In February 1777 Gen. George Washington gave a New York man the go-ahead to establish a spy network in the region and promised him $50 a month "for your care and trouble in this business."
The order by Washington is contained in a letter purchased by the organizers of the District's new International Spy Museum, which will open next month. The one-page letter, written in Washington's meticulous slanted script, hasn't been publicly displayed since it was reproduced in a newspaper in 1931. The letter stayed in the family of Nathaniel Sackett, a political activist and a merchant for the Continental Army, until a couple of years ago. It was purchased in April by the museum from a private collector.
As one might expect from a group of people involved with a spy museum, the price for the letter and all their other acquisitions is hush-hush. But the total cost of the museum, including the buildings housing it, is $38 million.
The rare document is part of a cornucopia of artifacts that organizers hope will form the gee-whiz heart of this new effort. The museum, seven years in the planning and the latest addition to the entertainment hub around MCI Center, is scheduled to open July 19. Admission will cost $8 to $11.
The museum has acquired some 600 artifacts, spanning spy tales from the CIA to the KGB, from Nathan Hale to Robert Hanssen.
In addition to the Washington letter, the museum has obtained a World War II German cipher machine commonly known as Enigma, a shoe from the 1960s with a Soviet listening device embedded in the heel, a Czech-made remote-control Robot T1-340 camera used by the East Germans in the 1980s to take photographs in hotel rooms, a lipstick pistol produced during the 1960s by the KGB and samples of forged British currency used by the Nazis in World War II.
No story of spies would be complete without a nod to the dashing James Bond, the creation of author Ian Fleming, the museum organizers decided. They persuaded British collector Peter Nelson to lend them an Aston Martin DB5, outfitted like the roadster in "Goldfinger."
The role of photography in espionage will be evident throughout the museum. The collection includes KGB photographs of equipment found in the wreckage of Francis Gary Powers's U-2 spy plane, shot down by the Soviets in 1960. There will be photographs of people not usually associated with spycraft, including Josephine Baker, who worked for the French Resistance, and Julia Child, who processed classified documents for the OSS.
The collection was built through the contacts of its board and advisory group, which includes former FBI and CIA director William Webster; former chief of KGB foreign counterintelligence Oleg Kalugin; former CIA officials Antonio Joseph Mendez and Jonna Hiestand Mendez -- both former CIA chiefs of disguise -- and historian Christopher Andrew of Cambridge University. Antonio Mendez donated a piece of the Berlin Wall.
The president of the board is Dennis Barrie, the inaugural director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. The executive director is E. Peter Earnest, whose 36-year career in the CIA included 20 years in the agency's clandestine service.
One of the contemporary artifacts is a mailbox used as a "dead drop" by Aldrich Ames, the CIA officer who spied for the Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s. He marked this mailbox, located in Georgetown, as a signal that he was ready to talk with his Soviet contacts. The mailbox was given to the planned Cold War Museum by the U.S. Postal Service earlier this year and will be on loan to the spy museum for five years.
H. Keith Melton, a military historian and collector of 7,000 pieces of espionage paraphernalia, led the museum's acquisitions search.
"The public's fascination is driven by popular culture, beginning with the biographies written after the Civil War. The public saw these dashing, romantic figures," says Melton, a museum board member. "Now there is more spying in 2002 than ever before. That's the only way the governments can compete. So the reality fueled with history provides the public interest."
In his search for artifacts, Melton obtained the kit that John A. Walker Jr., a Navy warrant officer who spied for the Soviets, used to check for listening devices. Walker spied for the KGB until he was caught by the FBI in 1985. "He was the spy who did the most damage," says Melton.
Melton also obtained a training duplicate of a listening device disguised as a tree stump. Designed by the CIA in the 1970s to intercept military radio transmissions, its existence was disclosed to the Soviets by an American mole.
All of these gadgets will be displayed in a meandering space that is retrofitted into five historic buildings at Ninth and F streets NW. In the lobby will be a large shadowy picture of Joseph Cotten from the 1949 movie "The Third Man." Hanging in the atrium will be a representation of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the Bolshevik who organized the Soviet Union's secret police.
Other snapshots of spycraft from popular entertainment include blown-up stills from the TV shows "Mission: Impossible," "Get Smart," "The Avengers" and the Austin Powers movies. One feature is a collection of 500 toys from Harry and Joyce Whitworth, collectors of G-man outfits and FBI equipment. "What the toys show is how the mystique of the G-man was so popular after World War II," says Kathleen Coakley, the museum's design director.
The letter by George Washington is the oldest item in the collection. "He was ahead of his time in terms of how he used espionage and how he approached it. He handled it himself, not that he was a spy, but he handled it directly. He did that more for control and he was somewhat of a micromanager," said James C. Rees, the executive director of Mount Vernon.
In working with his spies, Washington encouraged the writing of letters in invisible ink, making up packages of false documents and designing schemes around double agents.
"He would compare information from one spy to another. Washington was always leery of the fact that most spies were in it for the money and the fact that the British could afford more," says John Nagy, an expert on American Revolutionary espionage.
On Feb. 3, 1777, Washington met with Nathaniel Sackett in Morristown, N.J. In his letter, written the next day, Washington says he is depositing $500 with the paymaster "to pay those whom you may find necessary to imploy in the transaction of this business."
Washington also successfully used disinformation, says Rees. John Honeyman pretended to be a Tory sympathizer who had "escaped" from Washington's men. He went to Trenton and told the Hessians that Washington was totally disorganized, leaving them unprepared when Washington crossed the Delaware River and attacked. "He had a saying," said Rees, "that 'Secrecy and dispatch may prove the soul of success.' "