This is not for the claustrophobic. I’m crawling through a ventilation duct, peering through grates, trying to spy on a KGB agent. In a few moments I’ll have to negotiate a laser maze to successfully complete my espionage mission.
I’m not training to become an NSA agent. It’s all part of “Spy: The Secret World of Espionage” at Pacific Science Center in Seattle. It’s the first public exhibition of spycraft artifacts and techniques from the collections of the CIA, the FBI and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
While the (optional) duct crawl and laser maze are a bit of Hollywood, the rest of the show is a thorough, in-depth and fascinating look at the people who spy for us and spy on us.
Many of the 250 artifacts in “Spy” are the property of H. Keith Melton, an author, historian and authority on spy technology. He is the technical adviser on the TV Cold War drama “The Americans” and has more than 10,000 spy artifacts in his collection.
Russia, Melton said, remains as the main technical adversary to the United States, “but strategically it’s China.” Naturally, Russia and the former Soviet Union play a big role in the exhibit. Some of the artifacts in the show are from the KGB itself.
Old habits are hard to break. In 2010, the FBI’s Operation Ghost Stories yielded the arrest of 10 deep-cover Russian spies living on the U.S. East Coast. That story is told in the show.
Why spy to begin with? Espionage gives one nation an advantage over another. Battle plans, technological advances, the identities of other spies — it’s all a gold mine of information for the intelligence community.
Though espionage has undoubtedly been around since the first caveman spied on his neighbor, “Spy” covers only the past 60 years. But you won’t feel cheated. The exhibit explores just about every major spy campaign of the last half century: the downing of U-2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers, CIA spy Aldrich Ames, the attempted secret raising of the sunken Soviet submarine K-129, the movie “Argo” that spirited Americans out of Iran, and many others.
There are many real spy gadgets on display — both the kind to spy with and the kind to catch spies with. Those lock-picking kits sleuths whip out on network TV? You’ll see a real one here.
Walking through the show, I quickly realize that espionage is as much about spying on the other guy as it is about stopping the other guy’s spies.
A Nazi Enigma machine is one of the first artifacts on display. The German military used them to send unbreakable messages during World War II. Any one message sent had 150 quintillion solutions. But in 1939 Polish spies gave a book of source codes to the Allies, thereby shortening the war.
If there is a theme to the artifacts in the show, it’s their small size. A tiny motorcycle, a diminutive submarine and tiny cameras are all represented.
Naturally, concealment is an important part of spycraft. The hollowed-out tooth of an East German spy, used to carry microdots, is part of the show, as are shoes worthy of Maxwell Smart. A fake soap box would destroy its film if opened improperly.
Not all espionage is simply stealing secrets. Like the fictional Agent 007, some real-world spies have a license to kill. On display is the ice ax that was used to assassinate Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky in 1940. A model of his skull shows the damage that Soviet spy Ramon Mercader inflicted on Trotsky. Mercader, a deep-cover spy, had gained trust and access into Trotsky’s inner circle.
Another case displays the umbrella that shot a ricin bullet into the leg of BBC reporter and Bulgarian defector Georgi Markov while he was waiting for a London bus in 1978. A nearby gun that shot out poison gas could kill instantly.
During times of war, cold or hot, spies are used to sabotage the assets of the enemy. During World War II, Office of Strategic Services (OSS) agents secretly put bombs disguised as lumps of coal into the tenders of enemy trains and ships. When shoveled into a firebox, the bombs would explode. But first the spies had to use a paint kit, on display, to color the bombs to match a variety of coal hues. The OSS went on to become the CIA.
Many of the attempts to use spy cameras seem almost comical by today’s standards. A camera-wearing stuffed pigeon looks like a tourist at a resort for birds.
But the exhibit becomes sobering in one display set up to look like an ordinary living room. A monitor displays six different camera views of me, but I can’t determine how I’m being photographed. With the help of another visitor, we eventually track down the pinhead-sized cameras in lamps, books and other objects.
Melton refers to what he calls the classic gear in the show: Minox cameras and others, small for their time. “They can now all be replaced with an iPhone,” Melton said.
One of the most ambitious spy campaigns of the Cold War was the construction of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow during the 1970s. The Soviets insisted that local crews be used in its construction. The result was a building riddled with six types of listening devices. The devices were discovered before full occupancy and the building was abandoned. The exhibit displays the actual devices, parts of the building and a KGB model of the structure.
Gathering secrets is only half of spying. Getting them to your handler is the other half. In the show, a brick wall and park bench with secret compartments serve as places where spies would leave their intelligence and their handlers would leave money or instructions. The Russian spies of Operation Ghost Stories used similar dead drops in New York and train station hand-offs.
“Spy” chronicles the evolution of aerial reconnaissance. First using birds, then ever-higher flying planes and now satellites, governments are constantly trying to see what their adversaries are up to. Today’s satellites use optics, radar and signals to gather intelligence. Think of the Hubble Space Telescope pointed at Earth and you have a good idea of what a spy satellite can see.
The show makes clear that whether they use the latest technology in outer space or old-fashioned cloak and dagger, spying is here to stay.
“Our world, as we go forward, is going to be filled with spies,” Melton said.
sPY: The Secret World of Espionage
When: Through Sept. 1
Hours: 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays through Fridays; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and holidays
Where: Pacific Science Center at the Seattle Center, 200 Second Ave. N, Seattle
Tickets: $29 for adults (16-64); $27 for seniors (65+); $21 for youth (6-15); $16 for children (3-5).
Information: 206-443-2001, pacificsciencecenter.orgCraig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@ thenewstribune.com