Spies Like Us

If you're into espionage, then Washington, DC is your kind of place. Here are an area resident's favorite places for those with "suspicious minds."

The Public Face of the NSA

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Idler on January 18, 2009

I guess I’m what you could call a crypto-buff, addicted to books on ciphers and code-breaking, tales of behind-the-scenes intelligence gathering, and movies such as "Enigma," which revolve around the most famous code-breaking efforts. I’ve trekked out to Bletchley Park, north of London, for example, to see where the legendary feats of WWII military intelligence analysis took place, and of course each time I’ve visited Vienna, the theme from "The Third Man" was on my continual mental play list.

Given my fascination with espionage, you’d think I’d have made it out to the National Cryptologic Museum much sooner. I’d meant to go for years. Finally, en route to a weekend in Baltimore, my husband and I finally stopped by Ft. Meade, where NSA headquarters are located, to pay a visit.

Of course, you (meaning John Q. Public) can’t get into the NSA. There is an impressive array of gates right off the Canine Rd. exit from 295 that stops you in your tracks. However, you at least get a glimpse of the gleaming reflective glass buildings of the complex before a helpful-but-stern sign directs you off to the left to the "public" part of the complex, which houses the museum, a gas station, and the National Vigilance Park (more on that in a separate entry).

We had unwisely not taken into account a combination of Friday afternoon traffic and the upcoming inauguration traffic coming into town, so by the time we emerged from the 495/295 traffic snarl, we had only forty minutes to visit the museum. Happily, it isn’t a particularly large place, and that time was sufficient to look over most of the collection if not in depth then at least in surveillance mode.

We hadn’t known quite what to expect, which is always the best way to go into these situations (that is, not expecting anything in particular). The entry fee was the first pleasant surprise. There is no entry fee. The NSA knows good publicity when it sees it, and the Cryptologic Museum is the very best kind: showcasing some of the finest achievements of the agency.

A cheerful-looking docent (looked like a retired analyst, perhaps) greeted us at the entrance and gave us a printed sheet showing the general layout of the modest-sized museum. Glancing at it, I immediately spotted the first section on my agenda: "Enigma."

Now, I don’t want to bore you with a drawn-out geekish account of what the Enigma machine does and how it does it, but suffice it to say that the Allies’ learning to decipher the code probably shortened WWII by several years and saved untold lives. I’ve seen Enigma machines at Bletchley Park, in several WWII museums, at the International Spy Museum, and now, here, at the National Cryptologic Museum. The difference was, however, that here you can touch the machine. It’s not in a glass case. A small card beside it invites you to try it out.

This, I should say, trumps all the displays I’d seen heretofore on the Enigma. Gently, I press the "t" key. A light appears on the faceplate above the keyboard and the letter "k" displays. I’m a little giddy. Jeeeezzz… this is an ENIGMA machine. It’s a worn and humble-looking thing, in a battered wooden case. I imagine it being lugged from position to position by its German operator. Perhaps he was one of those operators whose peculiarities allowed cryptanalysts such as Alan Turing to decipher their messages. Near the machine is a display on the brilliant Polish mathematicians who did the initial code-breaking efforts. I stand in front of the Engima displays, feeling euphoric. This is crypto-buff heaven, pure and simple.

More displays await. There’s one on Native American "code talkers," and I learn that not only were there Navajo code-talkers, but Choctaw and Comanche as well, and that they’d been first used during WWI. There’s a fascinating display on Slave Quilts, with a large chart showing how quilts were used to encode directions for escaped slaves. Jeez… something else I hadn’t known about. In fact, I’m impressed at how much American history there is at the museum, with sections on Jefferson’s secret codes, Civil War codes, and the Battle of the Midway, among other things.

And then there are the computers. A whole section devoted to ones such as the first Cray Supercomputer, not to mention the CM-5 Thinking Machine, now obsolete as it can only process 65 billion operations a second. A room full of these beauties, humming and blinking away, the centerpiece a massive data retrieval system with thousands of stored hard disks.

How about spy satellites? You got ‘em. Secure hotline phones? Ditto. This place, in short, is a spy aficionado’s pipe dream, with displays on how intelligence figured in all our major conflicts, including the Korean, Vietnam, and Cold Wars. All these fascinating artifacts, once highly classified, are there for the public. Of course, there’s not much that’s state of the art… nor should there be. But the museum definitely gives visitors a good idea of how cryptology and intelligence technology have shaped history.

