The CIA’s Museum is a monument to lies, murder and secret power. Not officially, of course, they use much prettier language. In this episode we examine 30 years of PR events around the CIA museum, and how it used to reinforce Cold War myths, emphasise US technological supremacy, and remind us of ‘success stories’ like the assassinations of Ayman al Zawahiri and Osama Bin Laden.
Those of you who have been listening to the CIA’s podcast The Langley Files (which, to reiterate, never discusses any files) will be aware not just that the CIA Museum exists, but that they’re obsessed with it.
I can forgive this, because life at headquarters must get a little boring. You’re out in Virginia but you can’t appreciate the countryside because you’re locked indoors, scanning through uncollated random bullshit from around the world, trying to make sense of it. So I can appreciate why the Agency tries to jazz things up by having an art collection on display on the corridors, a spy plane and other exhibits dotted around the Langley campus. And, of course, the museum.
Thus, I thought it’d be fun for us to go through some of the history of the CIA museum and how it is used for PR operations. It is weird, especially when a few miles down the road there’s the International Spy Museum, which is the very public-facing version of the same thing. Their board is almost entirely composed of people who’ve worked for the CIA or are friends of the Agency, and even people at the FBI were writing emails saying they assumed that the International Spy Museum project involved the offices of public affairs.
So we have this public museum in Washington DC where you can go and look at exhibits and gadgets and watch short films and learn about the history of spycraft and tradecraft. Which is, of course, told from an entirely pro-American perspective, much like all the museums in the DC area are deeply politicised. I’ve never been to the International Spy Museum but I have visited the Holocaust museum, the Smithsonian and one or two others. All excellent facilities, but also full of messaging about American superiority and nobility.
It’s the exact same thing in this country, of course, where I’ve been to quite a few museums. The national film and TV museum, which for unexplained reasons is in Bradford, is a lot of fun, and where I watched my first IMAX film when I was 11 years old. There’s a nice interactive exhibit where you can sit behind a desk and read the news off a teleprompter then run around the side and watch the footage back, stuff like that. Much better than the Newseum in DC, which is posher and more expensively put together but far more about beating people over the head with nonsense about how America has a free press and that’s why their society is so much better than everyone else’s. Though I did buy a baseball cap from the gift shop with the slogan ‘free press, free speech, free spirit’, it was an ironic purchase.
My favourite museum that I’ve been to is either the Stedelijk museum of modern art in Amsterdam or the Natural History museum in London. As someone who finds animals not only preferable to humans but also far more interesting than humans, learning about animals and natural history is where I feel at home. And while I detest most modern art as gaudy and talentless (especially abstract expressionism, aka finger painting), the Stedelijk is a nice building and the art I saw there wasn’t pretentious drivel, on the whole.
As Orwell said: those who control the past, control the present. Museums, or Musea (?), are the institutions that define both the origin stories of nations and narrativise their development over time. They are the embodiment of the historical establishment, and of how that establishment wants us to see ourselves and the places where we live.
Naturally, the people who work in museums are mostly nerds, and quite pleasant nerds at that. Starting in 2019 they’ve been competing to share pictures of ducks on social media, which has evolved into an International Unsolicited Duck Pic day (January 4th, in case you’re wondering).
this is the International Unsolicited Duck Pic Day dreamhttps://t.co/ZnirJgwHEO
— The Museum of English Rural Life (@TheMERL) January 4, 2023
As someone who has been sending unsolicited duck pics to people – mostly women, I’ll admit – for years now, I approve of this behaviour. I’ve never been to the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading but they’re deeply into this duck pic activity, so even though it makes no sense to have the Museum of English Rural Life in a town in the South, I may make the trip. I did enjoy the Leprechaun museum in Dublin, pretty much the only reasonably priced attraction in the entire fucking city, but certainly worth a look.
I’m not sure how this turned into the museum review podcast so let’s get back to the CIA. In 1972 then CIA Executive Director William Colby came up with the idea for the Agency to compile its own collection of spy artefacts and memorabilia, and to found a museum. In the 1980s the headquarters expanded, adding a new building, so they included a space for a museum and established the Office of the Curator.
