I SPY: Espionage exhibit reveals the hidden lives of secret agents

Want to feel like you’re part of James Bond’s posse–without the risk of being fed to sharks, cremated alive, or sliced in half by lasers?

“SPY: The Secret World of Espionage,” draws you into the realm of 007’s real-life contemporaries, getting you as close to this dangerous occupation as possible…without signing an insurance waiver, at least. 

The traveling attraction, which features more than 200 historical spy gadgets utilized by the CIA, FBI and KGB, is on display at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington through September 1.

"SPY" facial disguises on display.

“SPY” facial disguises on display.

I had a chance to peek behind the veil of this shady profession when “SPY” premiered in Manhattan. Here’s what I uncovered. 

Imagine stepping into Q’s laboratory, and you can just about picture the inventory of whizzy gizmos—from a poison-dart umbrella to a shoe with a bug implanted in the heel—on display. 

Maxwell Smart would appreciate this shoe bug.

Maxwell Smart would appreciate this shoe bug.

These include “Charlie the Catfish,” one of only two CIA robotic catfish in the world; cameras implanted in a necktie, a watch, and a pack of cigarettes; and a dead rat stuffed with money. (Agents sometimes used this technique for drops in Moscow during the Cold War. Personally, I prefer a wallet).

There’s also an empty walnut shell that a Soviet agent in West Germany used to hide secret codes, and a short black wig once worn by a CIA Deputy Director, presumably as a disguise, and not to hide a receding hairline. (This does make me wonder if the man in the terrible toupee I spotted on the subway earlier might have been undercover, however, rather than just suffering a misguided midlife crisis.)

But my favorite item is a tooth that was modified by an East German to conceal microdots. Exactly how it was discovered, I’m not sure, but it does give a whole new meaning to the term “cavity search.”

Voice modulator.

Voice modulator.

Interactive exhibits include a machine that lets you alter your voice (sure to top the Christmas wish-list of every double-agent, kidnapper and obscene phone caller), and a laser maze, where visitors are challenged to limbo, leap and high-step through a grid of light to reach the far wall of a near pitch-black room in 20 seconds.

Among the more poignant artifacts featured are the ice axe used to murder Leon Trotsky; a forensic replica of the radio-cassette player that contained the bomb that brought down Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in December 1988; and a CIA-issued “suicide pin” coated in deadly poison that U2 pilot Gary Powers was carrying when his spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. (In the end, Powers chose not to use it, and he was eventually released by the Soviets in 1962).

As a vivid reminder that spies still walk among us, an entire section is devoted to recent espionage cases. Remember Anna Chapman, for instance? She was the most notorious of a gang of 10 alleged Russian “sleeper” spies arrested in the US in June 2010.

Here we have her laptop, unwittingly surrendered to an undercover FBI agent, whom she thought was a Russian Consulate employee, as well as passports, drivers licenses and a Costco card (because even spies buy bargain toilet tissue in bulk) issued to others.

Fake passports obtained by Russian agents.

Fake passports obtained by Russian agents.

Nearby, a TV screen shows grainy black-and-white footage of a clandestine drop between one man, who used the name Richard Murphy, and a Russian government official. (Apparently Murphy, dressed in a floppy white hat and dark sunglasses, wasn’t only committing a crime against fashion that summer afternoon in a New York train station).

There’s even a section highlighting the CIA’s “Argo” operation, which allowed a cadre of US embassy employees to escape from Iran in 1979 by posing as Hollywood movie executives. You’ll find the original script for the SciFi flick that provided their smokescreen, along with additional studio documentation. The dramatic tale was recently retold in Argo, the Academy Award-winning film starring Ben Affleck. 

Other intriguing exhibits include a handwritten note of apology penned by Robert Hanssen, an FBI official who sold secrets to Russian and Soviet intelligence agencies for 22 years, and the computer keyboard Aldrich Ames, a former CIA counter-intelligence officer, used to communicate with his KGB handlers.

Richard Hanssen's letter of apology.

Richard Hanssen’s letter of apology.

Most fascinating are interviews with actual spies, which visitors can access by activating touch screens. Carlos D. Davis, now retired from the CIA, says he was lured away from a career in architecture by two factors, “coolness and curiosity.” As a child, he recalled watching Bill Cosby on I Spy, “traveling all around the world just doing all these cool things…and having a great time.”

“But the curiosity part came in because I’m second generation CIA,” Davis continues. “So when I’d look at I Spy, and then I’d see my father come home in the evening, and I’d ask him, ‘What do you do?’ he’d say, ‘I can’t tell you.’”

When the son eventually joined the CIA to find out for himself, his father found the shoe (possibly with microfilm hidden in the heel) on the other foot. “He would come to me and ask me, ‘Well, what do you do?’” Davis recalls with a grin. “Of course, I told him, ‘I can’t tell you.’”

Like all great spies, it seems Davis had the last laugh.


“SPY: The Secret World of Espionage” runs through September 1, 2014 at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center: http://www.pacificsciencecenter.org/Exhibits/spy. 

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