Finally, there’s the somber National Cryptologic Memorial in the Memorial Hall, with American and NSA flags flanking the agency seal, with "They Served in Silence" written above a list of 159 names of cryptologists who died doing it. We leave the National Cryptologic Museum that afternoon, vowing to come back and give these displays the longer attention they deserve.
National Cryptologic Museum
St Hwy 32 and St Hwy 295
Fort George Meade, Maryland, 20755
(301) 688-5849

"The Price of Freedom Is Eternal Vigilance"

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Idler on February 11, 2009

I couldn't help but think of the famous quote by Thomas Jefferson as we stopped at the National Vigilance Park after we visited the National Cryptologic Museum at the National Security Agency. This open-air memorial (which I've classified here at IgoUgo as a "museum" since "parks and zoos" seemed too lightweight a category) is dedicated to the sacrifices made by those who gathered aerial intelligence. This is a relatively new installation at the NSA, dedicated in 1997, and was made possible only because so much material on intelligence gathering programs, particularly during the Cold War era, has become declassified.

The National Vigilance Park is an excellent example of how simplicity speaks more forcefully than ostentatious display. This is all of a piece with the general aesthetic (if there can be said to be such a thing) of intelligence gathering, more focused on substance than show. In the park, visitors will find three aircraft arrayed in a field next to a parking lot just outside NSA security gates. There's a series of simple plaques lining several circular walkways around the planes. It's a peaceful spot, though it was far too cold the January day we visited to think of sitting on one of the benches provided or doing much, really, other than reading the information on the plaques, contemplating the three planes, and briefly squinting up the flag snapping overhead in the stiff winter breeze.

Still, one thing was made very clear. A number of dedicated "silent warriors" risked their lives (and often gave them) during missions to collect vital information during the Cold War. There's a sort of a pathos to this place, really. Sometimes it seems that the heroes we select must meet certain criteria -- and one basic criterion is that the nature of the heroicism be well understood, well defined, and above all have a manifest outcome: This firefighter rescued these people. That soldier lost his life saving this unit. We like our heroes to come with little disclaimers, placing the value to society of their actions.

But in the case of aerial reconnaissance, only intelligence insiders even knew what these people were doing, let alone were in a position to assess what the benefit to the nation was. The sort of low-key heroics performed during day-to-day intelligence gathering missions just flies beneath the public's radar - and are obviously meant to.

The three planes chosen for the memorial are emblematic of the types of missions performed during the Cold War. The centerpiece of the memorial is a C-130 that was brought from an aircraft "boneyard" in Arizona, restored to flying condition, and brought to a nearby base, then disassembled and reassembled at the park. It has the exact markings of a plane downed by Soviet MIGs over Soviet Armenian airspace back in 1958. (The versatile C-130 "Hercules," by the way, were the long-lived workhorses of the Air Force -- used for over fifty years and capable of taking off from and landing on unprepared surfaces. The updated "Herk" is still in present day use.) The plaque before it reads:


Seventeen names follow.

A similar plaque stands before a EA-3B reconnaissance plane. This plane, I subsequently learned, was the largest type of aircraft that could take off and land on aircraft carriers. Again, a retired plane was brought in and bears the markings of a plane that was downed, this time while attempting to land on the Nimitz on a mission in the Mediterranean. Seven men's names are listed on this plaque.

And so for the third plane, an Army RU-8D Seminole, I'm bracing myself for more names, but instead find that this is an actual plane used in Vietnam. Again, the plane represents the "workhorse" of intelligence gathering. It isn't necessarily the most high-tech or glamorous plane -- it's the one that got the job done. A flicker of curiosity rises and I quash it -- why no names here? Too many to count or were we just lucky?

My own reaction to the park was akin to chagrin -- shame at knowing so little and appreciating even less. Who is out there now, I wondered, performing the tasks that allow us to sleep securely? When will their memorial be erected?
National Vigilance Park
NSA Headquarters

Slick Museum Capitalizes on Popular Images

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Idler on February 9, 2009

Call me old school, but there's something just too clever by half about the International Spy Museum for my taste. Well, you might counter, spies are supposed to be clever. Shouldn't a museum devoted to them also be?