Since then, various former CIA employees and friends of the Agency have donated many thousands of artefacts, so many in fact that the museum’s director referred to them having an Indiana Jones style storage archive.
The Agency’s website boasts of it being ‘the preeminent national archive for the collection, preservation, documentation and exhibition of intelligence artifacts, culture, and history’ and notes ‘The CIA Museum’s collection includes artifacts associated with the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services; foreign intelligence organizations; and the CIA itself’.
I was going to make a joke here about ‘No doubt somewhere they have the umbrella with the poisoned ferule used to kill Georgi Markov, though they’ll be pretending they nicked it from the Soviets when in reality the CIA created that technology.’
But that joke doesn’t really work because at the International Spy Museum they have an item – ‘Bulgarian Umbrella (replica), 1978, USSR (KGB)’. The page for the item says, ‘In 1978, the KGB used an umbrella like this—modified to fire a tiny pellet filled with poison—to assassinate dissident Georgi Markov on the streets of London. See the Bulgarian Umbrella on display in the Museum’s “Covert Action” gallery.’
In reality, no one is sure who killed Markov or how. It seems someone jabbed him in the back of the thigh with some kind of device that injected a poisonous pellet into his leg. Markov reported feeling a small prick (in his leg), turning and seeing a man behind him apologising and picking up an umbrella. It isn’t clear whether the umbrella was the delivery device or he deliberately dropped it to cover for whatever he was actually doing, but it does seem likely that this man was the assassin.
Markov went to his appointment at the BBC, told them what had happened, became sick, died in hospital a few days later. The autopsy found a micro-pellet in his leg, which presumably contained poison but no one can be certain. While a Soviet defector and reports from places like RFE/RL claim the Soviets helped the Bulgarian Secret Service assassinate Markov, a dissident in Bulgaria, there is no evidence of this and no one has ever been charged.
In the years since no one has produced any compelling evidence of exactly who was behind the hit – not just the assassin themselves but who their paymasters were. No documents have emerged from the Soviet archives pointing to development of an umbrella that could fire poison pellets into people from close range. However, we do know that the CIA development a stun-gun umbrella that fired darts into people in the 1960s, a while before Markov’s murder in 1978.
So you can see how the umbrella exhibit at the International Spy Museum is pure propaganda – it’s a replica of something they’ve never actually seen, since the man Markov saw absconded with his brolly. They are labelling it ‘USSR’ and ‘KGB’ as though that’s where it came from, even though there’s literally no evidence of them developing that technology. And they attribute not only the umbrella but the murder to the USSR, when the CIA themselves are the more likely suspects.
Why do this? Because it helps establish the narrative of evil Russians assassinating people they don’t like. When Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London, endless news reports assumed the Russians did it and referred back to the Markov murder as some kind of substantiation for this assumption. But the Markov murder remains completely unsolved. And according to Litvinenko himself his meeting that day with the Russians in the hotel rules them out as suspects, because they never had access to his drink and so physically could not have slipped some polonium into it. The only way the Russians could have done it via poisoning the drink is if they somehow recruited someone that morning in the kitchen of the hotel and got them to participate in the murder. Which seems extremely implausible.
Then, when the Salisbury poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal took place, everyone referred back to Litvinenko and to Markov, using their assumptions about the Ruskies being behind those murders as proof that their assumptions about Salisbury were correct. They’re literally piling presumption on top of presumption and relying on people’s ignorance, stupidity and outright prejudice to sell the story.
Then we got Arkady Babchenko, a Russian journalist critical of the government and of Putin personally. He disappeared in May 2018, just after the Salisbury incident, and was widely reported to have been assassinated by Moscow. Bear in mind this all takes place in the run-up to the Russia-hosted World Cup that summer, so it would be utterly insane for the Russian government to choose that moment to do these things. Especially when they could have killed Skripal when he was in prison in Russia years earlier, and could have more easily killed Babchenko in 2017, before he moved to Ukraine.
Anyhow, because people are really fucking stupid and really fucking bigoted, they believed the story, and presumed Babchenko has been killed by Putin. They were proven categorically wrong when, a few days later, Babchenko turned up alive and well at a press conference surrounded by Ukrainian intelligence officials. They claimed they’d heard about an assassination attempt and so helped him fake his death so as to evade the Ruskie assassins.
