Lessons from Spies

Peter Earnest of the International Spy Museum
Lessons from Spies
It's one of the newest and most popular stops on the Washington, D.C. tour, and its artifacts of history leave clues for how information security professionals should approach their future.

The International Spy Museum has just celebrated its 7th year and its 5 millionth visitor, says Executive Director Peter Earnest, a former CIA officer who's run the museum since its inception. In an exclusive interview, Earnest discusses:

the museum's goals and growth plans;
who visits the museum and what they get from the experience;
lessons to be learned by today's information security professionals.

Earnest is a 35-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He served 25 years as a case officer in its Clandestine Service, primarily in Europe and the Middle East. He ran intelligence collection and covert action operations against a range of targets including Soviet Bloc representatives and Communist front organizations.

As Museum director, he has played a leading role in its extraordinary success as a Washington attraction. He edits the Museum's book ventures and has frequently been interviewed by the major media in radio, TV, and the press on current intelligence issues.

TOM FIELD: Hi, this is Tom Field, Editorial Director with Information Security Media Group. We are talking today about the International Spy Museum, and we are talking with Peter Earnest, the Founding Executive Director of the Museum.

Peter, thank you so much for joining me today.

PETER EARNEST: I am delighted to be with you, Tom.

FIELD: Just to give our audience some context, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself and about the origins of the International Spy Museum.

EARNEST: Sure. Tom, my background is CIA, the Central Intelligence Agency. I was there for some 35 years and retired in 1994 and then went into the private sector. At that time - and, by the way, in the CIA I was in what is called the Clandestine Service; that is the side of the Agency that is involved in covert activity, whether it is recruiting and running agents, covert actions and so forth. And then I did some public jobs. I was with our Inspector General and also with our staff covering the Hill, the Senate in my case, and when I left I was Director of Media Relations and spokesman for three Directors.

I left in 1994, and the Museum began in mid-2002. I joined in January of that year, before we opened. And it was founded by a gentleman by the name of Milton Moltz, who had a company called Malrite Communications, which was radio and television stations around the country and when that was eventually purchased from him he then began the Malrite Company, which it is today, and he has been involved in a number of ventures and this was one.

As a young enlisted man in the Navy, during the Korean War, he was employed briefly at the National Security Agency, and I think that is when the spy bug bit him. And so he was behind this museum and its idea, and we opened in 2002, in July, and just this past week or two weeks ago we had our five millionth visitor go through the museum, so it has been an extraordinary successful, in fact, one of the most popular museums in Washington right now.

FIELD: Well, that is what I have heard. You have been open for seven years, and five million visitors in seven years is quite impressive. What would you say is most misunderstood in the public's eye about the International Spy Museum?

EARNEST: Well, that is an interesting question. What is most misunderstood ... you know, you are not quite sure sometimes what the public thinks it is going to see. About five percent of our holdings here, the displays, the graphics and so forth, are from popular culture. Like for example, the car that was in Goldfinger with James Bond, other things, photographs, and remnants of television shows. We do that for a purpose; it is sort of a subliminal reminder if you will, not necessarily so subliminal, but a reminder that most of the public, it's knowledge of espionage, spying, covert action and all those sort of things, comes from popular culture, radio, television, movies, novels and so forth. So this is sort of where for the public most of the knowledge comes from, except those who really take on the literature in a serious way.

So I think perhaps that on the minds of some of the public, particularly some of the younger members, they are going to see aspects of that. Aspects of what they have seen in the movies or read in novels, and to a small extent I think we satisfy that because in part we do have some of the gadgetry if you will from the Cold War. Hidden recorders, hidden cameras, dead drop devices -- that is, devices to put documents in and hide them in the ground, weapons that might be used for assassination or in self defense purposes; those are all items, if you will, or artifacts that people associate with spying.

So I think to an extent they are not misunderstood, but perhaps I think they see other information that they never thought was associated with espionage. In their framework, they didn't factor in that George Washington was involved so heavily in espionage or the extent to which we had penetrated the German Code during World War II, and that was by breaking the Enigma Machine. So I think there are things that they learn, that they did not expect.

