The Secrets Inside the CIA's Off-Limits Spy Museum

Atlas Obscura
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May 19 2014 10:27 AM

Spy Pigeons and Dragonfly Drones: Inside the CIA Museum

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At the CIA's Virginia headquarters—a building formally known as the George Bush Center For Intelligence—there's a museum full of secret spy stuff. Its five galleries are hidden from public view, accessible only to CIA employees and special guests who've been granted security clearance.

In these rooms lie artifacts from decades of espionage dating back to World War II, when the CIA's predecessor, the Office of Special Services (OSS), was established. A German Enigma enciphering machine sits beside a letter written by an OSS officer on Hitler's personal stationery, dated eight days after the dictator's suicide. Then come the Cold War relics, such as tools for opening letters surreptitiously, a radio transmitter concealed in a tobacco pipe, and a seismic detection device that looks just like a potato.


The al-Qaida-focused gallery contains equipment and models used in SEAL training exercises in the lead-up to the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad compound. There's a scale model of bin Laden's hideout, as well as a wall from the full-sized mock compound that was constructed for practice attacks. Bin Laden's AK-47, found beside his body, is on display, as is a brick from the real compound. An al-Qaida rocket-launching manual, scarred with burn marks, completes the picture.

Among the most fascinating exhibits are the unmanned vehicles and spy cams. Pigeon-mounted cameras, dragonfly drones, and robotic fish are a few of the devices that were trialled for stealthy surveillance. (The dragonfly drone, or insectothopter, was less than effective—developed during the 1970s, the remotely controlled insect had to be scrapped when it proved too susceptible to crosswinds.)

Pigeon Cam allowed birds to capture photos while flying over surveillance targets.

Photo: The Central Intelligence Agency/United States Government Work

An al-Qaida training manual seized in Afghanistan. The burn marks are from US ordnance explosions.

Photo: The Central Intelligence Agency/United States Government Work

A letter from then Office of Strategic Services (OSS) officer Richard Helms to his three-year-old son, written on Hitler's stationery. It is dated "V-E Day": the day of Germany's WWII surrender.

Photo: The Central Intellignce Agency/United States Government Work

Seismic Intrusion Detection Devices used during the Cold War. Equipped with transmitters and designed to blend in with the terrain, they could detect movement 900 feet away.

Photo: The Central Intelligence Agency/United States Government Work

A "flaps and seals" kit used during the '60s to open letters and packages stealthily.

Photo: The Central Intellignc Agency/United States Government Work

More museums shrouded in secrecy:

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Ella Morton is a writer working on The Atlas Obscura, a book about global wonders, curiosities, and esoterica adapted from Atlas Obscura. Follow her on Twitter.


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