Which makes absolutely no sense, because faking your death only works if you maintain the fakery. Appearing in public a few days later in a Krusty the Klown outfit shouting ‘surprise!’ just tells the people trying to kill you that you’re right there, waiting to be killed. And he’s still alive now, over five years later, so we can assume that entire ruse was bullshit. There was no threat to his life, this was something he cooked up with Ukrainian intelligence as part of the propaganda war with the Russians. And look how well that’s turned out, with people hating on Russia so much and accusing them of everything under the sun, so they had nothing to lose by invading and escalating a civil war into an international war.
Furthermore, it only encourages the Russian state to engage in assassinations – which they no doubt do, as many states do. The isolation of Russia on the so-called ‘global stage’ has actually made these actions more likely and more common.
Hopefully you see why the museums matter – it isn’t just a bunch of glass cabinets and plaques containing dubious information, it’s part of the same propaganda war. It directly seeks to influence people’s perceptions, sewing the seeds of prejudice that can be harvested later.
A Brief History of the CIA Museum
- Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone.
- The tarantula that almost got James Bond in Dr. No.
- Shoes worn in the James Bond series by Sean Connery.
- Tom Cruise’s exploding gum and stunt watch from the first Mission Impossible movie
There were also one-of-a-kind prototypes of licensed merchandise including toys, and props from Austin Powers, The Avengers, Wild Wild West, The Man from UNCLE. An internal article from What’s News at CIA says:
As part of the exhibit, the Fine Arts Commission will host a lunchtime film festival in the Headquarters Auditorium, using rare footage from these movies and series. The collection includes a 1954 television version of Casino Royale starring Barry Nelson as the first James Bond, unaired television pilots, and long-lost promos (watch What’s News for showtimes and titles).
It goes on to outline Danny’s background as a writer, both of spy fiction and about spy fiction, including his role as a James Bond expert working for 30 months for MGM in one of the various copyright lawsuits, which we looked at in the Battle for Bond episode. It also notes that he was the writer/producer of a proposed Man from UNCLE movie, which we’ll come back to in a moment.
The CIA’s brief biography naturally overlooks his role as a production assistant on 1975’s Linda Lovelace for President, but a browse of his IMDB biography tells us:
Biederman’s work in the fictional espionage arena found him working in the realm of real spies when, in 2000, he was contacted by the CIA with a request that he share his pop culture knowledge with the spy agency. He gave several talks to the CIA membership on the world of “spy-fi,” and has also lectured at the Department of Defense’s top secret National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and for numerous organizations, agencies, universities, events and film festivals.
In November 2000, Danny put in a FOIA request. His letter opened ‘I am a screenwriter who has been working with the CIA for the past year’, which sounds like something you say at the start of a support group meeting. He was seeking CIA files on the original TV series of The Man from UNCLE, but also mentions similar files on James Bond and other spy fiction. This letter was only released in 2022, in response to a FOIA request, so it’s not clear whether Biederman’s request generated a response.
Skipping back a little, in January 1997 the Agency’s in house newsletter What’s News at CIA? announced the opening of an exhibit about Gary Powers, the U-2 spy plane pilot who was shot down over the Soviet Union and captured. The exhibition commemorated 35 years since his release, and included ‘memorabilia and graphics’ loaned by the Powers family and a guy called H Keith Melton, another of those initial, middle name, surname people.
The article goes on to talk about the curators (whose names are redacted) working with Gary Powers Jr. to prepare the event in time for the CIA’s 50th anniversary. A short film Solo Over Russia was shown on channel 12 of the Agency’s grid, twice a week for months.
We also learn that they were preparing a larger exhibit, presented in the New Headquarters Building fourth floor entrance, for the Agency’s ‘golden anniversary’. The piece explains:
Produced at the request of and with support from the Agency’s Quality of Life Working Group, this unique display, entitled Answering the Call, will appear in the NHB fourth floor entrance. Artifacts from famous and former OSS and CIA members will be highlighted, including actor Sterling Hayden’s Silver Star, jazz musician Miles Copeland’s trumpet, and operative Virginia Hall’s Distinguished Service Cross and field radio. Making their second appearance at the Agency will be four of famed Hollywood director John Ford’s Academy Awards. Rare wartime photographs of Julia Child, television’s “French Chef,” and presidential advisor Walt Rostow round out the display.