Well, yes, but not like this, with espionage presented essentially as an entertainment package, which is what the Spy Museum most definitely is. I've now been to the museum several times -- most recently after a hiatus of about four years -- so you might say I've had time to mull over my reaction quite well. Initially I was impressed, but now, I'm somewhat ambivalent.

Let's start with the entrance. More often than not, there will be a line to get in the place, with a phalanx of black polo-shirted employees directing visitors to the right payment line (a hefty $18 entrance fee) and then through a high-tech-looking "metal detector" gate. The entrance foyer is dramatically lit, all black and silver, with a gleaming bank-vault-style decor. The idea is that you're entering a secure facility and passing through the necessary security check points.

Problem is, these days we all are sick and tired of security check points -- especially in DC, home of countless concrete anti-terrorist bollards. Also, the "security guard" greeters are so obviously drawn from the pool of local college students, the aforementioned polo-shirt brigade. Perhaps a few menacing bouncer types would help sustain the illusion better. En route through the gate, you're told no photos, food or drink, recording devices, or strollers which is fine by me, as clueless would-be photographers capturing their flash reflections in glass display cases constitute a major inconvenience in museum-going these days, not to mention the "my child [who is too young to appreciate this anyway] is incapable of independent locomotion and must be pushed in a stroller" brigade.

The conceit at the Spy Museum is that visitors will become "operatives" and "gather intelligence" on a "mission." To this effect, each entering group is sectioned off into the requisite number that will fit into an elevator to go to their "briefing." The elevator opens, and one of the polo-shirted college brigade explains that you are now to select a cover identity from the dozens posted on pillars in the chamber -- and to be sure to carefully memorize the details of your new identity, for your life may depend on it.

The first time I visited, I did just that, thinking that it would be rather fun. Always an overachiever, I had my new identity down pat and expected to be put through my paces. Alas, one of the museum's major flaws, in my book, is that it doesn't carry through very well on this initial "you're a spy" conceit. Sure, after selecting an identity, you're ushered into a theater and shown a film that outlines some of the dangers and requirements of spycraft. But after exiting the theater, the "mission" theme carries over only in the first two overcrowded rooms.

See, if everyone is "on a mission," they all need to do pretty much the same thing -- but any sane person wants to walk away from that group of strangers they've just spent the past half hour in a confined space with. Or at least I certainly did. But enough curmudgeonly whinging: what actually is in the Spy Museum?

Lots of toys. Really. More than you can imagine. Deadly ones, sneaky ones, state-of-the-art ones, concealed ones, tons of miniature ones, and a few downright risque ones, such as the "rectal tool kit." (Don't ask.) A spy's gear, it seems, resembles a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog on steroids.

Still, there's an "ooh and ahh" factor here. Watch a video that demonstrates how to use various lock picks. (A group of juvenile delinquents in the making stood rapt before this display.) Or the younger members might want to crawl through the ductwork, and many do as the thumping sounds emanating from overhead testify. There are dozens and dozens of aluminum-housed glass cases with miniature cameras, bugs, and (my personal favorite) unorthodox concealed weapons, such as a lipstick gun once issued to female KGB agents or a poison-tipped "killer umbrella" similar to the one used to Bulgarian defector Georgi Markov on the streets of London in 1978.

And then there's the James Bond car, a gleaming silver 1964 Aston Martin DB-5 rigged exactly like the one used by 007 in "Goldfinger." Every ten minutes or so, the lighting dims, the James Bond theme plays as the sound of the car's engine straining during a high-speed chase is heard. A bulletproof shield rises from the boot of the car, and then machine gun turrets emerge from the front and "fire" at the bad guy.

Very cute. Impressive, even. But this goes straight to the heart of my problem with the Spy Museum. It's first and foremost a commercial enterprise, and a great deal of the appeal of the place depends on what people already know -- or think they know -- about spies.

Thus, there are a lot of displays devoted to spies in film, literature, and so on, not to mention spy celebrities such as Julia Child (not really a "spy" per se, but once employed by the precursor to the CIA) and Marlene Dietrich. Let's face it: neither of these ladies, wonderful as they were, really merits a place in serious espionage lore. But no matter -- their near life-size images make good eye candy for a section on "Celebrity Spies."

