Spy Central in Washington, D.C.
Behind its buttoned-up public image, D.C. has bubbled as a hotbed of espionage from the Civil War to the Cold War – and even today.
It’s often said the nation’s capital is home to more spies than anywhere else on earth. For the curious (or suspicious), one of the best ways to experience D.C.’s dark underbelly is by diving into its history of covert counterintelligence activity.
From bugs to concealed cameras, The International Spy Museum in Penn Quarter is home to the world’s largest collection of espionage-related artefacts. It includes a Bulgarian umbrella, similar to the one the KGB used in 1978 to assassinate dissident Georgi Markov on the streets of London, which was modified to fire a tiny pellet filled with poison. Also on display is a shoe with a hidden heel microphone and transmitter that the Romanian Secret Service used to monitor the conversations of American diplomats throughout the 1960s and ’70s after secretly obtaining their shoes. But since the museum’s School for Spies and Secret History of History exhibits are also home to some pretty big crowds, smart travellers should take advantage of D.C.’s wonderful walkability and join a spy-based tour on foot.
The best of the bunch is Carol Bessette’s Spies of Washington tours. A retired Air Force intelligence agent, Bessette offers four D.C. area tours unearthing so much betrayal and deception inside the Beltway they makeHouse of Cards seem tame. During your two-hour stroll, you may learn about how certain mailboxes around the Russian embassy were used as sites to spill diplomatic secrets, or how FBI counterintelligence agent Robert Hanssen taped envelopes with confidential information under a bridge known as “Drop Site FLO” so members of the KGB could retrieve them.
For those who’d rather set out on a solo spy mission, beyond the infamous Watergate building, don’t miss Mr. Smith’s of Georgetown, a pub where CIA traitor Aldrich Ames handed over seven pounds of top-secret material to the KGB; the nearby J. Edgar Hoover residence, where the FBI’s most famous director installed bulletproof windows in his home to protect the top-secret files he held on political leaders; and the famed Smithsonian Institution Castle, where Union sentries used to spy on Confederate troops with binoculars from the castle’s towers.