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Classified: The Secrets of Washington, D.C.

Story and Photographs by Karin Leperi audio

More spies are concentrated in the Washington, D.C. area than anywhere else in the world. And with terms such as “classified” and “confidential” bantered about by nondescript individuals who ply the Potomac River and the Pentagon, it’s no wonder that our nation’s capital is called “The Spy Capital” of the world.

The Lure

Covert intelligence operations fascinate those of us who lead ordinary lives, lending excitement to what may otherwise be a predictable and mundane existence for the working “nine-to-five” crowd. The undercover world of spies, secrets, clandestine activities, and political intrigue is the stuff that movies and mystery novels are made of. The irony is—especially in Washington D.C.—the truth may be stranger than fiction.

And, as bizarre as it may sound, in the capital of the United States you can experience the secret thrill and hidden world of spies vicariously without having to actually consort with “the enemy.” You can don an alias for the day, learn a bit about the craft of spying, or eavesdrop and break code. And you can do all this inside the International Spy Museum.

A Public Place

Dedicated to spies, secrets and the art of espionage, the International Spy Museum is the only public museum in the United States solely committed to undercover operations and the world of “intelligence.” And according to its founders, it is the only museum in the world that provides a global perspective on what can only be called a profession.

Peter Earnest, former CIA Operations Officer and Founding Executive Director of the International Spy Museum, says that kids as well as adults are intrigued by the quirky “romance” of spies and the complex mysteries of intelligence operations. And, of course, global politics and current events further fuel interest in the museum and its collection of spy tools, gadgets, and trade craft.

“However, it’s not really about the gadgets, toys, or technology,” explains Earnest. “The most important thing a spy has is what’s between the ears.” He adds that tools and technology may change; and if they want to remain active in the netherworld of their profession, real-life spies must also use their imagination to stay on top of changing intelligence concepts and new methods of information gathering especially as they relate to recently invented spy technology or the old standards. As you visit the International Spy Museum, you might just wonder if that person next to you is taking a personal refresher course.

However, being a spy for the day at the Museum is fun but also instructive. For those who choose to accept the mission, your training starts by choosing a spy identity and committing your cover story to memory. During your journey through the museum, your cover will be tested; and quite possibly your cover may be blown if you are not on your toes. It is a game, however, you are reminded every now and then that in the real world, death, torture, and imprisonment can be the actual outcome.

Once you have been “recruited” as a spy at the Museum over the course of an hour or two, you are briefed on the realities of spy life and schooled in spy craft. Along the way you may encounter a KGB-issued lipstick pistol, a coat with a buttonhole camera, a shoe with heel transmitter, and a secret writing detection kit that was once used by Communist state agents in the former East Germany. You learn about the little known history of espionage, you attempt to break code, you are confronted with the aftermath of a (simulated) atomic bomb explosion, and you are given insight into what spies may be lurking among us. Your spy training is completed with the viewing of the film Ground Truth which addresses the challenges facing the intelligence-gathering community in the 21st century. (The film produced by Northern Light Productions won the 2002 Bronze World Medal at the The New York Festivals World’s Best Work in educational, informational and industrial productions.)

Much like the acclaimed adrenaline-fueled television show “24,” the spy museum experience is multi-dimensional, fast-paced, and in terms of the amount of information and the complex issues underlying it, it can seem overwhelming to the uninitiated. Therein is the reason why a second or third visit is always possible.

The spy immersion program at the museum operates in real time with a diverse and intriguing schedule that may include spy novel author debriefings, book signings, and hot topic presentations. Especially popular are the Spy School Workshops for adults, the Kidspy Workshops, Spy Camp, and the spy-themed sleepovers. These however are premium programs offered at an additional cost, though there are special discounts available to members of the museum.

Operation Spy™

On the cutting edge of information gathering and its related technology, the International Spy Museum is continually introducing new themes, artifacts, and experiences that ensure the museum remains dynamic. And … I’ll let you in on a secret: The International Spy Museum is launching a new program called Operation Spy™. Museum Director Earnest explains that this may well be a brand new experience in the museum world in that it will be a “special immersive experience where you actually become an intelligence officer. You experience what it feels like to address intelligence problems in a condensed period of time.”

Based on an actual case file drawn from the U.S. intelligence world, participants will have one hour in which they must deal with double agents, corrupt officials, and hidden agendas while trying to penetrate enemy positions—without being discovered. The mission will include analyzing ambiguous evidence in a time-sensitive quest while trying to locate a weapon of mass destruction that is being sold to a rogue nation. Earnest explains that it is assumed that some teams will fail the “test” whereas others will succeed. Critical to this role-playing is the concept that the future of the world may well depend on the decisions of the participants.

Secret Dining at Zola

After browsing the gift shop’s coveted collection of spy paraphernalia, gifts and books on spy trade, my teenage son Karson and I head for lunch at the Zola Restaurant next door. Entering by “the secret side entrance” from inside the gift shop, we emerge just behind the bar and kitchen; such an entrance gives you the feeling of being an insider.