We have looked at Sterling Hayden’s time in the OSS way back in episode 97 but we should also note there have been TV shows and films about Julia Child and Virginia Hall in recent years, at least some of which were supported by the CIA. John Ford was also OSS, but I don’t know what Miles Copeland is doing in there, so evidently there’s a gap in my knowledge.
As to ‘Answering the Call’, that’s very Nicholas Cage in Dying of the Light, also supported by the CIA.
You see how TV chef Julia Child, this speech by Cage, the CIA supporting an episode of Top Chef – it’s all connected. But exactly why food, and specifically cake, comes up so damn often in these state-sponsored cultural projects will have to wait for a dedicated episode.
In 2000 Biederman’s exhibition of spy-fi items actually took place, with multiple articles from What’s News describing the event and the associated film festival hosted at Langley. No wonder they failed to prevent 9/11 when they were devoting so much time to this nonsense. One article describes how:
The opening ceremony will include appearances by Intelligence Community officers who are namesakes of actors and characters featured in these television shows and movies. You’ll get a chance to meet the real Agent 007 (he’s got the IC credential to prove it!), the real James Bond, and many others.
Another internal newsletter bulletin noted the reactions of some of the first CIA officers to view the exhibition, which are worth mentioning. One said that James Bond, Emma Peel and so on ‘were great role models when we were growing up, showing people doing exciting, creative work in secrecy and danger for a greater good. A lot of us are here because we became interested in this work during our childhood.’ One observed how I, Spy was the first show to feature ‘a minority as a main character’ and The Avengers showed a man and a woman working together as partners, which ‘presaged the diversity that you see at the Agency today’.
Not sure why that sounds like it was written by a press officer, but this is an internal press release, so they may have just made this up. A further officer noticed the ‘startling resemblance’ between the gadgets produced by prop masters and those created by the CIA themselves during the Cold War. Startling indeed. And the final opinion was that the exhibit ‘shows we have a sense of humour’ and ‘provides a lighthearted take on the business of intelligence’.
On September 5th 2001, a week when you would have thought they had better things to do, the CIA opened another exhibit. What’s News announced:
The Fine Arts Commission and the Center for the Study of Intelligence/CIA Museum invite visitors to view “Real vs. Reel” in the Cold War Gallery, a mini-exhibit comparing the “real world” espionage artifacts from the collection of H. Keith Melton with the TV and movie spy props from the Spy-Fi Archives “reel world” collection of Danny Biederman.
You see how they took the observation made during the event the year before and spun it off into a new exhibit? All while Alec Station continued doing… whatever it was they were actually doing. Not preventing 9/11, that’s for damn sure.
The article continues:
Visitors will see an OSS High Standard .22 caliber suppressed pistol with an U.N.C.L.E. Walter P38 with three suppressors; a Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife with a James Bond MI6 throwing knife; a KGB makeup case concealment device with a Get Smart Agent 99 makeup case; a KGB pen and pencil desk set audio transmitter with an U.N.C.L.E. cigarette case transmitter; a foreign fountain pen transmitter with a Get Smart pen radio; and a KGB assassination cane with an U.N.C.L.E. pistol cane.
That last item caught my eye – because it’s basically the same as the fake KGB umbrella in the International Spy Museum. And once again, I can find little evidence of the KGB using weapons concealed within canes. I can find evidence of such items existing in the US going back to Bean’s Breech-Loading Gun Cane, which is from 1885, decades before the CIA or KGB existed.
I can also find evidence of the KGB seizing such weapons from foreign spies but not of them having this weapon themselves. A 1964 CIA study of Soviet assassination methods never mentions canes, let alone cane guns, let alone umbrellas.
