“People love secrets,” said Central Intelligence Agency veteran Bob Wallace, who served in the CIA for thirty-three years. I’d like to tell you that he was about to hand me some classified information before I leapt out of a plane armed with a parachute, a handgun, and my devilish good looks, but I was actually at a press preview for the Franklin Institute’s latest exhibition: SPY: The Secret World of Espionage. This exhibit—should you choose to visit it—is filled with declassified spy artifacts, like a stolen German military cipher called “Enigma” and a robotic spy fish called “Charlie.” As a James Bond aficionado, I was sold right off the bat.
When you first enter the exhibit, you find yourself in a small room with a large black and blue screen. A short clip is projected on the screen, outlining the CIA’s conception as the “Office of Strategic Services” (OSS). After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Truman conceived the office so the United States could be a step ahead of its enemies and avoid future disasters. Later, the OSS evolved into the CIA, which—according to the narrator of the clip—uses spies “when our freedoms are threatened.” I snickered at this vague description, and proceeded to enter the next room through a secret door.
I was shocked to learn that many of the items in the exhibition were from the private collection of H. Keith Melton, an intelligence historian. Melton attended the press preview, and led us through the exhibition, while telling stories associated with different artifacts. For example, when we entered a section on “dead drops,” which are objects left at a location by one person and picked up by another with no direct contact between the people, he recalled that during the Cold War messages were left inside of rats. As gross as it might seem, it was the perfect scheme because, well, who in their right mind is going to pick up a dead rat off the street?
Another interesting item Melton spoke about was the “welbike:” a small motorcycle that could collapse to fit into a parachute pack. He explained that it was developed so that spies parachuting into a country could make a quick getaway after landing. Apparently, its design was later used as a non-collapsible civilian motorbike in England. Besides being informative, it was also funny to hear Melton casually say that he “found” things like a Russian KGB umbrella containing a resin chamber. I’d be curious to hear just how he “found” such an item, as it was probably no simple feat.
Many of the sections in the exhibition focus on individual spies. These parts fascinated me the most since, as cool as these gadgets are, most people don’t realize how dangerous spying really is. Many of the most influential spies met an early demise because, in spite of extraordinary precautions, they were still caught by enemy reconnaissance. I stopped to listen to a few reporters speak to Bob Wallace, the veteran intelligence officer. When asked about Hollywood’s perception of spies, Wallace laughed and said, “James Bond wouldn’t last five minutes out there.”
The most interesting story I came across was that of Colonel Oleg Penkovskiy, a Soviet military intelligence officer who spied for the US and Britain. Penkovskiy delivered thousands of pages of Soviet missile secrets to the CIA and ended up giving President John F. Kennedy the information he needed to call, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev’s bluff during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unfortunately, Penkovskiy was caught in the act by the KGB and swiftly executed for treason. I was fascinated to learn that it was in fact a Russian intelligence officer that helped the US avert what could have been one of the greatest disasters of the Cold War. I guess it just goes to show you that you never know who you can trust.
Kailey Kluge is a junior International Area Studies Major at Drexel University.
All images courtesy of The Franklin Institute