First look at the spy section in Cold War: Soviets, Spies and Secrets visitors might think they’re looking at props straight from the movie screen like perhaps the creative work of Q, the inventor of the gadget for fictional spy James Bond, but these are real, genuine spy tools used by the CIA and on loan from some of the major American institutions dedicated to preserving America’s spy history.
From everyday objects with hidden compartments to high-tech cameras, these artifacts highlight the important and often dangerous work of collecting information during the Cold War. Viewing these creative spy tools emphasizes the adage that truth is stranger than fiction.
From the International Spy Museum
A CIA photo briefcase, on loan from the International Espionage Museum, provides insight into how CIA agents in the mid-to-late 20th century gathered information. While the briefcase looks normal from the outside, it opens to reveal a hidden Honeywell Pentax camera with a stand for taking photos of confidential documents.
Taking normal everyday objects and adding a secret compartment is a craft for spy enthusiasts and professionals alike known as “active concealment”. The exhibit features a CIA tabletop radio, circa 1970, with a camera concealed behind the speaker and a CIA shaving cream tin, circa 1950-1970, with a bottom that unscrews to reveal a secret compartment. Imagine what can be hiding in plain sight.
From the CIA Museum
A visit to Cold War: Soviets, Spies and Secrets offers a rare opportunity to view artifacts on loan from the CIA Museum, which is not open to the public due to its location at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
See a Minox C camera, once known as the most widely used spy camera in the world. This subminiature camera, smaller than a modern iPhone, could take high-quality photos of documents at close range, making it ideal for covert photography.
Objects that would not normally be examined closely are prime candidates for active concealment and the cemetery tip in the exhibit is a perfect example. It’s basically a dead tip with a removable top that pulls out to reveal a hidden compartment for top secret information to be exchanged discreetly.
Putting Artifacts in Context: CIA Training in the Cold War
Prior to World War II, there was no central organization to coordinate American intelligence activities. After the United States entered the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Office of Strategic Services (OCC), centralizing, for the first time in American history, the collection and analysis of intelligence.
When the war ended in 1945, President Harry Truman abolished the OSS along with other agencies created during the war. But the need to consolidate foreign intelligence operations into a single agency was obvious.
In 1947, Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947, establishing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The CIA was required to conduct its intelligence gathering efforts outside of the United States. National intelligence gathering was prohibited.
Throughout the Cold War, the CIA played an important role in gathering intelligence from around the world. His methods were sometimes controversial. But the information he gathered in foreign countries helped guide the foreign and military policy of every Cold War-era president.
Espionage: Espionage is a dangerous activity
One hundred and thirty-seven stars are engraved on a marble wall at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Each star honors the life and service of a CIA officer who died while engaged in intelligence service to our country.
Under the stars hides a book.
On the pages of the book are inscribed some of the names of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. To protect intelligence sources and methods, some names remain classified and do not appear in the book.
New CIA officers are sworn in on their first day at the Agency in front of the Wall of Remembrance. This sobering ceremony reminds new officers of the risks that come with a career in intelligence.
Cold War: Soviets, Spies and Secrets is included with admission to the Nixon Library. The Nixon Library is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.