FIELD: Well, that's good because you can use these pop culture references to educate in ways that you might not have the opportunity otherwise.

EARNEST: Exactly.

FIELD: Give us a sense of what the museum's goals are, then; you get people in the door by sort of luring them in with the sexy images that they associate with this, but you have got an opportunity then.

EARNEST: Well, as we say in our own statement in the front door, our mission is to facilitate people's understanding of what spying, espionage, intelligence if you will, what it is. And we do that to a great extent by story telling, there are a lot of stories in the museum about real spies, and that is all a part of our function, we think, of giving people a taste, a sampling, a peak into that world.

There are a number of interactive devices around the museum that enable them to take a look at, for example a light table; what is a light table? A light table is what analysts' use that are studying overhead photography that is from the reconnaissance satellites. So they see what the analysts see and have a taste of how difficult it might be to try and analyze such a photograph. So those are the sorts of things we do. And for example, you can only put so much in a permanent exhibit so we have a very robust series of programs both for adults and children. They take place in the evening, they take place on weekends, we have an hour-long immersive experience called Operation Spy where you become the spy and for an hour you deal with a number of spy devices and spy-thinking, and that is very popular, Operation Spy. We launched not long ago Spy in the City in which people go out into the streets of Washington with a GPS-like device, although it is greatly enhanced, to if you will, participate in a counter-intelligence operation based, by the way, on real cases, FBI and CIA cases. So we supplement what we do in the museum with these other programs.

FIELD: Well, that sounds fascinating. What would you say are your most noteworthy artifacts, both in terms of the things that the public would easily recognize and those that they might not but play a key role in the history of espionage?

EARNEST: Well, I mentioned the Enigma, I didn't mention it as a device, but during World War II, we the Allies, and principally the British in this case, actually broke the German Code. That is the code that the Germans were using both to communicate between elements in the field to other elements as well as elements in the field to the sea, to ships. This was a device called the Enigma Device, and it is a very complex device. It enables you to set up a number of combinations of letters, and the Germans considered it impossible to break and, in fact, a group of British experts and others teamed up out at a place called Bletchley Park outside of London and managed to break it. And that enabled, because they shared that with the Americans, enabled us to read the German codes in the last couple of years of the war and it was an extraordinary breakthrough. We show here an Enigma Machine, and next to it we have a console showing how it works.

The other item I would mention is we have a letter signed by George Washington, and it is the original, to a gentleman by the name of Nathaniel Sackett, directing him to set up a spy ring in New York City. New York of course was under the occupation of the British, and he gave Nathaniel Sackett $50 dollars to set up this spy ring and also indicated to him there would be a retainer fee that would continue month after month as he recruited new members of the ring, and it was successful. Washington, because he was so deeply involved in spying and deception operations, is rightly regarded as the Father of American Intelligence.

FIELD: So really when people go through here they can come out with a greater context of some of the history that they already know bits and pieces of it at least.

EARNEST: Well I think so, and of course you don't know; you aren't testing them. We often will ask questions or we will do surveys, but my hope is that there are a lot of families that come through and I think that the parents, the adults if you will, not always parents but the adults, are interested themselves to know a little bit about this world which plays such a critical role in the current dealings with terrorism. So I think there is an interest there on the part of adults, and of course the kids, as you just mentioned, are drawn or lured by the romance, the excitement and the esoteric nature of the spy world.

Now when they go through there, they are going to take away different things, but I hope one of things that particularly the young people take away, the adults too, is that they will see a sliver of history or something that happened in the Civil War or they will read something about the Soviet Union, and it will pique their interest and they will be motivated to read more and to find out what really happened. And so my hope is that they will take away both some insights into the spy world, as well as glimpses of history that might trigger their interest.

