Marking 75 years, the CIA opens a new museum and launches a podcast The CIA rarely seeks publicity, but has opened up a bit as it marks its anniversary. Director William Burns told the inaugural podcast that he wanted to "demystify" some of the agency's work.

Marking 75 years, the CIA opens a new museum and launches a podcast

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1125046684/1125054691" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The CIA is marking its 75th anniversary by doing something extremely rare. It's actively seeking public attention. The spy agency just launched a podcast, and it's given a few journalists a peek at its renovated museum, which is closed to the public. Among those who went on the tour is NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So tell us what you saw at this not-for-the-public CIA Museum.

MYRE: Well, the museum is inside CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. And the first thing that struck me was actually the ceiling. It's covered with various black-and-white spy codes. One section is in Morse code, another displays dominoes in code. There are jumbles of letters in various foreign languages. Now, the CIA does plan to put these exhibits online. Here's the museum's deputy director, Janelle Neises, who gave me the tour and begins our story.

JANELLE NEISES: Every code can be broken. There's actual words and meaning behind everything. We're very curious to see how fast and who breaks it.

MYRE: The museum features some of the CIA's best known and most recent work. There's a tabletop model of Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, where the al-Qaida leader was killed by Navy SEALs in 2011. Then there's the breadbox-sized replica of another house, the one where the CIA tracked down bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and killed him in a missile strike just two months ago.

NEISES: This model was actually used to brief President Biden on pattern of life that had been established, why we thought Zawahiri was here with his family, and what was our plan to go and get him?

MYRE: The museum tells stories well known inside the intelligence community but not so well known outside the CIA's walls, like the work of Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet military officer. He gave the U.S. critical information that allowed President John F. Kennedy to confront the Soviets over their secret plans to place ballistic missiles in Cuba in 1962.

NEISES: Colonel Oleg Penkovsky was one of our most important assets during the Cold War. He's known as the spy who saved the world for a reason.

MYRE: 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 cash until he was arrested in 1994. He's now serving a life sentence. These tales are pointed reminders that spy stories often end badly. The museum includes CIA failures, like the Bay of Pigs, that disastrous 1961 attempt to oust Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In less than 72 hours, Castro has destroyed the brigade.

MYRE: This was one of many CIA attempts against Castro, who died six years ago at age 90, but he's memorialized at the CIA Museum with a small statue.

NEISES: And this is a sculpture of Castro made out of coconuts.

MYRE: It's called Coconut Castro. And there's no hint it had anything to do with the plots directed against him.

NEISES: I honestly don't know who made it and why.

MYRE: Still, it seems to capture the agency's long-running obsession with the Cuban dictator. Tom Blanton heads the National Security Archive, a private group that monitors the U.S. intelligence community. Over its 75-year history, the CIA greatly improved U.S. national security by collecting valuable secrets, he says. But, he adds...

TOM BLANTON: At the same time, the CIA's agent running and paramilitaries are driving up the possibilities of war and confrontation with their coups.

MYRE: Now, as we noted, the CIA Museum is not open to the public.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MYRE: But the agency is trying to reach out in another way with its first podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE LANGLEY FILES: A CIA PODCAST")

WILLIAM BURNS: We do usually operate in the shadows, out of sight and out of mind.

MYRE: The first guest was CIA Director William Burns, who explains the thinking.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE LANGLEY FILES: A CIA PODCAST")

BURNS: But it's important to try to explain ourselves as best we can and to demystify a little bit of what we do.

MYRE: The CIA also sees this as a way to recruit for the wide range of skills it needs, from doctors and lawyers to linguists and computer scientists. The agency feels that if it doesn't tell its own story to some extent, it will only be in the news when disaster strikes and it gets blamed.

FADEL: Greg Myre is still with us. So, Greg, a podcast, a new museum. By CIA standards, this sounds like a full-scale publicity blitz. Is all this being done just to mark the anniversary?

MYRE: Well, the anniversary is certainly part of it, but it's fair to call this an evolving attempt to speak a bit more publicly about intelligence work in a carefully controlled manner.

FADEL: NPR's Greg Myre, thanks so much.

MYRE: My pleasure.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.