From Mata Hari to Edward Snowden – a history of espionage

Washington’s International Spy Museum reveals much about how data is weaponised

A few blocks south of the National Mall in Washington, DC, a sparkling new building has become the latest addition to the city’s museum scene.

The International Spy Museum first opened its doors in 2002, but this month it relocated to an expanded multi-storey site nearby.

Washington, DC is no stranger to the world of espionage. As the home to hundreds of embassies and diplomatic residences, the nation’s capital has long been a magnet for those seeking information about adversaries.

During the Cold War, the US bugged the Russian embassy in Washington while Russia had spies in the CIA; Richard Nixon engaged in his own surveillance activities at the Watergate complex, just a few blocks from the White House; and more recently Edward Snowden masterminded the biggest intelligence leak in US history from CIA headquarters just outside the city.


The museum aims to take a fresh look at the history of espionage and the role played by intelligence services in international affairs.

Its audience is a broad church – on this weekday morning, teams of schoolchildren, tourists and serious-minded history buffs bustle through the museum. Perhaps as a result, the museum juxtaposes fun, interactive displays with a serious consideration of the intelligence challenges of today’s world – part John Le Carré, part 21st-century cybermuseum.

On entering the museum, a friendly American greets visitors with the words: “Welcome, agent.”

Visitors are given an electronic pass containing the details of a covert identity and a secret intelligence mission. Thus begins the immersive experience that threads through the entire museum experience.

Name badge

Throughout the exhibition, visitors stop at interactive machines, tap their name badge and are given real-life tasks and scenarios that they must solve. Anonymous tips from sources, conflicting maps and coded messages – the idea behind “Operation Spy” is to recreate the stresses and decision-making processes of real-life spies.

But though interactive in focus, the exhibition is based around an impressive collection of traditional artifacts. The tools of the trade are on full display as visitors move through the space. These include a leather shoe from the 1960s containing a hidden microphone and transmitter in the heel – the owner was an American diplomat in eastern Europe who had sent his shoes out for repair. Unbeknownst to him, it was fitted with surveillance devices.

Also on display is a recreation of the famous Grand Seal of the United States which hung on the walls of the US embassy in Moscow for many years. It was given to the US ambassador in 1945 by visiting schoolchildren. Seven years later a listening device was discovered inside.

The museum also looks at the people behind the craft, those who either willingly or under coercion became spies and double agents.

A fascinating video interview with Morten Storm, a Danish undercover agent, tells the story of his switch to radical Islam and back again. After converting to Islam he joined a radical Islamic group, but became disillusioned. In 2005 he joined the Danish intelligence services, and was later co-opted by the CIA, posing as an adventure guide at times.

The museum also looks at how women have made inroads into the intelligence world more recently

Among those he helped target was Al Qaeda’s Anwar al-Awlaki, whom he once knew and who was ultimately killed in a drone strike by Americans. Eleven of the phones used by Storm while an agent are on display, a tangible illustration of the multiple identities he juggled throughout this life.

Firing squad

Many women carved careers as agents and informers, working undercover for various governments. Dancer Mata Hari, a Dutch national, drew the attention of British, German and French intelligence agencies during the first World War. In the end she was killed by firing squad in France on suspicion she was a German spy, her death shrouded in mystery about where her loyalties really lay.

The museum also looks at how women have made inroads into the intelligence world more recently. Among those interviewed is Stella Rimington, the first female head of MI5, who describes the "quiet revolution" during her career that saw women finally been taken seriously in the intelligence field.

Melissa Mahle, a longtime CIA officer, describes the attitude among her employers before she went to the Middle East to work as a field officer in the mid-1980s.

“My senior management said, we don’t send women to the Middle East,” she recalls. “I don’t speak Spanish, I don’t speak these other European languages, but I speak Arabic. I think that they thought that I just couldn’t handle the Arab male, and they were completely wrong.”

As the museum explores more recent developments in spycraft and intelligence, it touches on some uncomfortable themes. In addition to the big intelligence successes – an Enigma machine is on display, in homage to the codebreakers in Bletchley Park who eventually broke the German military code during the second World War – accounts of Pearl Harbor and September 11th sit side by side, their powerful images saying everything about these colossal intelligence failures and their devastating consequences.

“How is data collected?” is the title of an interactive display that succinctly describes how metadata is collected by intelligence agencies in conjunction with internet service providers and others to monitor communication around the world.

Stark reminder

“Intelligence agencies are constantly monitoring the world’s political, diplomatic and military chatter,” the computer’s voice says ominously, a stark reminder of the contemporary challenges to data privacy posed by rapid technological change in recent years.

It addresses head-on the issue of how far US intelligence services will go to secure information

Indeed, this balance between surveillance and privacy, security and freedom is something the museum does not shy away from.

In a world where tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google face questions about how they use people's data, the exhibition forces us to think about how and why our personal data is deployed.

Similarly, it addresses head-on the issue of how far US intelligence services will go to secure information. One area of the museum is devoted to methods of interrogation, complete with a real waterboard kit and stress box – a structure in which detainees are kept in a crouching position.

Nearby, video footage shows one retired specialist denouncing waterboarding; another former CIA official argues that it ultimately saved lives.

Multiple perspectives are also presented on Edward Snowden, the American whistleblower who leaked more than a million classified documents. While to some he was a hero who exposed the reality of mass surveillance, to others he was a traitor who put lives in danger.

“What do you think?” the Snowden exhibit asks. It’s a question that this museum ultimately poses to all its visitors, through its compelling and provocative examination of the themes of patriotism, privacy and mass surveillance in the 21st century.