So, where did the CIA get this supposedly authentic KGB cane gun? From the same shop that the International Spy Museum got their poison umbrella, presumably. And that shop is called the CIA’s Office of Technical Services, who specialise in gadgetry and forgery. Just to emphasise the point – try googling KGB cane gun, and see if the first thing that pops up is a reference to the Georgi Markov hit. Which supposedly used an umbrella, not a cane gun, and yet google conflates the two. I can’t think why. It can’t possibly have anything to do with google’s longstanding relationship with the CIA, can it?
What’s News has one more article in this series, about an exhibition at the Reagan library in 2002, which also featured items from the collections of Keith Melton and Danny Biederman. The piece explains:
The collaboration between the Presidential Libraries and the CIA Museum/CSI is an initiative to share with the American people the pride we in the Agency have for the role intelligence plays in helping the President achieve his national security objectives and to impart a better understanding of the craft of intelligence. The exhibit will be at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California through July 14, 2002.
I imagine you see some of the recurring motifs of how the CIA uses museum exhibitions. The gadgets. The movies. The gadgets in the movies. The gadgets in real life that are just like the gadgets in the movies – what a coincidence. It’s not as though a Hollywood prop master was given an intelligence medal because he worked so closely with them, including on the Argo operation. And somewhere in all of this is a bunch of messaging about it being the KGB who assassinate people with canes and umbrellas, not the CIA.
The CIA Museum on TV
In more recent times the CIA has started to promote it’s museum via TV news, offering a glimpse at ‘the world’s most secretive museum’ and ‘the best museum you’ll never get to see’ and so on. The first mainstream article was from CBS, in 2004, but to my knowledge the first of these TV spots was in 2008, on Voice of America.
That’s right, in order to start stepping their museum out of the shadows, the CIA used one of their own front organisations. Not very subtle.
To be fair, VOA do point out how the Afghanistan exhibit avoids thorny issues like the manhunt for Bin Laden (which in 2008 wasn’t doing anything) and the resurgence of the Taliban in the tribal border regions. Looking back now, that exhibit and this video ring very hollow, with Afghanistan now surrendered to the Taliban and the war a total failure.
The next visit was in 2013, by NBC – which was perhaps the most comprehensive filming not just of the museum but of the CIA campus. They captured footage of the lobby and the exterior of the original headquarters building, the OSS gallery in the new building atrium, the Afghanistan gallery, the Directorate of Intelligence and Directorate of Science and Technology galleries, and the museum itself. They also filmed the A-12 Oxcart on the Langley grounds – a 1960s spyplane produced for the CIA by Lockheed Martin. NBC also did interviews with Toni Hiley, then Director of the Museum, as well Dennis Helms, the son of former CIA Director Richard Helms, and put together four video packages and an online gallery of artifacts.
A batch of documents on this filming came out via a FOIA request by John Greenewald over at the Black Vault, which are mostly 150 pages of tweets referencing the CIA museum after the segments had broadcast and other outlets picked up on the story. But there are a bunch of internal CIA emails and other documents that shed light on what happened.
The story begins in May, when NBC went in to talk to the Office of Public Affairs about doing a feature on the museum. They wanted not only to interview Toni, but one of the people who had donated items to the CIA’s collection. So Toni reached out to Dennis Helms, who’d been at Langley earlier that year to donate a replica of a letter from his father, Richard Helms.
The letter was written in May 1945, as the Allies were winning the war, and is written on a captured piece of Hitler’s personal stationery. Helms, who was in the OSS, wrote it to his then 3-year-old son, condemning Hitler’s thirst for power and saying the price for confronting bad in society is always great.
Toni wanted Dennis to agree to be interviewed as part of the NBC project, talking about the letter and why he donated it. The NBC producers had been given a walk through tour of some of the museum and the various galleries and exhibits on the campus, and were particularly interested in the AK-47, supposedly belonging to Osama Bin Laden, that is featured in the Afghanistan exhibition, along with a brick from the Abbottabad compound.
