There are no school buses parked outside this museum, no posted hours or entrance fees, no bands of senior citizens led about by ladies in sensible shoes holding red umbrellas aloft. A guided tour is considered the hottest ticket in town.
In fact, the very existence of a "spy museum" was a state secret until a few weeks ago when the Ottawa Citizen pried it loose from a reluctant Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).
According to a lightly censored version of the service's employee newsletter, the museum was the brainchild of . . . well, they can't say just now, except that he or she is now retired. What the spy agency can say is that the exhibition is still under development and is designed to "highlight the service's rich technological heritage and protect its many rare and unique artifacts" such as bugging devices, surveillance equipment and cleverly disguised transmitters used by covert operatives.
"From Cold War era tape recorders and specialized cameras to trade craft items, the museum offers a rare glimpse into the past and provides hints at today's modern capability," boasts the newsletter, saying the exhibits also include items used by spies against Canada and its allies.
Immediately, of course, one thinks of Q, the unflappable genius at British Intelligence who outfits Agent 007 for his cinematic adventures. This being Canada, maybe they have loon decoys that shoot out deadly laser beams or telephones disguised as hockey skates. Alas, we will never know.
"I am not in a position to give you any details about what's in the exhibits," said Dan Lambert, the service's intrepid spokesman. "They are still considered classified."
Lambert tried to play down the museum angle, explaining it's really just a set of showcases tucked away in a windowless vault at the agency's headquarters. Even if the items on display were declassified, Lambert said, the CSIS complex is closed to the public.
Ironically, the service was recently shaken (but, according to critics, not sufficiently stirred) by embarrassing reports that it has not maintained enough secrecy about its operations.
Last year, a 23-year veteran of the Canadian intelligence service, Tekla Goodman, was fired from the counterintelligence branch after a top-secret document containing operational plans was stolen from her car while she and her family were attending a hockey game. The drug addicts who were apprehended for the break-in told police they tossed the papers into a dumpster. The report is now presumed to be at the bottom of a landfill.
And in 1996, an agency official mistakenly left a computer disk brimming with sensitive information in a phone booth, where someone picked it up and quickly returned it after perusing its contents on a home computer.
The fact is that espionage and intelligence-gathering has never much captured the rather pacifist Canadian imagination. In the 1960s, the TV spoof "Get Smart" was a bigger deal here than the latest James Bond movie. The country only got around to creating a separate spy agency in 1984. It mainly keeps an eye on foreign spies and terrorist groups that may be operating in Canada.
"I'd say the general Canadian view is 'Okay, I suppose we have to have one, but let's not overdo it,' " said Reid Morden, the agency's director from 1987 to 1991.
As it turns out, Canada is not the first intelligence agency to set up a "museum without doors."
On Dzerzhinsky Square in Moscow, the Soviet KGB used to maintain a "memory room" dedicated to the exploits of its star performers during the glory days of the Cold War, including many of its double agents in the United States and Britain.
And at CIA headquarters in Langley, there's a permanent exhibit on the history of the agency, including an Enigma machine used to decode Nazi communications in World War II and a hunk of the Berlin Wall. Recently, fast-food magnate H. Keith Melton lent the agency his KGB artifacts bought from cash-strapped Soviet agents--neat stuff like a strangulation wire hidden in a condom, a wrist pistol and a cane with a poison tip.
But don't plan a visit anytime soon. The exhibits are off-limits to all but agency employees and authorized visitors.
Staff writer Frank Ahrens in Washington contributed to this report.