As a CIA case officer, Peter Earnest sometimes wore what was known in spy parlance as a “light disguise” when handling covert agents in foreign countries: A wig and glasses, a beard, or a mustache did the trick.
Today, as executive director of the International Spy Museum, Earnest presides over almost as many secrets as the agency has. In his new role, he always wears a mustache, but it’s his own, neatly trimmed and white like his thick mane of hair.
Recruited by the CIA when he was serving as a U.S. Marine Corps officer in Japan, Earnest developed into an intelligence officer who is widely admired in the elite world of spooks. Trim and dapper, Earnest has the charm, direct manner, and confidence that convinced foreign targets to share their secrets.
He was even born in Edinburgh, near Sean Connery’s neighborhood in Scotland.
“Some of the situations in James Bond movies may appear realistic, but in the world of real spies, nothing takes place in an hour and a half,” Earnest tells Newsmax. “Recruitment may take three months, a year, and even more. Violence and conflict do happen in the world of espionage — they just don’t happen every 10 minutes, or with the rapidity and graphic violence you see in fictional accounts. Intelligence work is like flying: 95 percent routine, 5 percent sheer turbulence.”
If so, the Spy Museum focuses on the turbulent side. The Washington area has 100 museums and nearly 200 memorials. Almost all are free. So when the Spy Museum announced it would charge an admission price when it opened in 2002, Washingtonians were skeptical that many would attend.
The museum turned out to have dozens of interactive displays set in rooms intended to transport visitors to important places in spy history, like the Berlin tunnel, where communications were intercepted, and Bletchley Park, where 10,000 Britons worked night and day to break the German World War II Enigma code.
As my wife Pamela Kessler described it in her book “Undercover Washington: Where Famous Spies Lived, Worked and Loved,” the museum is “atmospheric and impressionistic, and we like that in a museum. It puts us in the spy’s shoe transmitter and under the fake beard. Has us leading a double life (assume a cover story, if you dare), and using powers of observation to identify threats, surveillance, dead drops and signal sites, including Aldrich Ames’s chalk-marked mailbox. It has us deciphering Enigma messages, pinpointing targets in undersea surveillance, crawling through ducts and eavesdropping on each other. It’s an interactive adventure, with footnotes.”
As a reminder that spying is the second oldest profession, the museum has an original letter written by George Washington to engage a man to spy against the British in New York City during the American revolution. Not to mention my small contribution: a photo of Vitaly Yurchenko — the KGB officer who had defected and then redefected from a restaurant in Georgetown — taken when I interviewed him in Moscow.
As soon as it opened, the privately owned museum at 800 F St. NW was a hit. Lines stretched around the block. The price of admission has risen to $18 per person. To date, 3 million visitors have passed through its doors, most staying two hours or more.
“I’ll be candid with you,” Earnest said one evening over a French chardonnay in my home. “When we first opened, I wondered whether people would pay to come and see this all this spy gear. We were really stunned by the fact that the admission seemed to play no role at all. Visitors were genuinely interested in seeing the working side of espionage, the real thing — not just what they’d seen in movies and TV.”
When Earnest was a spy, the target was the Soviet Union. While the CIA and KGB played by a certain set of rules that precluded assassination, the work could still be dangerous.
“I lost colleagues during the Cold War, largely through terrorist acts,” Earnest says. He names William F. Buckley and Richard Welch, both of whom were assassinated.
“At one time, I was developing an East European official, hoping to recruit him,” Earnest says. “I went to meet him in a city far from the capital and afterwards, as we were leaving, three of his friends approached us and said, ‘We’ll give you a ride.’ It happened very quickly, but the next thing I knew I was in a car being taken for a ride and not quite sure where it would end up. I think they were trying to deliver me a message not to do what I was doing. And I got their message.”
Back then, “It was a very different time,” Earnest says. “Today, the terrorists are out to kill us. Clearly, if you are identified as CIA or even as a government official, it’s like putting a bull’s eye on your back. The opponent is a much more intransigent, much more fanatical one than we dealt with in the Cold War.”