Obviously, these items weren’t there when Voice of America filmed five years earlier, but NBC’s desire to either film the AK-47, or at least get a photo of it for use in their broadcast, caused a problem. As one email from (redacted person at CIA) said:
The story of the UBL exhibit is quite complex. For reasons beyond the scope of this note, some of the Directorates were opposed to displaying this artifact in the CIA Museum. After lengthy debate (over a year), CIO/IMS over-ruled the objection on the condition that it would only be in the CIA museum and not otherwise released. These artifacts are phenomenally popular with visitors to the Museum. If we pull the sheet all the way back on this, we’ll let you know, there are a few other artifacts and paintings around CIA that have similar issues.
For those not familiar with Agency acronyms – the CIO is the Chief Information Officer and IMS are Information Management Services. It seems the Agency had this brick and the AK-47 kicking around for over a year, with some wanting to put them on display in the Afghanistan exhibit and others objecting. Eventually, they decided to put it in a perspex case and display it, but to not otherwise advertise it. Naturally, if it appeared on the NBC segments, the cat was out of the bag.
This became quite a serious problem. An Office of Public Affairs executive summary lists the things NBC wanted to film, including the model of the Abbottabad compound – for which the CIA had to reach out to the NGA (National Geospatial Intelligence Agency) for approval. The NGA were very happy with the idea, and even provided a fact sheet to give to NBC. Other items included the Oleg Penkovsky/Cuban Missile Crisis exhibit, gadgets relating to Virginia Hall, and a circuit board from Pan Am 103. When it came to the Bin Laden rifle it says:
AK 47 (currently confirming with ODNCS if we can use in NBC filming/NBC is aware of the weapon but NCS has to weigh in on whether we can feature/ discuss/film)
NCS is the National Clandestine Service, showing just how important this question was. At the foot of the summary it mentions the AK-47 again under ‘Next Steps’, saying:
Get approvals from [redacted] on AK-47 (Joe Lambert [redacted] said they have wavered before and can waiver again). [redacted] raised FOIA requests would go up. May lead to questions on ‘how did the CIA get the weapon.’ Suggest CTC, [redacted] approve.
So, they were concerned about questions and FOIA requests if they let NBC let the world know that the CIA have Bin Laden’s AK-47. Or at least, an AK-47 they claim was Bin Laden’s. Given that they also claim to have KGB umbrellas and murder canes and presumably Putin’s diary of assassinations, who really knows where the fuck this gun came from? In any case, permission was granted – it seems being able to waggle their balls in the air and say ‘look, we got his gun’ was more important than operational secrecy and avoiding tricky questions.
But, there were other problems. When Toni sent out messages to ask for extra cleaning in the days before the filming – making sure all the glass cabinets were nice and dust-free, all the lighting had fresh lightbulbs, that sort of thing, she followed up with an email saying:
[redacted] an NBC crew will be filming at the A-12 on Saturday. We were out there today and noticed hornets. Could FS see what they can do? I noticed hornets/wasps flying into the space between the top north pylon and the airframe as well as wasps/hornets flying into some of the louvered areas on the belly of the plane forward of the north pylon about halfway to the nose. They have historically been found in the starboard nacelle as well.
Then there was the issue of some of the items in the CIA’s exhibits belonging to outside, private collectors. On June 25th, a week prior to the filming, Toni emailed a collector asking if they had any restrictions on either filming the donated items or mentioning them in the interview. The collector wrote back saying they did not want their items filmed or photographed, and that NBC had reached out to them earlier in the year and they had declined. Toni sent an internal email letting everyone know, adding:
This will not be an issue since we steered NBC away from his collection in the first place and it’s my preference to focus on CIA’s collection for this great opportunity.
But who was this collector? In the documents his name and email address are redacted, but someone’s forgotten to redact the very top of the document containing the email chain, which identifies it as ‘Keith Melton response’. So, it’s him, again. And just in case you’re wondering, the mystery collector in the Pawn Stars episode where he tries to buy FDR’s hat is probably the same guy.
After filming, there was one more hurdle – the royal babies disrupting the schedule and pushing back the airing of the segments. In the emails there are multiple references to this, which must be quite humiliating for the world’s premier intel agency, that some in-bred brats born to a bunch of fake British German-extracted aristocrats might bump them from the news.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and the story and segments went out in late July.
