Picking up the trail of Washington spies Espionage: Spy Tour explores an intriguing side of the nation’s capital — from modern times to the Civil War.
By Karen M. Laski
Special To The Sun
People become spies for any number of reasons.
It’s a “power thing, not a patriotic thing,”says Carol Bessette, a retired Air Force intelligence officer turned professional tour guide. Of course, the money doesn’t hurt.
If you take Bessette’s Washington-area Spy Tour, you will discover that since the days of the Civil War, the nation’s capital has been a breeding ground for spies. Government employees, military officers and even socialites have done the cloak-and-dagger drill over the years, and the effects of their spying have sometimes been deadly.
The bus tour of almost two dozen sites in Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia visits safe houses, cafes, drop points, private homes, parks, hotels and embassies used by such spies as Aldrich Ames, Vitaly Yurchenko and “Rebel” Rose O’Neal Greenhow.
“It’s a look at Washington history from a different perspective,” says Bessette, who was not a spy but an intelligence analyst.
Bessette collaborates on the Spy Tour with Francis Gary Powers Jr., son of one of the Cold War’s most notable characters. Francis Gary Powers, pilot of the U-2 spy plane shot down over Russia in 1960, was held by the Soviets for 21 months until he was exchanged for a Soviet spy being held in the United States.
In addition to his work with Bessette, Powers founded and runs the Cold War Museum, a traveling exhibition in search of a permanent home.
“Everything I talk about is open-source information,” Bessette says of the tours, so don’t expect any insider information. But many people who take the tour are from the intelligence community, she adds, “and they may have access to sources that I do not have. ... I learn a lot from people on the tours.”
As the bus leaves the Pentagon parking lot, we are told that the geography of the itinerary will result in “skipping around time eras a lot,” Bessette says.
What she doesn’t tell us is that by the end of the tour, those of us with overactive imaginations may suspect our neighbors, coworkers and even our seatmates of being double agents.
The first site is in Arlington, Va., where the bus slowly drives by 2512 Randolph St., former home of CIA employee Ames. The gray house was purchased for $540,000 in cash, an inheritance, Ames said, from his wife’s wealthy family.
Ames got into spying by leaving an envelope at the Soviet Embassy with a note inside saying that he was available — for a price. In the spy trade, that’s known as a “walk-in.”
The information he provided, according to Bessette, eventually cost the lives of at least 10 Soviet counterintelligence agents working for the United States.
The FBI arrested Ames and his wife in 1994 after a 10-month investigation spurred by his unexplained wealth. The Soviets had lined his pockets with nearly $2 million in a four-year period. He had been feeding them information since 1985. He’s now serving a life sentence in federal prison.
Ames was “a pretty serious case,” Bessette says. But in terms of compromising national security, the Walker family had far greater impact.
John Walker admitted to delivering secrets to the Soviets while he was a shipboard communications officer and later, after his retirement, he enlisted his son, brother and a friend in the operation. They spied from the late ’60s until they were caught in 1985, and “caused tremendous damage to national security,” Bessette says.
Both Walker and his brother are in prison and won’t be eligible for parole until 2015. Walker’s son, Michael, was released in February. The tour catches up with the Walker story as it passes 16th Street in Washington, once the address of the old Soviet Embassy.
Turncoats come from both sides of the Iron Curtain.
During a midmorning coffee break at the Au Pied de Cochon restaurant in Georgetown, no one orders the “Yurchenko Shooter” — half vodka, half Grand Marnier.
“It makes you tell everything,” Powers jokes.
A plaque identifies the seat where the defector KGB colonel ate his last supper in the United States on Nov. 2, 1985, before going back to the Soviet Union.
Yurchenko arrived at the Soviet Embassy’s gates that night, claiming he’d been drugged and kidnapped by U.S. agents before escaping his captors.
In his book “Sellout,” author James Adams says Yurchenko was “the highest-ranking KGB official to defect to the United States, but [also] the most senior official ever to redefect to the Soviet Union.”
The KGB colonel defected in August 1985 and then apparently changed his mind three months later. Ames debriefed Yurchenko when he defected, so the information Yurchenko gave the Americans is suspected to have been fed back to the Soviets by Ames.
