Washington Undercover

When I was growing up, I fantasized about being a spy. I loved all of the television programs featuring sexy secret agents and international intrigue. On my trip to Washington D.C. earlier this month, my first visit was to the International Spy Museum to learn more about the undercover world of espionage.

"A lesson in espionage at the International Spy Museum in Washington DC"

International Spy Museum

I was surprised and impressed by the extensive number of exhibits, interactive displays and in-depth historical information about espionage, the world’s “second oldest profession”. Artifacts are on display representing the cloak, dagger, concealment, shadow and escape techniques and tools used by the KGB, CIA, OSS and other agencies. Many of them seem as though they came straight from the movies: lipstick pistol, lighter gun, tear gas pen, sleeve dagger, disguise kit, and wristwatch microphone. Open duct work is a big attraction for kids who are able to crawl through from one end to the other much like secret agents who might be escaping or spying on those below.

The history of espionage is covered including the use of spies in ancient civilizations, letter tampering in the European courts during the 1700s, George Washington’s letter with instructions to set up a spy network during the American Revolution, the sisterhood of spies during the Civil War, and Cold War subterfuge. A movie and other exhibits focus on the challenges of intelligence professionals in the 21st century such as cyber attacks.

Photos above: Copyright International Spy Museum

OPERATION SPY offers visitors a chance to take part in a hands-on, interactive simulation of an intelligence mission. Although I didn’t participate in the experience at the museum, I went about the rest of my Washington sightseeing keeping a watchful eye for likely dead drops (hiding places in public areas) or lethal weapons concealed in everyday objects. A man waiting to cross the street aroused my suspicion.

My next stop was the Dupont Circle neighborhood, an easy Metro ride north of downtown. Arriving at the Dupont Circle Metro Station, I tried not to blow my cover by showing any fear of the extremely steep, 188 ft. long escalator to street level at the northern entrance. A good spy would never be afraid of heights, of course.

DuPont Circle

Dupont Circle is a busy residential area with many restaurants, shops and galleries where Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut Avenues converge. I took a walk through the neighborhood past several foreign embassies located on Embassy Row on Massachusetts Avenue and on other streets off of the circle. Were passersby diplomats or foreign spies? In case they were captured, did their eyeglasses have embedded cyanide pills like ones I saw at the museum?

Embassy Row

Dumbarton Bridge between Dupont Circle and Georgetown neighborhoods was built in 1914 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s noted for the four buffalo sculptures by Alexander Phimister Proctor on the ends of the bridge. If only this buffalo could talk. What acts of espionage has he witnessed?

Dumbarton Bridge Buffalo

Opting to walk south back to downtown D.C., I came upon Farragut Square where I couldn’t resist the Banana Cream Tart (with chocolate lining the shell) and freshly-brewed coffee at Firehook Bakery. It was a great place for people watching and wondering who were the politicians, lobbyists, diplomats, office workers or maybe even spies.

Since 1925, the Mayflower Hotel has been host to famous guests and the scene of high profile meetings, social events, inaugural balls, and political scandals. An Esquire Magazine article about the bar at the Mayflower includes the mention that “Here, spies have spied on spies.”

Mayflower Hotel

One of the most well-known addresses in the world is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The street is closed to traffic in front of the White House and there is plenty of security, visible and out of sight.

White House

Tourists take photos where anti-nuclear protestor, Concepcion Picciotto, has been standing vigil with her signs across the street from the White House since 1981. Who has she seen enter this house or lurk nearby under cover of darkness?

Concepcion Picciotto

The J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building is not an attractive building, but it’s certainly an imposing one with plenty of secrets inside. The FBI is in the business of breaking up spy networks in the United States and in at least one case they arrested one of their own. In 2002, FBI agent Robert Hanssen was sentenced to life in prison without parole for spying for the Soviet Union and Russia.

J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building

On the premises of the National Gallery of Art at 4th and Constitution Avenue NW is this fountain which in the winter serves as an ice skating rink. I can easily imagine document or microdot transfers on the benches surrounding the fountain or the passing of information by spies disguised as leisurely skaters.

Fountain at National Gallery of Art

What about these suspicious-looking characters? What secret conversation are they having? They are actually part of a sculpture at the Hirshhorn Museum entitled Last Conversation Piece by Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz. (There will be more about the National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum in an article coming soon. I previously posted photos from one of Olafur Eliasson’s installations at the museum called Round Rainbow.)

Last Conversation Piece

The historic Willard Hotel at 1401 Pennsylvania Avenue has been one of Washington’s most prestigious hotels for over 150 years. Photos of famous guests and diners, including many presidents, fill the walls of the Occidental Grill and Seafood restaurant. I got the feeling that the intimate booths would be quite conducive to intelligence-gathering. A bit of spy trivia: Antonia Ford, a confederate spy and one of the Civil War’s “sisterhood of spies” was married to Major Joseph C. Willard, a co-owner of the hotel during the 19th century.

