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CLARENCE PAGE: One thing always disappointed me about James Bond movies. They never really explored the central moral question: 007′s license to kill. He kills all right, but like most other action heroes always in self-defense or to save some beautiful woman even if only a few minutes before she was trying to kill him. What good is James Bond’s license to kill, one wonders, if he does not use it once in a while? Why do you need a license when you are fighting enemies as evil as Dr. No or Goldfinger?
Moral clarity is a lot messier in the real spy world. Real life spies are not always pure; real life targets do not always oppose an apparent threat. Senate committee hearings in the mid 1970′s uncovered disturbing abuses by our intelligence services within the United States and overseas. The hearings found the world of spies to be a morally foggy place where ends justified any means, and people in our employ were not always accountable to anybody. Need to bump off Fidel Castro? Sure, call the mafia. When that didn’t work, our guys tried to shoot him or make his beard fall out. We even tried the old exploding cigar trick.
The CIA did not need a license to kill when it helped topple regimes in Central America or Iran or the Congo. Sometimes our spies did things that contradicted what we Americans usually say we believed in, like helping to overthrow a popularly elected leader like Chile’s Salvador Allende. Americans believed in democracy, it appeared, as long as the vote went the way we wanted it to. Only later did we look back and wonder what our actions were telling the world about us.
Two current TV shows reflect the mixed feelings about our spies. One, called “The Agency,” portrays CIA officers as a troubled lot, constantly anguished by their complicated lives.
ACTOR: Do you have any questions about the mission?
CLARENCE PAGE: The other, “Alias,” offers relief from that with a college-age woman, a key audience demographic whose biggest struggle is keeping her false identifies straight.
Against that backdrop, the International Spy Museum could hardly have chosen a more hospitable time to open its doors here in Washington. Today the spooks are back in style, if they were ever really out. 9/11 has given Americans a new appreciation of spies and the cloak-and-dagger work that spies do, especially the dagger. That’s the spirit of the $40 million spy museum. It celebrates espionage — both real and make-believe – with a playful, interactive intensity.
There are lots of spy gadgets here — from the fantasy world, like James Bond’s Astin Martin BB5 — and some from the real world, like this .45-caliber lipstick pistol. Here is a tribute to unusual heroes like Josephine Baker, the great singer and dancer. Only a few knew she also worked for the French Resistance. There’s Julia Child, the famous chef. Who would have guessed she worked for the OSS, the predecessor to the CIA?
There go the spies who betrayed us, like the CIA’s Aldrich Ames, and the FBI’s Robert Hanssen, both of whom sold secrets to the Russians. The emphasis here is on America’s worst enemies, the irredeemable Nazis and Stalinists who make it easier for our good guys to look very good. There’s not a lot of second guessing about the more controversial things our spies have done.
The result leads to an Ian Fleming and Tom Clancy world of cool gadgets and cold-eyed certainty, freed for the most part from the complications and second-guessing that often troubles the secret worlds of John le Carre or Graham Green. Unable to know real spy heroes who must pretend that they don’t exist, we look to make-believe spy heroes and hope they do exist. Here is to you, clandestine services, our nation turns its nervous eyes to you.
I’m Clarence Page.