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A New Spy Museum That Tackles Torture And Other Tough Questions

Photo caption:

Photo by Greg Myre/NPR

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.

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 PhD. 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.

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 forty 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.

"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.

"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


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