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Anyone raised in New York state elementary schools will remember the lazy afternoons just before Halloween when teachers read aloud The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Washington Irving‘s story, with its mention of John Andre’s capture, near Tarrytown, was sometimes used to lure unsuspecting students into a history lesson: How the dashing British major came to be hanged as a spy when Benedict Arnold‘s plan to turn over West Point went awry. Recently I had a chance to look over the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library’s new exhibit, ”Spies: Secrets From the CIA, KGB, and Hollywood,“ and there, among the Minoxes, code wheels and U-2 models, were a couple of period engravings of Andre‘s arrest and execution. There was also a rather more congenial image of General Arnold, America’s primal traitor, who had managed to slip down the Hudson to British lines and, eventually, to a crown pension.
At the opposite end of the exhibit, next to an eviscerated atom bomb, you‘ll find a small display devoted to the Rosenbergs, themselves executed as spies just up the road from Tarrytown at Sing Sing prison. Two forlorn photographs show Julius in a double-breasted suit and Ethel in a white summer dress and matching gloves.
A faint cologne of politics clings to ”Spies,“ though not enough to provoke any man-without-a-country debates about Arnold and John Walker Lindh or, for that matter, Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen. Indeed, things were pretty cut-and-dried during the exhibit’s preview reception. ”Mike Spann is a hero,“ I was told by Lloyd Salvetti, director of the CIA‘s Center for the Study of Intelligence. Spann was the CIA agent killed during a prison uprising in Afghanistan last December, shortly after trying to interrogate Lindh. Salvetti, a former CIA covert-operations officer, is a tall, scholarly-looking man in a gray suit and American flag lapel pin; he joined the agency in 1970 and is its point man in a new campaign to publicize ”the Company“ to the public after decades of secrecy and negative PR.
”This is a general undertaking to tell our side -- we’re not creating response teams to put a spin on events,“ he said. ”The role of intelligence is to reduce the level of uncertainty and to inform decision making. We exist to serve the country and American values -- this is central to who we are.“
George Orwell once noted a delusion that gripped Britain‘s Stalinist left during his time -- that, somewhere in the USSR, historians were compiling a thoroughly truthful account of Soviet life with all its terrible traumas; listening to Salvetti, I felt that if any one outfit is capable of such a feat for American history, it would be the CIA, with its vast resources and scientific objectivity. Then again, I remembered, Salvetti had told the Joint Military Intelligence College nearly three years ago that ”It is no longer adequate to have the history of intelligence written by journalists and malcontents.“
As the evening’s program began, Salvetti was soon telling about 170 guests, including former Governor Pete Wilson, about ”the greatest museum you‘ll never see,“ a reference to the CIA’s on-site -- and very not-open-to-the-public -- museum at its sprawling Virginia headquarters. Much of the Reagan Library‘s spy exhibit came from this top-secret facility, as well as from the private collections of Keith Melton and Hollywood screenwriter Danny Biederman.
Biederman, who grew up completely immersed in the fantasy spy world of James Bond and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (his children are named for TV and movie spy characters), told me that the CIA called him out of the blue to request he put together for its museum an exhibit of his memorabilia, which includes Diana Rigg’s leather pants from The Avengers, Robert Conrad‘s sleeve derringer from The Wild, Wild West and, most exotically, Don Adams’ shoe phone in Get Smart -- which, Biederman claims, the agency curators placed in a special glass case of honor.
As could be expected, the vibe at the Reagan Library preview was unambiguously Republican. A palpable recoil greeted actor Robert Vaughn when he mentioned that he‘d been an anti-war Democrat during his Man From U.N.C.L.E. days, although he somewhat won back his listeners with anecdotes about his friendship with the Reagans.
Vaughn spent the rest of the evening cornered by aging fans who requested autographs and told him how much they had adored his show. I wanted to cheer him up by saying that I especially appreciated his understated role as the weaselly senator in Bullitt, but, like everyone else, only asked about the show that briefly made him a household word 35 years ago and how it had changed his life.
The past is nostalgic territory for real spies, too. When I asked the CIA’s Salvetti how he rated the Reagan years, he replied without hesitation: ”We describe it as the golden age of American intelligence.“