Shortly after the United States killed one of the key architects of 9/11 in Kabul earlier this year, CIA Director Bill Burns made a suggestion to the head of the agency’s private museum of intelligence artifacts.
“Director Burns came to me… and said I have another item for your museum, do you have room?” recalled the director of the museum, Robert Byer. “And when he told me what it was, I said yes, we’ll make sure we have a place.”
The item was the model Burns used to brief President Joe Biden on the planned operation to take out Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was killed by a US drone strike on July 31. Burns can be seen in White House photos released after the strike. Talking to the President, with a tempting box between them. Inside is the model, now declassified and on display in the agency’s museum, a perfect miniature of the three-story balcony compound complete with barbed wire and a few small green trees in the yard.
The CIA museum, which is not open to the public, aims to chronicle the agency’s 75-year history for officers and other invited guests, with exhibits that include some of the CIA’s greatest successes and failures. From a vast collection of Cold War-era spy gear – tiny cameras and miniaturized replicas of the “Gulag Archipelago” secreted in products disguised as canned goods – to the latest items for notebooks and tablets used for Biden’s daily presidential briefing. .
The museum also houses the original model of the Abbottabad complex that President Obama examined in 2011 to determine whether to give the green light to the operation to kill Osama bin Laden.
“For most operations, having the ability to see everything in 3D really helps everyone see the space, understand how the operation might go,” Byer said. “This Zawahiri model is no different.”
The Zawahiri model is on display with another new exhibit from America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan: seven stars representing seven CIA officers who were killed in the 2009 Khost suicide bombing, a bombing that happened on Zawahiri’s hunt. The CIA invited a Jordanian doctor, who they believed was pitted against Al Qaeda, to Forward Operating Base Chapman, and once inside the perimeter of the base he detonated a suicide vest.
The stars, until the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, were part of a memorial in Khost.
“I’m very honored to not only have those stars in the collection, but having the Zawahiri compound really closes the loop to the CIA, and we’re very honored to have it in the collection,” Byer said.
Another new exhibit features artifacts from the notorious CIA mission called Project Azorian, which was revealed by the Los Angeles Times in 1975. Billionaire Howard Hughes provided cover for the mission, claiming that his giant ship, the Glomar Explorer, was mining manganese nodules. seabed But in fact, the ship was to retrieve a Soviet submarine that sank in the Pacific in 1968. There was a giant claw in the ship’s hull that descended from a secret chamber. but the claw managed to hold on to one of its valuable prizes.
“The amazing thing about this cover story is that it was definitely a good one. How do we know that? When Howard Hughes announced he was going to mine the ocean floor for manganese nodules, there was a boom,” Byer said.
The museum now displays a 3D model of the sunken submarine K-129 as part of operational planning, a manganese nodule excavated from the ocean floor as part of the cover story, and the wig worn by the deputy director of the CIA to secretly visit Glomar. Explore and manage the real mission.
Items from the agency’s museum are not classified, and Byer said officials are working to post all of its artifacts online at CIA.gov. But the museum lives in Langley, where the public can’t directly enter it, for one reason: It’s aimed primarily at CIA officers, so they can learn about the agency’s history. It also has an “operational” side, Byer said: educating foreign partners about what the CIA has done and “defining it at a deeper level.”
Enticingly, Byer says there are still more potential exhibits that have been lined up.
“We look for the most influential artifacts in the history of the CIA,” he said. “The declassification process is usually … how many years have passed, so hopefully we’ll be able to declassify a lot of the material when it reaches the 25 or 50 year mark of a project. ”