A New Spy Museum That Tackles Torture And Other Tough Questions

May 11, 2019
Originally published on May 12, 2019 1:00 am

The new International Spy Museum doesn't shy away from controversy. One exhibit room has yellow stencil on a stark, cinderblock wall that reads, "What is torture?"

A video features Jose Rodriquez, an ex-CIA official who was deeply involved in the waterboarding program of terror suspects after the 2001 al-Qaida attacks: "This was a very successful program," Rodriguez says. "It protected the homeland and saved American lives."

Malcolm Nance, who served in Naval intelligence, offers a counterpoint.
"This is not who we are. We do not torture. We just shouldn't do it," Nance says.

Visitors are asked to respond to this question: Would you support the torture of suspected terrorists?

The room also has a replica of a waterboard, and an actual waterboarding tool kit, which was donated by Nance. He used it to train Navy personnel on what to expect if they were subjected to waterboarding.

"We want to be provocative, but we don't want to tell people what to think," said Chris Costa, the museum's executive director and a former military intelligence officer.

Just a couple blocks off the National Mall, the sleek glass-and-steel building replaces a much smaller version of the museum established 17 years ago and about a mile away.

In the lobby, a red-and-white drone hangs from the ceiling. Parked in one corner is a silver Aston Martin — with license plates JB007 — from the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger.

There are many examples of intelligence triumphs, and a hard look at the disasters, said Costa. "We juxtapose Pearl Harbor with 9/11 and that could be a Ph.D. class," he said. "We talk about failures as well as successes."

There are some remarkable artifacts, like the ice climbing ax used to kill Soviet exile Leon Trotsky. Trotsky was a key figure in the Russian revolution, but fled the country after a falling out with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

H. Keith Melton, a longtime collector of spy artifacts, stands next to the axe that was used to kill Soviet exile Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940. The axe is part of Melton's huge collection that he's donated to the new International Spy Museum.
Greg Myre/NPR

A Soviet agent killed Trotsky in Mexico in 1940. H. Keith Melton, a board member at the museum, spent years tracking down the weapon, and purchased it for a hefty sum in 2008.

"We needed it here," said Melton.

Melton has been a relentless collector for more than 40 years. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, he headed there in search of items from East Germany's notorious secret police. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, he was knocking on the door of KGB headquarters in Moscow within a month.

Francis Gary Powers Jr. stand next to an exhibit about his father, Francis Gary Powers. Powers senior was a CIA pilot whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. In one of the more dramatic spy dramas of the Cold War, Powers was held for nearly two years before being exchanged in a spy swap between the two rivals.
Greg Myre/NPR

"I introduced myself and said, 'I would love to buy spy technology,' Melton recalled. "To my surprise, they said, 'We have very good technology.' And they made the introductions."

He's now donating the bulk of his 7,000-piece collection to the museum. Which one is his favorite?

"I love them all. It's like picking from your children," said Melton.

A preview tour included special guests who brought exhibits to life.

Like Francis Gary Powers Jr. He was standing next to the exhibit on his late father, Francis Gary Powers, a CIA pilot whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.

Powers' father was held for nearly two years in one of the great spy dramas of the Cold War. "In 1960 it was controversial. Was he a hero or a traitor? Did he defect? Did he land the plane? Was he working for the Soviets? That misinformation, the fake news of the time, went around," said Powers Jr.

He has traveled to Russia several times, and in December 2017 he visited the crash site of his father's plane in the Ural Mountains.

The new International Spy Museum in southwest Washington, just a couple blocks off the National Mall, opens on Sunday. The private museum was built at a cost of $162 million and replaces a much smaller version that opened back in 2002.
Nic Lehoux / Courtesy of the International Spy Museum

"I saw where my father parachuted to the ground, which is now a housing development," he said. "I was able to meet people that were kids [then], who remember the explosion and seeing the parachute come down."

The original spy museum and the new one are both the vision of 89-year-old philanthropist Milton Maltz. He served in the Navy in the Korean War, and was detached to what was then the newly created National Security Agency.

After the war, Maltz went on to make a fortune with television and radio stations, and then helped build the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in his home city of Cleveland.

"That was the first time I really got knee deep into a museum," said Maltz. "But then I thought, 'Gee whiz, there's more to life than just rock 'n' roll.' "

Like espionage.

The new International Spy Museum opens Sunday.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Washington, D.C., has a lot of museums, and we like to let you know when something new is happening. And the International Spy Museum has just gotten a major upgrade. NPR's Greg Myre got a sneak peek.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: The new International Spy Museum doesn't shy away from controversy. One exhibit room has yellow stencil on a stark cinderblock wall that reads, what is torture? A video features Jose Rodriguez, an ex-CIA official who was deeply involved in the waterboarding program of terror suspects after the 2001 al-Qaida attacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSE RODRIGUEZ: protect the program and save American lives.

MYRE: Malcolm Nance, who served in Naval Intelligence, offers a counterpoint.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MALCOLM NANCE: This is not who we are. We do not torture. We just shouldn't do it.

NANCE: Visitors can vote yes or no - would you support the torture of suspected terrorists? The room also has a replica of a water-board and an actual waterboarding tool kit donated by Nance. He used it to train Navy personnel on what to expect if they were subjected to it. Chris Costa is the museum's executive director.

CHRIS COSTA: We want to be provocative, but we don't want to tell people what to think.

MYRE: Just a couple blocks off the National Mall, the sleek glass and steel building replaces a much smaller version of the museum established 17 years ago and about a mile away. In the lobby, a red and white drone hangs from the ceiling. And parked in one corner is a silver Aston Martin from the James Bond movie "Goldfinger." There are many examples of intelligence triumphs and a hard look at the disasters, says Costa.

COSTA: We juxtapose Pearl Harbor with 9/11. And that could be a Ph.D. class. We talk about failures as well as successes.

MYRE: There are some remarkable artifacts.

H KEITH MELTON: And this is the ice axe that killed Leon Trotsky.

MYRE: Board member and collector H. Keith Melton spent years tracking down the weapon used to assassinate Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary who went into exile after a falling out with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. A Soviet agent killed Trotsky in Mexico in 1940. Melton purchased the axe there for a hefty sum in 2008. Melton has been a relentless collector for decades. When the Soviet Union collapsed, he turned up at KGB headquarters in Moscow within a month and asked what was for sale. He's now donated his 7,000-piece collection to the museum. Which one is his favorite?

MELTON: Well, I love them all, so - it's like picking from your children.

MYRE: A preview tour included special guests who brought exhibits to life, like Francis Gary Powers Jr. standing next to the exhibit of his late father, Francis Gary Powers, a CIA pilot whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. He was held for nearly two years in one of the great spy dramas of the Cold War.

FRANCIS GARY POWERS JR: In 1960, it was controversial. Was he a hero or a traitor? Did he defect? Did he land the plane? Was he working for the Soviets? That misinformation, the fake news of the time, went around.

MYRE: The son traveled to the crash site in the Ural Mountains just over a year ago.

POWERS JR: I was able to meet people that were kids who remember the explosion and seeing the parachute come down.

MYRE: The museum is the vision of 89-year-old philanthropist Milton Maltz, who served during the Korean War.

MILTON MALTZ: And that's where I was attached to the National Security Agency.

MYRE: Maltz went on to make a fortune with television and radio stations and helped build the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

MALTZ: And that was the first time I really got knee-deep into a museum was the Rock Hall. But then I thought, gee whiz, there's more to life than just rock 'n' roll.

MYRE: Like espionage. The museum opens Sunday. Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.