In the end, they did get to film the AK-47, and got photos of the brick and other items for their online coverage. Toni is cagey about exactly where the AK-47 came from and how it came into the CIA’s possession, but it was the feature artifact in most of the pick-up coverage by other outlets.
The CIA files note this other coverage, in RT, the Daily Mail, Daily Beast and so on. They also picked up on hundreds of tweets of these articles, and the pictures of the AK-47. The Mail claimed that, ‘The AK-47 was recovered from the Abbottabad compound after bin Laden died in a midnight raid in May 2011’ while Daily Beast said, ‘Found next to his body during the Navy SEALs’ raid on his Pakistani compound, bin Laden’s assault rifle is the most recent addition to the CIA museum’s vast collection of gadgets, spyware, and the like.’ RT put a slightly different spin on it, saying, ‘An anonymous source told NBC that it came from the “dark side” of the agency, referring to the operations staff that worked with the SEALS on the raid.’
The following year, C-Span’s series American Artifacts was also allowed into the museum, and put out a whole show and some preview clips. It’s largely just Toni Hiley running through a bunch of artifacts in quite dry fashion, but they pick up on all the key talking points – gadgets, comparisons to spy films, and evil Russians.
The Revamped CIA Museum on TV
In recent years the museum has undergone a revamp, trying to bring it up to the standards of the International Spy Museum, it seems. They’ve mentioned this repeatedly on their podcast, but the interesting thing is that for their 75th anniversary in 2022 they invited in not just one, but several mainstream media outlets from across the world.
The BBC’s coverage brings up an interesting exhibit we hadn’t previously heard about – a small scale mock up of the house in Kabul where Ayman al Zawahiri was living when the CIA drone bombed him in July 2022.
This raises an interesting question – how long had that model been in the museum? The BBC piece went out in September, literally days after the 75th anniversary of the passing of the National Security Act back in 1947 that created the CIA. Zawahiri was killed at the end of July. So it was – at most – six weeks later that the BBC crew was filming the model of the house that was targeted. And why put the model in the museum before the operation to kill Zawahiri was completed? This whole thing smacks of a rush job.
And in the process, they revealed a little something. The logic for sending Navy SEALs into Abbottabad, even though that was technically an illegal deployment of military troops to a foreign, sovereign nation, was that they needed Bin Laden’s body. They needed to be sure they’d got him. Hence all the nonsense about DNA testing done on the Navy ship before they dumped him overboard, and the facial recognition on the photos we’ve never seen.
But we’re also told that Zawahiri was Bin Laden’s successor, which means by the time of his death he’d been in charge for over 11 years. Not sure what Al Qaeda accomplished in that time, if anything, but the point is that his assassination wasn’t treated in the same way as Bin Laden’s – they just bombed the fuck out of his house. Who cares about DNA and photos and evidence and gathering intelligence on Al Qaeda, let’s just fire off a couple of missiles and put out a press release.
And then put a scale model of the house we fired missiles at in the CIA’s museum so it instantly appears on the news.
Sky News Australia’s coverage focused almost entirely on Bin Laden, the scale model of the Abbottabad house, the AK-47 and the brick. One of 13, apparently. Even Bob Byer’s commentary (he’s the CIA museum director these days, you may remember him from the Pawn Stars episode) is quite revealing – that merely having the AK-47 at CIA headquarters highlights the hunt for Bin Laden and ‘finally bringing him to justice’.
As I’ve mentioned before, if ‘justice’ means flying into another country without permission, busting into a house and killing all the men (but only the men), stealing some computer hard drives and other files, an AK-47 and 13 bricks (that mysteriously none of the SEALs who’ve spoken or written about the mission mention whatsoever), then Bob and I have very different understandings of that word.
Likewise, he’s admitting to the narrativisation – look, here’s the AK-47, look, here’s the model of the compound and one of the bricks. It’s all there. Except for any proof that it actually was Bin Laden, or any justification for how they handled it. And any explanation of why it took 10 years to track him down when he was literally a few hours drive from the last place they saw him, in Tora Bora. And was still in semi-regular contact with the courier they were tracking the last time you saw him.
