The CIA is marking its 75th anniversary by doing something extremely rare: actively seeking public attention.
The spy agency has just launched a podcast, and over the weekend it gave a small number of journalists a peek inside its newly renovated and greatly expanded museum at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
Perhaps the most unusual touch is the ceiling, covered with a variety of white and black spy codes. There's a section in Morse code, another displays dominoes in code, as well as ciphers, and what looks like a crossword puzzle filled with letters in various foreign languages, jumbled together.
The CIA has never opened its museum to the public and isn't about to start. The target audience is the CIA staff and official visitors. But the agency is planning to put the exhibits — and these spy codes — online.
"Every code can be broken. There are actual words and meaning behind everything," said the museum's deputy director, Janelle Neises, who gave the tour. "We're very curious to see how fast and who breaks it."
The exhibit features some of the CIA's best-known operations since its founding in 1947, right up to a high-profile operations carried out less than two months ago.
There's a table-top model of Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, where the al-Qaida leader was killed by Navy SEALS in 2011. The CIA also built a life-size model as well where the SEAL team trained for the raid.
Also on display is the bread-box sized replica of the house in Kabul, Afghanistan, where the CIA tracked bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and killed him in missile strike in July.
"This model was actually used to brief President Biden on the pattern of life that had been established, why we thought Zawahiri was here with his family, and what our plan was to go and get him," said Neises.
The museum tells stories well-known inside the intelligence community, though much less so outside the CIA's walls.
Like the work of Oleg Penkovsky, a colonel in Soviet military intelligence. He provided the U.S. with critical information that allowed President John F. Kennedy to confront the Soviets over their secret plans to place ballistic missiles in Cuba in 1962.
"Col. Oleg Penkovsky was one of our most important assets during the Cold War," said Neises. "He's known as the 'spy who saved the world' for a reason."
The Soviets withdrew their missiles from Cuba. They also uncovered Penkovsky's spying and executed him the following year.
A separate exhibit features the CIA's own Aldrich Ames, who passed secrets to Moscow for millions in cash until he was arrested in suburban Washington in 1994. He's serving a life sentence.
These tales, and several others, are pointed reminders that spy stories often end badly.
Operations gone wrong
The museum also includes some CIA failures, like the Bay of Pigs, the disastrous 1961 attempt to oust Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
This was just one of many CIA attempts against Castro, who eventually stepped down due to failing health and died six years ago at age 90. But he's memorialized at the CIA museum with a small statue carved with coconuts and known as "Coconut Castro."
The caption offers not hint it had anything to do with the many plots directed at him. It says only that the unnamed owner — presumably a former CIA official — would turn it to face away from the television during Castro's marathon speeches in hopes it would bring them to an end more quickly.
"I honestly don't know who made it and why," said Neises.
Still, it seems to capture the agency's long-running obsession with the Cuban dictator.
"Looking at the 75-year track record of CIA, it has enhanced American security by giving us much better information about the world through science and technology and the serious information-gathering side of the agency," said Tom Blanton, head of the National Security Archive, a private group in Washington that keeps watch on the intelligence community.
But Blanton says the CIA's covert paramilitary operations, like the many attempts aimed at Castro, "have driven up the possibilities of war and confrontation."
While the CIA museum is off-limits to the public, the agency is reaching out in another way, with its first podcast, called The Langley Files, a nod to the agency's location in suburban Washington.
Hosted by Dee and Walter — first names only for these CIA employees — the first guest last week was CIA Director William Burns, who explains the thinking behind the media venture.
"We do usually operate in the shadows, out of sight, out of mind, but I think it's important to explain ourselves the best we can and to demystify a little bit of what we do." In recent years, former top intelligence officials have been much more willing to speak publicly, from cable television appearances to social media accounts. And a former deputy director at the CIA, Michael Morell, already has his own podcast, Intelligence Matters.
A Harriet Tubman statue outside CIA headquarters
CIA headquarters features a number of statues as well as paintings of former agency directors and others who had distinguished intelligence careers. Almost all were white men.
But just weeks ago, the agency put up a statue, near the headquarters entrance, of Harriet Tubman. While famous for leading enslaved blacks to freedom during the Civil War period, she was at the same time serving as a valuable spy for the Union Army. "As she's doing her work, she's learning different things about the Confederate Army, and she's able to pass that information on to the Union soldiers," Neises said. "She was running intelligence before (the CIA) existed. We really felt that Harriet Tubman was someone who deserved to be on our compound."
By CIA standards, all these recent events surrounding the agency's 75th anniversary seem like a full-scale publicity blitz.
Yet the CIA had already taken unusually public steps earlier this year in advance of Russia's war in Ukraine. The Biden administration and the U.S. intelligence community declassified some of the information that they said pointed to a Russian invasion.
Despite initial skepticism in both the U.S. and abroad, the U.S. intelligence has proven accurate and has been seen as crucial in building domestic and international support for Ukraine.
Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.
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