Sometimes the disconnect between "real" spycraft and the Hollywood version is a bit jarring. You'll round the corner of a display on a very grim topic such as Nuclear Spies and there might be a display case of children's toys -- decoder rings and such. And while there is a slew of information, none of it is particularly deep, and since the coverage is so broad there's little context to place it in. Children love the Enigma code-breaking center room, for example, but are more intent on playing with the headsets than understanding how this very complex operation took place.

In another room, teenagers stare listlessly at displays on the Dreyfuss Affair before moving on to something juicier. There are hundreds of small blurbs (many not very well lit and almost impossible to read) posted hither and yon in numerous "theme" rooms such as "Sisterhood of Spies," "Checkpoint Charlie," and "Behind Enemy Lines." After the initial silver-themed rooms devoted to spycraft, the museum leads visitors through a more-or-less chronological walk through famous spies and incidents, starting back with the Romans and advancing up to the 21st century.

One shortcoming becomes evident here -- some of the most popular displays seem crammed into far too little space, while other displays -- Hannibal's military campaigns, anyone? -- are not only spacious but nearly vacant. Naturally, I gravitated towards some of the more vacant displays, and found some entertainment reading the exploits of a carrier pigeon called "Cher Ami," awarded the Croix de Guerre for her valor during WWI.

In the second part of the museum, which is back on the ground floor, patrons enter the world of the Cold War -- atmospheric sections on Berlin predominate, along with a nicely done "Wilderness of Mirrors" on the most famous spies of the Cold War era such as Kim Philby and Aldrich Ames. An interesting film in this room details how mole Robert Hanssen was caught. In general, these videos are some of the most effective segments in the museum.

A ten-minute film on the 21st century and intelligence gathering in today's world concludes the museum portion. Like all good enterprises, the Spy Museum's exit goes straight through the knick-knack stuffed gift shop.

My verdict, then, is to take this place with a grain of salt. If you know a fair amount about famous spies and their roles in important historical events already, you'll probably find the International Spy Museum doesn't really add much to your appreciation. But for the average punter -- especially those attracted by the glamorous image of spies cultivated by Hollywood -- this will feel like an adventurous in-door theme park. Besides, doesn't nearly everybody want to see what a "rectal tool kit" looks like?

(Short answer: blessedly small!)

International Spy Museum
800 F St. NW
Washington, District of Columbia, 20004
(202) 393-7798

An Impressive, State-of-the-Art Museum

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Idler on January 26, 2009

"I don’t follow the news." You hear people say that, on occasion, and wonder precisely what they mean. Do they mean they don’t subscribe to a newspaper, or watch television news coverage, or listen to radio broadcasts? Do they mean that they live in cave in some undisclosed location?

It seems to me that poses of proud ignorance are falling out of fashion. (Hallelujah!) But news junkies and the out-of-touch alike will appreciate this spiffy new museum, which opened in DC in April 2008. It’s just the place to reconnect with world and national events.

The weekend after President Obama’s inauguration proved to be the perfect time to visit the Newseum. Once the crowds of visitors had gone back home, Washington seemed to be taking a little breathing spell, at least in terms of tourism. I’d read that one of the best views of the inaugural parade had been from the glass-fronted Newseum, right on Pennslyvania Avenue. As it turned out, the place was still very much in "inauguration mode" for our visit.

The first sign of this was the entrance display of newspapers from just about every state, with images of the inauguration, a sort of editorial unanimity that happens on only the most momentous occasions. Inside the building, as we queued for tickets (a steep $20, though we got a $2 discount each as AAA members), I gawked at an enormous screen playing video from the inauguration. I’d read some disdainful reviews of the architecture of the Newseum, but I was impressed by the scale of the 25,0000-square-foot building. It’s not nearly as vast as, say, the Udvar Hazy Air & Space Museum (which houses the space shuttle, the Concord, and a fleet of other aircraft), but it’s big. A sense of light and space pervades the building.