Occidental Grill and Seafood

Washington’s Beaux-Arts style Union Station was designed in 1903 by renowned architect, Daniel H. Burnham and opened in 1907. In the 1980s it underwent a $160 million restoration, reopening in 1988.

Union Station, Washington D.C.

It’s here that I ended my undercover mission and made my “escape” from Washington D.C. on an Amtrak train to Baltimore, Maryland. But that’s another story.

Nothing is what it seems ...


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52 thoughts on “Washington Undercover

    1. Cathy Post author

      The museum also has lots of of in-depth information about spies throughout history and the impact they had on world events. A very interesting place.

  1. Christy @ Technosyncratic

    This is SO COOL. Kali spent years wanting to be in the CIA (he even studied international relations and computer security), but I’m so glad he didn’t take that route. I’ve watched too many shows where things go wrong with spies, lol.

  2. The World of Deej

    Great post and pictures. We’ve visited DC twice in the last 2 years and loved both trips. I have pictures of the White House from 1989 with Concepcion Piccioto in the foreground. I had no idea she was still there!

    1. Cathy Post author

      I don’t know how Concepcion has been able to do it. Since you were there, she just had to move to the other side of the street. Glad you liked the post!

  3. Renee

    Very intriguing, Cathy…..made me feel as if I was going on an adventure with you. Of course, it was only fitting that you ended your narrative with the one and only James Bond!

  4. Jeremy Branham

    Fantastic post on Washington! I’ve only had time to spend a day there and haven’t had a chance to see and do anything other than a quick ride through.

    One of my favorite shows, and one of the few, that I watch is a British show called Spooks (MI-5 here in the US). Fantastic spy show and incredibly exciting!

  5. Laurel

    How did I miss the spy museum when I was there? Interesting take on D.C., I wish I would have read this before I went there, sigh, guess you would make a better spy than I :).

  6. Fida

    Hi Miss 007,

    What a fascinating place, that spy museum is. I bet it’s a heaven not only for people interested in all things spy but also inventors…
    Nice walk you took my on 🙂

  7. Sophie

    What a cool day! I spent a few weeks in Washington DC (more than 20 years ago, admittedly), but never heard of the spy museum. Feel like I missed out now. I suppose I’ll just have to go back.

    1. Cathy Post author

      It’s a one of a kind museum! Glad you like the SC pic — took it at Madame Tussauds in London. I knew it would come in handy someday.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks, Angela. I’m afraid that you’re right – spies probably don’t often look like movie stars, but it’s fun to imagine them that way!

  8. Sailor

    I had to laugh when I read your introduction part. I still have that dream to be a spy. I am still looking out to see if anyone is going to hire me. I would like to be a double agent tho 😀

    Beautiful pictures!

  9. Steve

    I love the guy standing outside the Spy Museum in dark shades trying to look nonchalant. All he’s missing is a trenchcoat and I’m afraid you would have had to detain him.

  10. inka

    Spy museum? Yes, that is for me. Show me an extraordinary museum and I come running. I’m collecting tips and suggestions for my 6 months in the US and this one has just gone on the list.

  11. Lisa

    Cathy, I had no idea that there was museum in Washington D.C dedicated to espionage and spying. I visited the one in Berlin, that displayed things used by the SS in Germany. It completely creeped me out…lol I love D.C. maybe next time I get there I can check it out.

    1. Cathy Post author

      The museum in Berlin sounds very interesting, but I can see why you’d be creeped out by anything related to the SS. I would be, too.

  12. jenjenk

    i always wanted to be a spy when i was a little kid, too! it took me awhile to realize and admit that a.) i can’t keep a secret and b.) i’ve got the stealth of a herd of buffalos. 😉

  13. robin

    Cathy! You should have followed the guy who was waiting to cross the street. He HAD to be up to something and only you stood between him and the certain destruction of western civilisation!! Tut tut, back to spy school!

    1. Cathy Post author

      You’re right, Robin. I identified him as suspicious and then did nothing!! Maybe I’m not cut out to be a spy except in my dreams. 🙂

  14. jade

    Love your opening, Cathy! I always wanted to be a spy too- I think that is why I still watch shows like Fringe and stuff where they are seeking out stuff with the FBI! I’m also really excited about J. Edgar movie coming out- I really liked your description of all the secrets inside the building!

  15. Sherry

    I’ve also been fascinated about spies for a long time. And I often wonder the truthfulness of what I’ve seen on TV and in the movies. Its all still a relative mystery. But your experience was a truly intriguing way to “uncover” DC. I’ll have to remember to this, too and hopefully it’ll add a bit more excitement on my next visit.

  16. Agent 99


    Wonder if you can plant a cyanide capsule in your toothbrush? Or lace your dental floss with arsenic?
    Who am I? Test your spy skills…

  17. Pingback: Introducing Mr. TWS | Traveling with Sweeney

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