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The most highly classified museum in the world

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It houses historical artifacts and is arguably the most unique and exclusive museum in the entire world. But the public cannot enter since the doors are locked.

Inside the world's most top secret museum

Inside the world’s most top secret museum© Pool/Getty Images

The gun that was discovered with Osama bin Laden when he was slain next to Saddam Hussein’s leather jacket can only be seen there.

Welcome to the covert internal museum of the CIA.

The collection, which is housed inside the US spy agency’s Langley, Virginia, headquarters, has just undergone renovations to commemorate the agency’s 75th birthday. Exclusive access was granted to a select group of journalists, including the BBC, however we were continually accompanied by a security guard.

Cold War spy gear including a “dead drop rat” that could conceal messages, a secret camera placed within a cigarette packet, a pigeon with its own spy camera, and even an exploding martini glass are among the 600 artifacts on display.

However, there are also specifics on some of the more well-known and current CIA activities.

This model of the Abbottabad compound was used to brief President Obama, who approved the raid on it

This model of the Abbottabad compound was used to brief President Obama, who approved the raid on it© Central Intelligence Agency

A scale model of the Pakistani complex where Osama bin Laden was found is on display. Before approving the 2011 raid that resulted in the death of the al-Qaeda leader, President Obama was shown a model.

According to Robert Z Byer, the museum’s director who gave a tour, “being able to see things in 3D actually assisted the policymakers…as well as enable our operators to plan the mission.”

A US missile struck a different facility on July 30 of this year, this one in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the new commander of al-Qaeda, was the target.

The most recent display, which was newly declassified, is a model of the compound that was used to inform President Biden of the proposed mission on July 1st, 2022. Following months of movement analysis by the US intelligence community, Zawahiri was shot while standing on the balcony.

According to Mr. Byer, it “speaks to how counterterrorism officers look to the pattern of life of the target.”

Al-Zawahiri was hit while on the balcony of this compound in Kabul

Al-Zawahiri was hit while on the balcony of this compound in Kabul© Central Intelligence Agency

From the CIA’s founding in 1947 through the Cold War, the first half of the museum moves chronologically. The 11 September 2001 attacks marked a clear turning point in the shift towards focusing on counter-terrorism, and some of the items on display were donated by people whose relatives perished in the attacks.

Both official visitors and members of the CIA’s staff make up the museum’s audience. It is not solely success-oriented. A part about the Bay of Pigs disaster, in which a CIA effort to topple Fidel Castro in Cuba went horribly wrong, is included. There are also references to the failure to discover WMD in Iraq.

“This museum is more than a repository of historical artifacts. This museum is open for business. We are walking CIA agents through it, learning about our history—both the good and the ugly “by Mr. Byer “We ensure that our officers are aware of their past in order for them to perform better in the future. In order to get better in the future, we must learn from both our accomplishments and failures.”

Though less obvious, some of the most contentious facets of the CIA’s operations—such as its 1953 joint operation with MI6 to overturn a democratically elected government in Iran and more recent participation in the torture of terrorism suspects after 9/11—are also among the most contentious.

“We are unable to confirm or deny”

The museum’s second half concentrates in depth on a few particular operations.

For those who cover intelligence organizations, the expression “we can neither confirm nor deny” is common. Its genesis is a tale told in the museum employing never-before-seen artifacts.

A Soviet Union submarine went missing in the late 1960s and was never found. Following its discovery by the US, the CIA collaborated with business magnate Howard Hughes to try and salvage both the wreck and the technology aboard. The Glomar Explorer, a ship Hughes planned to use to mine the ocean below, was used as a front.

The model of the sunken and deteriorated K-129 submarine was created by the CIA during the AZORIAN mission, and has never been displayed before

The model of the sunken and deteriorated K-129 submarine was created by the CIA during the AZORIAN mission, and has never been displayed before© Central Intelligence Agency

A number of the artefacts, such as the coveralls and flag, are examples of the depth of cover that CIA and Hughes manufactured for the expedition. These have never been displayed before

A number of the artefacts, such as the coveralls and flag, are examples of the depth of cover that CIA and Hughes manufactured for the expedition. These have never been displayed before© Central Intelligence Agency

A model of the Soviet submarine can be found at the museum along with clothing, ashtrays, and mailbags used to keep the Glomar’s cover intact. Even the deputy director of the CIA’s wig that he used to disguise himself while visiting the ship is on display.

The submarine broke apart as the Glomar’s steel claws attempted to bring it up, but some portions were still recovered, making the mission only half successful.

The majority of what they discovered on board that submarine is still classified, according to Mr. Byer.

Before the rest of the submarine could be removed, knowledge of Project Azorian emerged, and authorities were instructed to claim they could “neither confirm nor deny” what had happened. This answer, known as the “Glomar response,” is still frequently used today.

Inside the world's most top secret museum

Inside the world’s most top secret museum© Central Intelligence Agency

Other artifacts are used to provide the pretext for the fictitious film Argo. This would make it possible to free ambassadors who were imprisoned in Iran following the 1979 revolution—a story that was eventually made into a Hollywood film. Conceptual artwork for the phony movie that the rescue crew supposed to be making is on exhibit. The artwork was intentionally difficult to interpret or comprehend.

The roof of the new museum also has secret messages in various forms of code that may be deciphered.

The entrance to the CIA Museum introduces visitors to the overarching themes they can find throughout the exhibits: counterintelligence, partnerships, analysis, clandestine collection, and covert action.

The entrance to the CIA Museum introduces visitors to the overarching themes they can find throughout the exhibits: counterintelligence, partnerships, analysis, clandestine collection, and covert action.© Central Intelligence Agency

According to CIA officials, the goal is to post photographs on social media with the general public to see if anyone can decode them. There will also be some displays that can be viewed online. That, however, might be as close as most people can go to this museum right now.

 

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