It was a quiet afternoon at the Newseum, and with some amusement I watched multiple members of the staff come forward to guide us to the first recommended stop: the introductory video at the Concourse Level. Unfortunately, I’ve never been a big fan of those films that just about every semi-serious museum insists on herding visitors in to see, and watching this fairly slick and somewhat self-congratulatory nine-minute video on "What Is News?" really did nothing to change my opinion. Still, the film did conclude with a very brief but quite useful overview of what is where in the Newseum. From the Concourse, it’s recommended to start at the top and work your way down. But, being a contrarian, I naturally decided we’d start at the Concourse level instead, especially since it contained the exhibit I’d come especially to see, "G-Men and Journalists" Top News Stories of the FBI’s First Century."

I’d always wanted to tour the FBI, but they no longer give tours, unfortunately. However, for this exhibit, the FBI provided a number of artifacts from some of the most sensational cases of the last century: Patty Hearst’s kidnapping, the DC Sniper, the show-down at Waco with David Koresh, the Oklahoma City Bombing, not to mention a who’s who pantheon of bad guys such as John Dillinger and "Pretty Boy" Floyd. There are fourteen sections in the exhibit, each devoted to a major case or some other facet of the FBI during its first hundred years.

The Newseum’s penchant for displaying sensational relics is in full force in this exhibit, as there are numerous objects that are notorious by association – the electric chair used to execute Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the man who kidnapped the Lindberg baby, for example, or J. Edgar Hoover’s desk. But the real jaw-dropper is the plain wooden cabin sitting next to the Unabomber display: it’s the actual 10-by-12-foot cabin that was Ted Kaczynski's home for 20 years.

The underlying theme is the connection between the press and the FBI: how the agency used the media and vice versa. The FBI needed public support, of course, and the news media fed public hunger for stories about diabolical criminals. The press stoked the image of the daring "G-Men," but it also came into conflict with the agency on numerous occasions.

Of particular interest to me was the section on "Spy Catchers: Fighting Espionage, From the Rosenbergs to Hanssen." This showcased some of the FBI’s most successful anti-espionage efforts after World War II. I was fascinated by the objects on displays, such as a hollowed-out coin used to hold a coded message which led to the arrest of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. Sometimes you have to wonder about what the FBI keeps in its case files, though. One display case next to a blurb on Robert Hanssen has several crumpled plastic bags. These, it seems, once held payoff money that the Soviets had given Hanssen.

But beyond the lurid objects and sensational cases, there was an interesting underlying theme: how the relationship between the press and the FBI evolved, and particularly how it soured after disclosures during the 1960’s of FBI abuses. It’s a bit of a tight-rope act, of course, in a post 911 world to balance civil liberties and issues of national security, and this exhibit gives some definite food for thought about the role of the media in such cases.

Having delved into just a single exhibit at the Newseum, I was somewhat chagrinned to realize that there were only two hours left before closing to view all the remaining ones. This, I need hardly add, I failed to do. But let me mention some of the highlights, starting (as is recommended) on the Sixth Level, which provides access to an outdoor terrace. This has stunning views of the Capitol dome and the entire Mall.

From there, we headed to the Fifth Level, which has a vast "Big Screen Theater" that, again, featured dozens of images and news feeds from the inauguration. Visitors sat or stood before this constantly shifting panorama, just drinking it in. Even more impressive, perhaps, was the section on "News History" – a timeline beginning from 1455 up to the present day, with hundreds of front pages displaying critical stories for each year. As I pulled out drawers featuring newspapers from around 1960 onward, I came to a sudden realization: this wasn’t history -- for me it was memory. Interestingly, this didn’t make me feel old so much as rich in experience. All these things – good and bad – happened (and are still happening) during my lifetime.

Level Four has a very somber gallery devoted to 911. An immense wall features newspaper front pages from Sept. 12, 2001, and in front of them, nearly reaching the ceiling, sits a massive piece of wreckage - the antenna mast from the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Visitors stand silently before it, contemplating an object that speaks so eloquently of the scope of the disaster.

Level Three is devoted to state-of-the-art news gathering, including the Newseum TV Studio and a section on digital news. Much has been made of the Newseum’s incorporation of technology, and I have to say that all the hype is justified. The Newseum has really managed to push the boundaries of cutting-edge museum experiences. This is not only true in the use of bells-and-whistles interactive displays and literally hundreds (if not thousands) of flat-panel screens, but in the way the museum flows – there’s a real sense of information flowing all around you, of being right in the middle of the stream of events.

