The chamber of secrets

This was the wrong entrance. This was the wrong place to make a U-turn. And the guard was not happy that a trio of students in a silver Volkswagen Rabbit had mistakenly shown up at his gate during Friday morning’s rush hour.

Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013
Originally posted on

LANGLEY, Va. — With a gloved hand, the guard hugged an assault rifle to his body. He waved his free hand and started yelling commands before the driver could roll down his window.

This was the wrong entrance. This was the wrong place to make a U-turn. And the guard was not happy that a trio of students in a silver Volkswagen Rabbit had mistakenly shown up at his gate during Friday morning’s rush hour.

We were lost, and it would be another hour before we finally arrived at the gate leading to the Central Intelligence Agency’s visitor center. But after another 20 minutes of driving in circles around an expansive parking lot and two failed attempts to gain entry into the building, we were in.

Few get the chance to visit the CIA’s campus, and it was a challenge to do so. The privilege is typically reserved for employees, contractors and their close friends and family on special occasions. But we were part of the first group of college journalists invited to visit the agency in some years.

We were to tour the facility, have lunch and then travel to Washington for a discussion with former CIA and National Security Agency director Gen. Michael Hayden.

Dennis Helms, an intellectual property lawyer, organized the trip. Helms works in New Jersey, but he has a special connection to the CIA: His father is notorious CIA director Richard Helms. Though famed for his skill at coordinating spy missions, the former director hid Cold War secrets from Congress, earning himself two misdemeanor convictions.

The elder Helms, who died in 2002, left office in 1973 with a broken relationship between the CIA and Congress. But he also left a legacy that Dennis Helms is seeking to carry on. Helms hopes to re-establish the CIA facility tours his father once offered to journalists.

Helms, who offered tidbits of information and encouraged questions throughout the tour, later emailed us and told us to “please avoid any discussion of getting in and out of the facility.”

After our morning confusion, we were the last of the 13 students to arrive at the Original Headquarters Building. We surrendered our cell phones and other electronic devices at the gate — standard practice even for employees — and received well-worn, red visitors passes.

AT FIRST GLANCE, the inside of the headquarters building isn’t like the movies. It looks more like an upscale office building, with sleek, white stone walls from floor to ceiling. A large granite seal depicting a bald eagle and compass decorates the floor.

On the left wall, a single star accompanied by a U.S. flag and statue of former Office of Strategic Services head Maj. Gen. William J. Donovan honors those who died while serving the CIA precursor office in World War II. On the right, another cluster of stars pays tribute to fallen agents.

Toni Hiley, curator of the in-house museum, led us through several hallways on the ground floor that displayed artifacts dating back to the days of the OSS and leading up to the present-day CIA.

As we walked through the displays, Hiley pointed out her favorite objects. She said she hopes to one day display the helicopter that carried the first operatives to Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks.

“I’ll take it one piece at a time if I have to,” Hiley said.

In a display case, a small clock and timing instrument from the helicopter cockpit is set to 8:46, the time when the first World Trade Center tower collapsed on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

The museum is akin to a smaller version of Washington’s International Spy Museum, CIA spokesman Ned Price said. The spy museum, he said, is a good option for those without access to the headquarters. But the CIA installation is full of artifacts and knickknacks no other museum can offer.

There’s Osama bin Laden’s personal AK-47, with its polished wood detailing and Chinese markings, along with a model of the Abbottabad compound. Nearby is a portion of the wall from the exact replica of the compound SEAL Team Six used to prepare for the 2011 raid.

In the clandestine collection, display cases hold buttonhole cameras, pen cap microphones, invisible ink and a “human transportation” trunk. Mannequins with weapons and surveillance gear discreetly hidden underneath civilian clothes line the walls.

Mixed in with the equipment that seemed to come straight out of a Hollywood spy movie was a display of pop culture posters and photos, including a Spy Kids promo featuring Antonio Banderas and 12-year-old Alexa Vega.

As we wandered through the halls, so did agency employees, who wore everything from jeans and button-down shirts to full suits. Some would pause for a minute or two to look at photos and read quotes, but most carried on with the work day.

THE AGENCY’S GIFT SHOP sells the kind of souvenirs and trinkets found at any museum gift shop: T-shirts, holiday ornaments, candy bars and more. Also available are CIA-branded hot chocolate mix and crystal vases etched with the agency’s logo. We perused the shelves of souvenirs to a soundtrack of Katy Perry’s “Roar” and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”

Next to CIA-labeled pens are small signs directed at employees. “Don’t forget! If you are undercover, you cannot charge! It will blow your cover!” reads one note in front of a cash register. Another sign outside the gift shop reminds workers that they are in an unclassified area and therefore should not leave classified information in that space.

It’s serious business, but the reminders are friendly enough: Several signs include apparent clip art of cartoon spies in trench coats hiding behind newspapers.

Heading to the dining area, we saw doors leading to offices accessible only by using a card reader. Wave guides — narrow hallways with lights behind white panels designed to disrupt the flow of electronic signals passing through the area, Price said — apparently lead to more vault-like rooms.

The food is about what we’d expect to find at any other company headquarters: a Sodexo-catered menu, Burger King, Starbucks, Subway and more. But here, more signs warn agents about the possible presence of “undeclared visitors” (aka reporters like us). We purchased pho from a woman with a higher level of security clearance than we likely will ever obtain.

WE TURNED IN OUR visitors’ passes after lunch before getting in our car, turning our phones back on and heading to the Chertoff Group in Washington for a conversation on national security with Hayden.

Getting off the campus, as it turns out, was much easier than getting in. Price shuttled us back to our car in a faraway lot, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel of his Audi Quattro to the beat of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” Back in the Rabbit, we navigated to the entrance.

As we drove past the entrance’s guard tower, we completed the CIA’s final challenge: weaving between two gates that served to slow down our exit. The road opened up, civilian cars filed in around ours and we passed the last marker between the CIA and the outside world, a sign reading: “Please remove badges.”

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