Known for its exceptional service, Zola is a trendy, upscale American restaurant with a modern décor and a high-tech yet warm feel. Zola’s cuisine celebrates cultural diversity by featuring dishes that define multicultural America as well as its natural bounty. They call it “straight-forward American cuisine.” I call it refined American cuisine in the tradition of the Inn at Little Washington, since the menu offers some of the finest comfort foods and favorite regional specialties.

However, be prepared to be surprised. For example, the signature dish of Lobster Mac & Cheese consists of Maine lobster, elbow pasta, Fontina, and asparagus spears. Though it is a typical American comfort food, especially with kids, it is anything but ordinary. Rather it is extraordinary; one bite of this luscious hearty dish tells you the rest of the story–this is sinfully rich comfort food bursting with an explosion of flavors. It is also perfect for adults. Robust with a round, yet smooth buttery taste. (I feel as if I’m describing a wine.) All these comfort foods can be paired with a vast selection of fine wines, including recommendations from the House for food pairing. The same holds true for my favorite, Tuna Tartar, and my son’s favorite, the Jumbo Lump Crab.

Which brings me to the drink and beverage selection. Zola offers specialty cocktails, wine flights, a vast inventory of fine wines, dessert wines, ports, grappa, Armagnac, Cognac and brandy, as well as coffee drinks. Perhaps the house favorite is the non-alcoholic ginger-infused lemonade. My son quickly proclaimed that this was the “absolute best lemonade I have ever tasted in my entire life.” Not a bad endorsement considering Karson has 15 years of lemonade-tasting under his belt.

I easily recommend Zola’s signature cocktail, The Zola, aka The White Knight. Refreshingly smooth yet perky, this drink of Turi Vodka, Cointreau, white cranberries, and crushed limes is dedicated to Émile Zola the famous French author who stood up in defense of Alfred Dreyfus in the equally famous Dreyfus Affair.

Zola is a favorite gathering spot for international businesspeople, politicians, and perhaps even an occasional spy. On a previous visit of mine, Laura Bush and her entourage of Secret Service staff were dining in the room next to me. At night, the Zola bar becomes a trendy place for young professionals and urban sophisticates looking to unwind.

Subtle Spy décor

The interior of Zola is intriguing from a décor perspective and architecturally alluring. It was created through a partnership between Dan Mesches of the Star Restaurant Group, LLC and The Malrite Company, who contracted with the nationally acclaimed architectural firm of Adamstein & Demetriou and Washington, D.C. artist Jim Sanborn to combine images, texts, and design elements to the interior.

“We…chose to build our restaurant in the wonderful, historic Le Droit building, which is also home to Washington’s exciting International Spy Museum. Guests dining in Zola find the connection to espionage indirect, even subliminal. We are able to pay tribute to the shadow world in a highly sophisticated and understated manner, while retaining our stand-alone restaurant concept and quality. Even the name “Zola” is a subtle nod to Émile Zola, the famed French author who penned the Dreyfus Affair disclosing the falsely accused spy,” says Dan Mesches.

My favorite design element is the highly conspicuous spy ovals cut through the high-backed red velvet booths. They are carefully aligned to allow diners a glimpse of surrounding activities. My son’s favorite is a discrete window in the back of each booth that allows him to peer into Zola’s kitchen, watching the chef and kitchen staff work their magic. Then there are the bathroom stall doors with peek holes. On close examination, I realized that the peepholes are just an illusion; the glass is frosted.

Spy City Tour™ by Bus

Gray Line’s “Spy City Tours” is a unique corollary experience to the International Spy Museum and also interactive. Offered every Saturday from 10 am to noon (departing Union Station), the $79 ticket price includes a bonus same day VIP admission ticket to the Museum.

As you board the bus, you are identified as a “Recruit” in Spy School 101. Your role is to “dress like a tourist so that the world will not suspect you are being trained as a spy,” says Agent Dwane, who adeptly serves this day as both guide and training officer.

Agent Dwane delivers our tourist group of trainees a brief that is a composite multi-media presentation that includes an orientation overview to key spy sites as well as video briefings and trade craft secrets by former high-level intelligence officers. Trainees are given maps and clues to assist in deciphering secret messages. During the mission, various tools of the trade mysteriously appear that tell us we are being watched—a hidden camera in an Altoid mint container, for example. In “Spy speak” it is known as a “concealment device.”

As the end of the mission approaches, our Training Officer reminds us that the tour culminates with a “dead drop”—a secret location where materials can be hidden for another party to retrieve.

“One word,” Agent Dwane whispers in hushed tone. “It’s all about secrets.” He reminds us that the places we saw were all about spies who failed. That’s how we learn the back story, or the history of the situation. Success stories of successful spies are the ones we will never know.

The not-so-secret place of presidents

In describing Washington’s Willard hotel, American Writer Nathaniel Hawthorne said,

This hotel, in fact, may be much more justly called the center of Washington and the Union than either the Capitol, the White House or the State Department…you exchange nods with governors of sovereign States; you elbow illustrious men, and tread on the toes of generals; you hear statesmen and orators speaking in their familiar tones. You are mixed up with office seekers, wire pullers, inventors, artists, poets, prosers until identity is lost among them.