Granted, a couple of the much-vaunted Newseum features struck me as gratuitous, such as the "4-D Experience" (moving chairs, 3-D glasses, puffs of wind and spritzes of water to mimic "being there"). Frankly, I can see that whole thing being shelved after a bit. It’s too theme-parkish. (But, who knows, maybe I’m just too much of a curmudgeon to enjoy it and it may prove the most popular display.)

But it is not the Newseum’s technology, wonderful as it is, that impressed me the most during my visit. What affected me most profoundly was a simple wall of photos, hundreds of them, set on a wall. These are the faces of reporters who died while bringing us the news. It’s a simple display, in a beautiful chapel-like section of the Newseum, and it’s surely something to contemplate: the price of a free press.

I’d felt initially like $20 was a lot to charge for a museum, particularly one literally surrounded by the flagship Smithsonian treasures nearby. But I didn’t feel that way at all by the time we left.

Note: Can’t swing the twenty-buck ticket or make it to DC to visit the Newseum? Well, you’re in luck, as the Newseum’s website is just as state-of-the-art as the place itself. Virtual displays of just about every feature in the Newseum, such as a fascinating account of the Berlin Wall await you.
555 Pennsylvania Ave.
Washington, D.C., 20001
(888) 639-7386

Secret Missions Aloft

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Idler on February 9, 2009

The marvelous Udvar Hazy Center, a branch of the National Air & Space Museum, opened out in Chantilly, VA in 2003. Needing room for expansion, with only a portion of the NASM's vast collection on display in the NASM on the Mall, this new behemoth (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) was built and named after the Hungarian immigrant who donated $65 million for the project.

The new center is gargantuan in scale, magisterial in breadth, and absolute nirvana for aviation buffs. If you're even mildly interested in airplanes and space exploration, don't miss it. A shuttle from the Mall runs out to Chantilly, or those flying in and out of Dulles can easily make a stop there as the center is right next to the airport.

Now, to the subject at hand: secret missions. My review, you see, has that decidedly narrow focus. Have you ever gone to a truly massive museum and, after exhausting yourself, decided next time to focus on just a couple of things to avoid being overwhelmed?

Well, that's what I did on my second (or was it third?) outing to the Udvar Hazy Center. I decided to make two specific planes the focus of my visit. Needless to say, these are two real humdingers in the museum's collection.

One of the first things visitors see after entering the Udvar Hazy Center's main hall is a long, sleek SR-71 Blackbird, commonly called a "stealth" or "spy plane." Reams of techno-porn have been written about this amazing aircraft, but I'll just mention a few things of interest to the non aviation specialist.

First of all, the Blackbird is the fastest plane ever built, not to mention that it still holds all non-assisted altitude records. The plane is no longer part of the Air Force's active fleet, having been retired back in 1998 for a variety of reasons (most, I gather, having to do with wanting to spend funds on newer projects). The plane's top speed is approximately Mach 3.2+ (that's over 2,000 mph), though some out there think it might have been much faster and we just haven't been told about it.

The plane's designers dealt with major problems of heat generated at these speeds primarily by using high-temperature-resistant titanium in the construction of the frame of the plane. The metal was imported from the USSR, no less -- needless to say, they were not aware of what the US was doing with all that titanium. Thirty-two Blackbirds were built, twelve of which were destroyed in non-combat flying accidents.

Other design solutions dealt with the problem of the airplane's expansion during flight as it grew hotter -- in essence, proper alignment of the fuselage occurred only while the plane was in flight. At rest, the sections fit loosely. Heat, obviously, was design enemy #1: like Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer's nose, the plane's engines practically glowed. Naturally, shielding the crew and equipment from this heat presented another challenge.

Designing an appropriate fuel was yet another issue. The Blackbird uses special JP-7 high-temperature jet fuel routed to ingeniously cool the aircraft's wings and fuselage in flight. Yet another problem was the plane's exterior - a traditional smooth skin would have peeled due to stresses of horizontal thermal expansion, whereas the slightly corrugated surface ultimately used expanded vertically as well as horizontally.