Eleven spies were arrested in the United States that same year, 1985, which the press later dubbed “the Year of the Spy.”
Bessette says that someone on one of the tours told her that Yurchenko “is alive and well in Moscow. I have never heard otherwise.”
Spying seems to have caught on in America during the Civil War. Washington was a much smaller city then, and amateur spies on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line often plied their trade in Lafayette Square.
Thomas Nelson Conrad, a former headmaster of Georgetown College, sat on a park bench across from the White House charting President Lincoln’s daily movements. His plan to kidnap Lincoln, then exchange him for prisoners of war was rejected by the Confederate government.
Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a prominent Washington society figure and Confederate spy, swore to “employ every capacity with which God has endowed me” to undermine the Union.
Greenhow’s extensive social contacts enabled her to learn of troop movements, undefended positions, the number and size of field artillery, the political leanings of officers and much more.
She used cipher messages hidden in the folds of her clothing to pass information to the Confederate leadership.
Her house was located where the Hay-Adams hotel is now, on 16th Street. According to Bessette, Rebel Rose and her 8-year-old daughter, Little Rose, were confined to the Old Capitol Prison for a time — where the Supreme Court now stands, “a little bit ironic,” Bessette says. But even while incarcerated, she managed to send messages to the South by throwing them out her cell window to an agent below.
Cold War Museum
At our last stop we refocus on the 20th century.
Freedom Park, adjacent to the Newseum in Arlington, is home to eight sections of the Berlin Wall that once divided East and West Berlin.
On our way to the site, Powers talks about how he was 12 years old when his father’s spy plane was shot down. “I grew up in a Cold War household and was always very aware about what the Cold War was and what was taking place between the Soviet Union and ourselves,” he says.
The Cold War was declared over in 1991, he adds, but “five years later, students really didn’t know what the Cold War was. ... I had been giving some lectures in the Virginia area to high schools and colleges, and I was amazed to find out that a lot of students thought that the U2 rock band ... would be talking to them when there was going to be a presentation on the U-2 incident.”
So in 1996, Powers founded the Cold War Museum, “to honor our veterans of the Cold War as well as preserve Cold War history.”
The traveling exhibit of artifacts and memorabilia from that era has appeared at museums, colleges and universities in the United States and abroad. Powers says he is looking for a permanent home for the museum.
About once a month, Bessette and Powers join forces on the Spy Tour, and Bessette is happy to arrange private tours for groups or individuals.
“One woman,” she says, “hired me just to do a tour for her husband’s birthday.”
When you go
Spy Tours are held about once a month, and cost $45. For tour reservations or to arrange private tours, call 703-273-2381. Some walking is required. Information is also available at the Cold War Museum’s Web site.
National Cryptologic Museum, National Security Agency’s Fort Meade Campus, at Route 32 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Phone: 301-688-5849.
Hours: Open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Closed federal holidays and Sundays.
Features: Exhibits and interactive displays of once-classified apparatus tell the story of early code makers and code breakers. Eight original German Enigma machines and the famous Japanese Purple code machine are among the artifacts. The museum is occasionally included on the Spy Tour’s itinerary.
Newseum:1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va.
Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Features: Adjoining the museum is 1.6-acre Freedom Park, dedicated to the worldwide struggle for freedom. Highlights include pieces of the Berlin Wall.
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Seventh Street and Independence Ave. S.W., Washington
Hours:Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Features: The Looking at Earth Gallery (temporarily closed for repairs) highlights the development of aerial and orbital imagery of the Earth. On display are a deHavilland DH-4 and a Lockheed U-2. The Smithsonian has sponsored two classes on spying and spycraft. None is scheduled for the remainder of the year, but for more information, call 202-357-3030.
The Belle Boyd House Museum, 126 East Race St., Martinsburg, W.Va
Hours: Open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Features: Home of Civil War spy Belle Boyd, who supplied information to the Confederacy.
Originally published in The Baltimore Sun on August 13, 2000
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The Cold War Museum
P.O. Box 861526
(7142 Lineweaver Road)
Vint Hill, VA 20187