FIELD: Well, that is interesting and it leads into a question I had. You mentioned you had your five millionth visitor. Who typically are the visitors to the museum, and, if you could, summarize what they typically get from the experience, what impressions do you get as they walk out that door?

EARNEST: Well, the impressions I get are--a number of the impressions are 'Why didn't you tell me it would take this long?' because we do have a lot of stories there and you know, the typical visit might go through -- and I am talking about the museum and not the special experience. You know, people go through museums at a different rate, and obviously a family going through the museum might decide 'Okay we are going to spend an hour in here,' and usually the mother sets that rule, or whatever.

But often, it takes longer than they think it would, unless they are rushing through, and usually they rate the experience very highly. We have done surveys, and a very high percentage of our visitors are college grads. We get visitors in all shapes and sizes and ages and sexes. So it is almost an equal number of men and women, a lot of young people. We say about 10 and up for the museum. Obviously some kids are younger than that and bright would get more out of it, and that's fine; we say 12 and up for the Operation Spy. But I think there is a lot of diversity in what I see in the people going through, and so I think what they get, as I say, a high level of satisfaction and they feel they have learned something, and that indeed it did meet their expectations, even though it is not clear what their expectations might have been.

FIELD: Now you celebrated seven years; what do you see as the museum's growth plans going forward?

EARNEST: Well, we have had interest by others in trying to replicate this elsewhere, both in the United States and abroad. So far we haven't responded to that,, and this is still a unique museum in the world. I think we see the possibility of our Spy in the City experience, as well as the Operation Spy experience, that that might be done elsewhere and then we would create a new one here. So say you did create one elsewhere, London or Berlin or Orlando or wherever, then people could go through the International Spy Museum experience there but they still wouldn't have done the one at the museum. So we would create yet another experience, and again, these are based of great part on actual spy cases.

FIELD: Peter, our website serves an information security audience primarily, and I think that the people that we have practicing encryption, information security, protecting businesses and government agencies from external threats, they owe a great debt to some of the people whose artifacts are a part of the spy museum. So if I could ask you in that context, if you could sum up briefly for people who are in information security careers, what are the types of the things that the International Spy Museum teach us?

EARNEST: Well, I think two things. First of all your question could not be more apt. We are opening an exhibit at the end of this week, 2 October to be precise, called Weapons of Mass Destruction, and it is about cyber attacks, so this is very timely.

By going through the Museum, the people in information security will get a sense of what intelligence agencies and individuals have had to go through in the past to gain information, to secretly gain information, to steal information. They will get a sense of that, but it will culminate, their visit, they will see a film showing what we are now up against in the 21st Century, where because of our technology and because we are so much more connected, we are also so much more vulnerable. Whether it is acts of terrorism such as flying planes into a building, that is modern technology, or asymmetrical warfare, and that is with these smaller groups of people like terrorists or even individuals, like the Oklahoma City bombing, can carry out things against a major, if not the major power in the world, the United States.

This room, the Weapons of Mass Destruction room, will show what conceivably could happen in a cyber attack on our infrastructure, specifically on the electrical grid. So I would say there is a real inducement for folks to come here if they are in the field of information security. There is also a video there, it is not as long, but it has some of the individuals like the Director of National Intelligence and Former Director of the CIA, speaking to this issue. So I think there is a real incentive to sort of not only see what has been done in the past, but where we are today.

FIELD: Peter, it sounds exciting, and I do appreciate your time and your insight today.

EARNEST: Okay, well I have enjoyed talking to you, and it couldn't have been more timely since we are opening this new exhibit.

FIELD: We have been talking with Peter Earnest, the Executive Director of the International Spy Museum. For Information Security Media Group, I'm Tom Field. Thank you very much.

About the Author

Tom Field

Tom Field

Senior Vice President, Editorial, ISMG

Field is responsible for all of ISMG's 28 global media properties and its team of journalists. He also helped to develop and lead ISMG's award-winning summit series that has brought together security practitioners and industry influencers from around the world, as well as ISMG's series of exclusive executive roundtables.

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