost a minicab – that helped many Berliners to pass to the West, hidden in the boot. Also scenically recreated is the beginning of the tunnel dug by the CIA and the English SIS towards East Berlin, in the middle of the 50’s, with the scope of putting ‘bugs’ on the cables of the wired communications; however, George Blake, a SIS agent, revealed the existence of the tunnel to the Soviets, who pretended to discover everything a year after the real beginning of the interception and about 40,000 hours of listening …. Blake was, in turn, betrayed by other double-agents and was condemned to 42 years of imprisonment, one year for each Western spy he had endangered; he escaped from prison in 1966, and took refuge in Moscow.
One of the last sections comprises information, that which can be ‘disclosed’, on what is ongoing against the present enemy, terrorism, from whatever part it comes, from the explanation of the effectiveness of the drones to the spy satellites; remembering also, with a taxidermist specimen, those pigeons that during the 1st World War flew over enemy territory with a small, but extremely efficient camera tied to its legs.
(1) The Museum is an excellent project which, apart from some ingenuousness (which, however, can be noted only by who knows that world, at least, historically), has the merit of collecting objects which, otherwise, would have been lost, and which constitutes a patrimony of the human inventiveness and intelligence; in the second place, to open the eyes of the citizens to the long felt need to have, institutionally, a similar service, also to safeguard the rules of civilized living.
(2) In the Museum, this section is dutifully explained to the public, both with explanatory panels and with the exposition of specimens of ciphering and deciphering machines, among which an original of the Enigma and the so-called “Wheel of Fortune”, a rotating disc used in the American Civil War.