But what's of real interest to the spy aficionado is the plane's stealth capabilities. Although the plane might seem to have been designed primarily with speed in mind - after all, it flew so fast that if the pilot detected that an attack missile had been launched, the S.O.P. for evasive maneuvers was simply to accelerate -- in fact a number of intriguing trade-offs were made to ensure that the plane would simply go undetected.

Most "stealth" features were designed to reduce the SR-71's radar signature. These included the radar-absorbing exterior materials used for the plane, and the tapering sides, which minimized reflected radar energy. To disguise the exhaust plume of the plane, cesium was added to the fuel. Still, many contend the plane was far from undetectable and was especially vulnerable to infrared detection. It's said that numerous missiles were fired at Blackbirds, but the bird simply outran them.

The SR-71's primary purpose, of course, was spying. But there was a very specific sort of spying that the military had in mind. Explaining this requires a brief history lesson, as is so often the case. Back in 1960, after Soviet's downed Gary Power's U2 spy plane (or, some argue, Power's plane crashed -- discussion of these sorts of events brings out ALL the conspiracy theorists, believe me), the US signed a treaty with the USSR, promising not to fly manned aircraft over the the Soviet Union.

This development crippled the development of the current spy plane the US had in the works, the A-12, but it ushered in the age of the SR-71 since the Air Force needed to find an plane that could gather intelligence without entering enemy airspace. The SR-71, in addition to flying faster and higher than anything else, could carry an impressive payload of image-gathering devices, advanced sensors, and in particular cameras which allowed peripheral coverage.

These aircraft could prowl any given country's perimeter, using side-angle cameras to photograph and map images hundreds of miles in the interior. (This is not to say that the SR-71 didn't ever enter Soviet airspace, by the way. One account I've read claims that in the late 1970's, when the US wanted to test the capabilities of a new Soviet radar installation, an SR-71 was flown right at it, prompting the Soviets to turn it on, whereupon the Blackbird gathered vital data that allowed signal intelligence analysts to assess the performance of the Soviet's new system.)

Of course, it will be decades -- if ever -- before the complete exploits of the SR-71's reconnaissance missions are known. However, Blackbirds undeniably flew thousands of missions over North Vietnam, Laos, North Korea, the Middle East and other areas of strategic concern. The mothballing of the plane is still hotly debated by those with an interest in military programs. It's claimed that the "satellite people" resented the Blackbird's success, for example, and that infighting in high places, and in particular a push to use drone aircraft, doomed the expensive SR-71 program. At any rate, an aura of mystery and excitement still surrounds the aircraft. The one at the Udvar Hazy Center is an absolute beaut, and I've never tired of walking around it, taking it in from every angle.

The second focal point for my visit was no less controversial: the Enola Gay. This, of course, was the B-29 Superfortress bomber that dropped the "Little Boy" atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. I've long been interested in the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb, even worked next to the site of the first controlled nuclear reaction for a few years. Hence my interest in the Enola Gay.

Initially, the Smithsonian had displayed the plane's fuselage in the NASM on the Mall, but there had been outcry over the exhibit. On one hand, veterans and others chided the Smithsonian for placing too much emphasis on Japanese casualties and not enough on the plane's role in bringing the war to a swift conclusion. On the other hand, those who felt that the U.S. dropping of the bomb had been a heinous crime against humanity wanted more emphasis placed on the victims. The outcome, predictably, was that the exhibit was ultimately removed.

However, when plans were made for the new Udvar Hazy Center, it was decided with little fanfare to reassemble the Enola Gay and put it on display, albeit in a less controversial way. The plane simply sits there, in all its absolute massiveness, a fortress indeed. Aside from the historical significance of this particular B-29, it's instructive to contemplate a plane that, in its day, was one of the the most complex machines ever built.

Again, heat was a major issue that the plane's designers had to contend with. The engines often caught fire when heavy demands were placed upon them, so it goes without saying that the plane's fire control systems were the most advanced of the time. More robust engines were ultimately designed, but not until after the war, no doubt accounting for the the B-29's long use, up until the early 1960's.

Undoubtedly because of the earlier controversy over the plane, the signs in front of the Enola Gay now provide only basic technical data on the aircraft, without making much of the plane's historical role. This, to me, just makes it that more interesting. The people who stand gaping up at it generally already know what they're looking at.