The other difference, Earnest says, is that “we could in effect swim in the same water with the people we were trying to target and recruit. That is, whether it was the diplomatic circuit, the commercial sector, or the public sector in general, we were involved through our cover situations in public life. We had access. That is quite different from targeting and trying to recruit a terrorist cell when it consists of two guys and their first cousin hiding in a cave.”
Earnest says it’s rubbish to think, as some critics do, that the CIA has a separate agenda from the administration and is working to undermine it.
“The CIA is a government agency,” he says. “If the director of CIA or anyone at a senior level said, ‘OK, now we’re going to end-run the administration, we’ll show them.’ Can you imagine how quickly that would get out? The one thing that’s an essential attribute of intelligence is that it’s not political, that it truly is speaking truth to power. The idea that the agency in some organized, coherent way would align itself against the administration is nonsense.”
Before leaving the agency, Earnest was a spokesman for three CIA directors and became director of public affairs. A CIA officer for 36 years, he received the CIA’s Intelligence Medal of Merit for “superior performance throughout his career.”
After he retired, Earnest became president of the nationwide Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO). Then Milton Maltz, owner and founder of the International Spy Museum, asked him to be its first executive director.
A billionaire former disc jockey, Maltz had owned radio and TV stations throughout the country. A founder of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Maltz also started the Maltz Jupiter Theatre in Jupiter, Fla., and the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Cleveland.
“Milt as a young enlisted man in the Navy worked for a period at the National Security Agency,” Earnest says. “He was sort of awed by the different facets of intelligence collection and how vital espionage was to national security. So he developed this idea of doing a museum focusing on espionage and spying.”
When Maltz was planning the $40 million museum, he briefed Earnest and other CIA officials. When Maltz later approached him to be executive director, Earnest told him “Mr. Maltz, while I’m not interested in the position at this time, I think the museum is a wonderful endeavor and I will do all I can to help you as president of AFIO.”
Maltz persisted, and Earnest’s wife Karen, who worked in human resources at the CIA, urged him to accept the offer. Earnest took the job on Jan. 7, 2002.
“Our initial estimate was we would have around 500,000 visitors a year,” Earnest says. “But we have averaged some 750,000 annually. So it has exceeded our expectations since the beginning.”
Celebrities like Tom Hanks, Mike Myers aka Austin Powers, and Robert DeNiro have visited. Zola, the first-rate restaurant in the museum, is one of Laura Bush’s favorites.
The museum’s latest attraction is Operation Spy, which challenges visitors to become intelligence operatives and try to recover a missing top secret nuclear-triggering device before black market arms dealers get it. Suspense-filled though that may be, Earnest is partial to a room in the museum that features homing pigeons used in World War I to carry messages and to take photos of hostile territory. The room has actual photographs taken by birds in flight bearing tiny cameras with timed shutter releases.
“I like to think of the camera-bearing pigeons as interim stages in the development of overhead reconnaissance between the caveman and overhead satellites,” Earnest says. “The principles of espionage have remained the same since the first caveman climbed a tree to spy and see where his neighbor was finding better nuts and berries than he was. Climbing a tall tree was a form of overhead reconnaissance. You had that as a recurrent technique throughout the centuries. There were the balloons in the Civil War and the pigeons in World War I. Then the great breakthroughs of the Cold War were first the U2 and SR-71 high-flying aircraft and then the great breakthrough in the Cold War, the development of geosynchronous satellites.”
Intelligence has not always been “100 percent perfect, far from it,” Earnest says. “The call on WMD in Iraq is a good example. But for all its faults, through the years, the CIA and the brave men and women who staff it have served the country well.”
“The CIA mantra — ‘our failures are publicized, our successes are not’ — happens to be true,” Earnest says.
[Editor's Note: Get Pam Kessler's book — “Undercover Washington: Where Famous Spies Lived, Worked and Loved” — go here now.]
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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