WASHINGTON – The shiny green Jaguar XKR greeted me in the lobby of the International Spy Museum, which is housed in a restored 19th-century building in downtown Washington.
The prized car, driven by the villain of the 2002 James Bond movie Die Another Day, looked as striking as it did in the film, but it had a new role now: building curiosity about the dark world of espionage. As the greeting on the lobby wall announced: “For your eyes only.
Entry beyond this point is on a need-toknow basis. Who needs to know? All who would understand the world, all who would glimpse the unseen hands that touch our lives....”
Within the museum is a large collection of international espionage artifacts, and there are special exhibits, too, like “Exquisitely Evil: 50 Years of Bond Villains,” which was on display during my visit.
From the lobby, I followed everyone to an elevator, which took us to an upper floor to see a movie about the art of espionage. Next, we each had to select an individual spy identity, which could include a “cover disguise,” like a false name, or a “legend,” like a long-term identity.
Long-term identities can be very detailed, noted Aliza Bran, the museum’s public relations and marketing coordinator.
There may be “the little stuff,” what she called “pocket litter... basically the things that you’d have in your pocket or your purse [that] would have to match up to your identity. So if you said that you had been in... California for the last three weeks but you had a gas station receipt from some gas station in Washington, your cover is blown.”
Also among the museum’s offerings are spy workshops like “Surveillance 201,” a scenario in which participants look for secrets, and a summer “spy camp” for children that ends with a “mission-accomplished cake.”
The museum’s advisory board is composed of real-life espionage veterans like Oleg Danilovich Kalugin, who was a major-general in the 1st Chief Directorate of the KGB, where he conducted espionage as a Radio Moscow correspondent with the United Nations, and R. James Woolsey, Jr., the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
During my visit, the museum arranged for me to meet advisory board member Melissa Boyle Mahle, a retired CIA operative and Arabic-speaking Middle East specialist who, while stationed in Israel, ran operations against al-Qaida terrorists and illicit networks selling weapons of mass destruction.
The blond Mahle, wearing a dark outfit and matching framed glasses, reflected on her clandestine work, at times with wry humor. But some aspects of her craft were clearly off limits because of the secrecy pledge she had signed with the CIA.
An adviser to the Angelina Jolie spy flick Salt, Mahle received a presidential letter of appreciation for her work on the Middle East peace process, even though being a spy was the last thing she had ever dreamed of.
“I had not even thought about it,” she said. “I was very intent upon being an archaeologist.”
In fact, it was Mahle’s interest in archaeology that motivated her to volunteer at the Tel Dor dig on Israel’s northern coast in 1983.
“It was after I left that dig and after I went back to the United States that I had actually made the decision to change my area of focus,” she said. “I had thought I was going to be a practicing archeologist, and I decided I was far more interested in modern political culture in the Middle East....”
While working on a graduate degree at Columbia University in New York, Mahle was sought out by a CIA spotter.
“In those days,” she recalled, “the CIA found you, and that’s what happened to me. I had this academic background in the Middle East. I had lived there. I had worked there. I spoke fairly good Arabic. So I had a background of interest to them.”
She described the initial process as “blind” – meaning she had no idea it was the CIA – only that the spotter represented the US government. Eventually, she was invited to an interview with the CIA, and after signing a secrecy agreement, she went to work for the agency.
Because of that secrecy agreement, Mahle could not say where she was deployed, only that she had lived near Tel Aviv and then in east Jerusalem.
“One of the nice things about having my cover lifted,” she noted, “is I can actually have this conversation.... But there’s whole big pieces of my career I’m not allowed to talk about, including many places where I served.... One of the few places I am allowed to talk about with specificity is that I did live in Israel and I served in the Palestinian territories.”
I asked Mahle if she had ever worked with the Mossad, to which she replied, “Let me put it this way: The Central Intelligence Agency has a very close relationship with the intelligence services of Israel, and together we have a lot of shared interests....”
Mahle’s book Denial and Deception: An Insider’s View of the CIA gives a picture of her 16 years with the agency.
“I think most people are very aware of the disconnect between the CIA and the FBI,” she said, “but the problem was much deeper than that. It was also within the CIA. We would end up looking at...threats from a very narrow perspective and not connecting the dots of a grander conspiracy. The first World Trade Center [attack] was very much a case like that.”
Mahle was involved in an operation “to identify, locate and bring in an individual who was suspected as being part of the financial network for that attack.
“It’s a very long story,” she said, “but at the end of the day, I did find this guy and he was located in Qatar.”
That individual turned out to be Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, named by the 9/11 Commission Report as “the principal architect of the 9/11attacks.” But, as Mahle related, her plan to bring in Mohammed was considered “too complex,” and the matter was turned over to the FBI, which wanted him to testify in the first World Trade Center matter.
What followed, she explained, was the FBI working with the State Department to get Qatar to turn him over. However, she “did not believe that we could cooperate with the [Qatari] government and have them help us to do a rendition to justice of this particular individual” because “within [that] government, there was a lot of sympathy for al-Qaida.”
She said that at the time, the agency was unaware that al-Qaida was involved.
“It was this particular brand of extremism...and there was a lot of broad-based sympathy,” she explained.
So Mahle was “not the least bit surprised” when Qatar took time to look into it, though in the meantime Mohammed “had been warned off and he fled the country,” allowing Qatar to honestly say he wasn’t there anymore.
“I tell this story,” she said, “because it shows how we work in a democratic frame, and it’s important to do that, but sometimes it does constrain us operationally in ways that have costs. If Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was picked up off the streets... in the mid-1990s, would 9/11 have happened the way it happened? I still think it would have happened, but would it look different?” Getting back to the here and now, Mahle admitted that transitioning to the “un-secret world” can be difficult “because first of all you have a ‘black’ resume....” But she has succeeded in making the transition and now works on Middle East business and intelligence issues for an international law firm.
However, her connection to espionage has not disappeared. In fact, she has teamed up with her writing partner, Kathryn Dennis, to write espionage books for elementary school students under the Spy Girls Press banner.
“Espionage is a totally cool subject,” she said, “and kids are more apt to read a story that they’re fascinated by.”
Of course, curiosity about her past still manages to surface now and then.
“People ask me all the time, ‘What does a spy do after they leave? You’ve had the world’s best job, right?’” On March 8, 2017, the spy museum will feature a talk by author James Srodes, whose book, Spies in Palestine, recounts the story of Sarah Aaronsohn, who led the NILI espionage organization to spy against the Turkish army in Palestine. For more information, visit www.spymuseum.org.