It's probably worth mentioning that the Enola Gay is closely monitored by a security system to prevent vandalism. So don't get too close.

Someone's watching you.

National Air and Space Museum: Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center
14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway
Chantilly, Virginia, 20151
(202) 633-1000

A Relaxed, Atmospheric Pub... and Once a Notorious Traitor's Hangout

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Idler on February 7, 2009

It was blatant curiosity that brought me to Chadwicks -- I just had to see the spot where infamous spy Aldrich Ames used to meet his Soviet contact. The story goes that CIA analyst Ames walked into the Soviet Embassy one day in 1985 and offered to sell information for money -- his second wife had expensive tastes, it seems, and he hankered after the good life himself.

After a few initial meetings at the Mayflower hotel, Ames met his Soviet contact for lunch at Chadwicks, handing over some seven pounds of classified documents. With some of the $4.6 million he received over nearly a decade of deception, Ames bought things like a Jaguar sports car and fine jewelry, not to mention stashing away some $2 million in an overseas account that has yet to be found. Meantime, ten of the hundred-some CIA operatives that he had betrayed were executed in Soviet Union.

Ames was under suspicion for some time before finally being arrest in 1994, and he's currently serving a life sentence in a prison in Pennsylvania. (His wife received a five-year sentence and was deported to South America after her release.)

I have to say that when I stepped into Chadwicks, it was easy to imagine Ames sitting in a corner booth in the dimly lit pub. Chadwicks prides itself on being a local hangout, and the promotional material likens it to "Cheers." While that certainly seemed like an overstatement the night we visited, there's a certain low-key amiability to the place. It straddles a middle ground between the sort of grungy watering hole college students might favor and a more upscale "fine dining" brew pub. Chadwicks has been around long enough not to bother much with "trends," which is a blessing.

Enough of the spies, you say -- what of the food? Well, it's nothing spectacular, really, but fairly good fare, centering around tried-and-true American standards -- big burgers, roast chicken, pastas, ribs, salmon, crab cakes, and such. Prices for entrees are fairly moderate for this part of DC (that is, in upscale Georgetown), ranging from around $8 or $9 for a burger with fixings to $21 for the crab cakes. I had a "two-for-one" entree coupon from the Entertainment.com book, which had the desired effect of making us splurge a bit, ordering side salads and drinks to accompany our entrees.

My pasta dish was fairly straightforward -- penne with a good quality olive oil and cheeses, sundried tomatoes, rosemary, sweet corn, and grilled chicken. Normally I plump for something more complex when I eat out, reckoning (truthfully) that I can make this sort of thing easily enough myself at home. But it was a very cold evening, and I longed for some filling complex carbohydrates. Bingo. We were served a nice basket of warm, chewy bread as well, so I was definitely in carb heaven.

The thing I enjoyed most, though, was the glass of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc that I ordered to accompany the meal. Chadwicks sensibly doesn't overcharge for beer and wine -- and I suspect that has a lot to do with its faithful clientele. I could see myself, if I lived in the neighborhood, coming by often for drinks with friends.

My husband ordered "Guinness roasted chicken," or something to that effect. Frankly, I'm always suspicious of recipes that invoke something alcoholic as a major component, whether it be vodka sauce or Johnny Walker in the barbecue sauce. I sampled Jack's chicken and detected not a whiff of Guinness... only a bird that had been left in the oven too long. It wasn't really bad, but it was nothing to write home about, either. To compensate for the relative Guinnesslessness (is that a word? is now!) of the entree, he ordered a refill of his Czech-style Pilsner.

All in all, we liked Chadwicks pretty well, dry chicken notwithstanding. It's a cozy place, tucked under the elevated Whitehurst Freeway on K Street, right alongside the water. We'd just been to the Kennedy Center for a concert and found Chadwicks was easy to get to from there, not to mention that parking was no problem on a Sunday night. Although it was a cold January night, we couldn't resist a stroll along the waterfront after our meal, admiring the lights of Rosslyn and the Kennedy Center reflected in the Potomac.
3205 K Street N.W.
Washington, D.C, 20007
(202) 333-2565


©Travelocity.com LP 2000-2009