The PBS coverage was a little different – they claim that the model shows the house ‘where the CIA hunted Bin Laden’, which kinda implies they knew he was there all along. Then we get some fluffy bullshit about the Iraq WMD intelligence, trying to make it look like innocent mistakes and misinterpretations rather than a deliberate deception. And then some stuff blaming JFK for the Bay of Pigs fiasco – something the CIA very much did at the time. Which is probably why they shot him.
We also get a shot of the infamous Presidential Daily Briefing – Bin Laden determined to strike inside US – and some more bollocks about the CIA not pushing hard enough for action from the White House, implying it was actually Bush’s fault for not reacting, rather than a deliberate CIA stovepiping of information.
And then they reference Operation Cold Feet, where the CIA used a skyhook to pick up a couple of officers they’d dropped in to grab intel from an abandoned Soviet spy outpost up in the arctic. Naturally there’s the connection to the end of Thunderball, but no mention of it being the exact same plane. I don’t know how many times I’m going to have to point this out before someone in the mainstream realises ‘oh, it’s the same plane, the one in the Bond film belonged to the CIA’.
The CBS Sunday Morning segment features an interview with CIA director William Burns. Exactly why he, and not Bob or any of the other museum staff, did the tour for CBS lady, I don’t know.
One thing he said is absolutely not true. He claims that the KGB were sceptical of using women spies, and how the CIA were more progressive. This is codswallop. While the Soviet military was, like most militaries, not particularly impressed with women and didn’t want many of them in its ranks, the intelligence position was quite different.
For example, Melita Norwood was a secretary at the Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association in London in the 1930s when she was recruited to spy for the KGB. The organisation she worked for was part of a secret US-UK nuclear weapons research effort, and she took photos of documents and passed them on to Moscow.
She was a spy for around 40 years, until the early 70s, and her secret role wasn’t revealed until the 1990s, 60 years after she was first recruited. A female MI5 officer had raised suspicions about her back in the 30s, but her male superior ignored them because he didn’t take women spies seriously. So in reality the KGB were quite happy to use Melita for forty years to spy on top secret nuclear research for them, and the main reason she was never caught is because of sexism within MI5, not within the KGB.
Of course, we shouldn’t expect someone like Burns to spout anything other than misleading tokenistic feminist liberal bullshit – afterall, there’s a tokenistic liberal sex criminal president in the White House, so everyone has to pretend like they’re down with this shit. But mysteriously say nothing about Rapey Joe’s personal life.
Then we get some Cold War stuff, using pictures provided by Karen and Keith Melton and the International Spy Museum – again showing how this is all effectively the same operation. And then we get the killer question – how important is information the CIA gets from human sources?
Please, somebody start polishing the Peabody award because this interview is next level.
Like the other coverage, they gloss over the massive CIA failures on Iraq’s WMD and at the Bay of Pigs, and get back to exciting stuff like Howard Hughes helping recover the Soviet submarine. It rounds off with another outright lie from Burns – that the 7 CIA officers who died at Camp Chapman in Khost were hunting Zawahiri. They weren’t, they were hunting Bin Laden when a triple agent named Humam al Balawi blew himself up and killed them.
The CIA haven’t stopped there. Earlier this year, C-Span were back with their show American History TV to talk about the Argo exhibit, which the Agency have also been promoting on social media in recent months.
For some reason we’re back to Bob being interviewed about the museum, rather than William Burns, but I prefer Bob anyway, he’s quite a likeable guy. He is lying though, when he only highlights the gunfire on the tarmac at the end of Argo. In reality, the entire third act of that movie, with Affleck guiding the team through the airport, them getting interrogated by the military before rushing onto the plane and being chased down the runway by crazy Turks playing Arabs playing Iranians is false.
And, wouldn’t the Iranian military have the ability to stop a plane leaving its airspace, rather than having to chase a plane while it’s taking off?
What’s interesting is that Bob tells us that the other guy, Tony Mendez’ partner in the exfiltration, is still undercover to this day. I’m sceptical, because that operation took place over 40 years ago, but it’s possible he was in his 20s then and is in his 60s now. Presumably this is why he doesn’t appear in the movie version – because CIA secrecy, and because Ben Affleck’s ego.