A favorite rendezvous of presidents and other “powers-that-be,” the Willard is no stranger to politicians, heads of state, business executives, lobbyists and those who track them. From its inception in 1850, the Willard (now the Willard InterContinental) has hosted just about every U.S. president, starting with Franklin Pierce in 1853. The hotel even served as temporary quarters for a newly elected President Lincoln and his family.

The historical Willard is where Julia Ward Howe wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic and where the term “lobbyist” was coined by President Ulysses S. Grant. The word originated from a time when men would lurk in the Willard’s lobby waiting to corner politicians.

And Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King is known to have penned his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the premises. Famous writers who have stayed at the Willard include Mark Twain and Charles Dickens; the latter wrote about the hotel as part of his American journey. Walt Whitman also paid homage to the hotel’s bar in a poetic plea to union troops. And the actor Tom Cruise stayed here while filming The Minority Report.

For those who want to “stroll, strut, see and be seen”—or perhaps listen in surreptitiously—the Willard’s glamorous Peacock Alley is the place to be. President Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice was reported to have frequented the elegant marble-graced promenade on many occasions. (She also caused quite a scandal when she defiantly smoked in the Willard dining room.) Nowadays, Afternoon Tea is served seven days a week from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and provides the perfect excuse to rest and enjoy an assortment of fine loose teas, sandwiches, scones, and pastries. A cautionary note, however: it is said that the FBI has used the grand corridor for training operatives in “shadowing” people without their knowing.

Located off the grand lobby is the Round Robin Bar, serving up classic cocktails and a light menu amidst polished mahogany and historical portraits of prominent patrons. Be sure to try the Mint Julep, an institutional favorite considered to be the signature drink at the Round Robin. Henry Clay is credited with mixing Washington’s first Mint Julep here, with a decidedly southern flair.

Washington Travel Secrets Revealed

Looking for a premium package that includes both overnight stay and spy museum? If so, the “I Spy” package offered by pet-friendly Hotel Monaco may be the perfect solution. The “I Spy” Package includes deluxe overnight weekend accommodations for two, two tickets to the International Spy Museum, and a secret welcome spy gadget. For those of you with children, note that if they are under the age of 16 they can stay for free in their parents’ room. Additional tickets for the International Spy Museum can be purchased through the concierge.

Located across the street from the International Spy Museum, the classic “all-marble” Hotel Monaco is housed in what used to be the original General Post Office Building, a National Historic Landmark. Therein lies the grandeur and charm of this 183-room boutique hotel, noted for its monumental architecture, superb service, and elegant style.


A specialty of the Willard InterContinental’s Round Robin Bar, the Mint Julep is an elegant cocktail evoking an air of hospitality and congeniality.

6-8 Mint leaves
1 Tablespoon sugar
Cracked ice
Powdered sugar
Sparkling water
2 oz. Woodford Reserve Bourbon

Place mint leaves, 1-tablespoon sugar and a small measure of Woodford Reserve Bourbon in a crystal tumbler. Gently muddle with a spoon. Place a scoop of freshly cracked ice in tumbler and stir vigorously. Top off Bourbon and?with more ice. Add equal measures of Maker’s Mark sparkling water to fill glass. Place a sprig of fresh mint on top; zest with a twist of lemon and dust with powdered sugar.

Spy Activities

International Spy Museum
800 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20004
Toll Free: 866.SPYMUSEUM
Local: 202.EYE.SPY.U

Spy City Tours™
Toll Free: 1.800.GRAYLINE

800 F Street, NW
Washington DC 20004
Phone: 202.654.0999

Spy City Café
800 F Street, NW
Washington DC 20004
Phone: 202.654.0995

Afternoon Tea at Peacock Alley
Willard InterContinental Washington
1401 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington DC 20004
Reservations: 202.637.7350

The Round Robin Bar
Willard InterContinental Washington
1401 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington DC 20004
Phone: 202.637.7348

Willard InterContinental Washington
1401 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington DC 20004
Phone: 202.628.9100

Hotel Monaco
700 F Street NW
Washington DC 20004
Toll Free: 877.202.5411 (Ask for “I Spy” Package)
Tel: 202.628.7177


George Washington—who couldn’t tell a lie—was one of the nation’s first spies. In desperate need of intelligence on the British Army and their capture of Manhattan, General Washington unleashed a secret weapon—a spy ring that included a farmer, a merchant, and a whaleboatman. Ensuing intelligence gathered by this unlikely trio helped Washington change the odds in The American Revolution.

The famous senator and orator from Kentucky, Henry Clay, mixed Washington’s first Mint Julep at the Hotel Willard’s Round Robin Bar.

The Willard Hotel was temporary home to 10 presidents-elect, including Abraham Lincoln and that it was also designated as a temporary White House in 1923 for Calvin Coolidge.

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