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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Thing 37: Spy Tour

Thing 37 marks one tenth of my quest to do 365 fun DC things. It's taken me about three months to get here, and in that time I've pushed and stretched myself to look for things I might never have done. Favorites include the National Building Museum, Ceiba, a Wizards' game, and Urban Dare. As always, I encourage any of you out there to leave a comment with suggestions of things to do next -- what are your favorite activities or places that I might not know about? Send them my way! Readers have already suggested an Argentine gelato place, the revolving restaurant in Crystal City, and Famous Luigi's. They are all on my list, and you'll be reading about them in the coming months.

Sunday afternoon, I met up with a small group at the corner of Massachusetts and Wisconsin, across from the National Cathedral, to take a spy tour of the neighborhood around the Russian embassy. Presented by the Spies of Washington Tour company (and by "company" I mean "one woman"), this particular tour of Glover Park is named the "North by Northwest" tour. It is led by the one and only tour guide at Spies of Washington, a retired Air Force intelligence officer named Carol Bessette. Something of a pioneer herself, Carol originally joined the Air Force for what she thought would be a three year tour. Then, when she decided that her future was in Air Force intelligence, she was told that women could not be intelligence officers. She ultimately found a way around that by having the air force send her to graduate school, and served over 25 years as an intelligence officer. Which means she knows a lot.

Unfortunately, she can't divulge most of it, only that which is available in the public record. But there is some pretty interesting stuff out there, and it is great fun to learn about intrigues and espionage that occurred in regular old apartment buildings. Take, for example, the Alban Towers apartments, which Carol talks about at the start of the tour. In the 1930s, the Japanese embassy kept an apartment there as a residence for the Ambassador. American intelligence wanted to rule out that they had a secret radio in the apartment, and set up a long term operation where they would flick the lights or cut the power briefly over the course of several months. Then one day, they cut it entirely, and sent two agents dressed as repairmen to seek out the problem in the apartment. After a thorough search, they learned that there was no radio in the residence, and it had to be located in the embassy itself.

Intrigue at the Russian Embassy
Carol takes us down Wisconsin to the Russian Embassy, an enormous compound about three blocks wide and three blocks long, its white, imposing block building towering over an iron gate. The tour comprises primarily of a walk around the perimeter of the embassy, with stops at mail boxes or storefronts to tell various stories of espionage or failed spying. We learned briefly about Robert Hansen and his signal site -- a mailbox in Georgetown he would make one single chalk mark on as a signal to the Soviets that he would be making a drop at a prearranged time and place. The Soviet diplomat would then stroll the .8 miles down the hill, check out the mailbox and report back to his superiors. Secrets would be spilled.

The side view: the embassy's consular entranceThere's the story of Vitaly Yurchenko, a KGB officer who defected to the US during the Cold War. The hypochondriac Yurchenko thought that he had stomach cancer, and wanted to die in as a hero in America with top quality medical care. When it turned out he was perfectly healthy, he escaped his CIA handler while dining at the now defunct Au Pied Du Cochon in Georgetown, hoofed it up Wisconsin Ave, and redefected back to the USSR.

She tells us the story of a mysterious package, thrown over the wall of the Russian Embassy containing classified documents and instructions on how to get more where that came from forIn the back of the embassy, a private path that runs along side.  Under our feet might be the mysterious tunnel under the embassy! $30,000. And she speculates on where the tunnel below the embassy may lie, which Robert Hansen warned the Soviets about when they were constructing the embassy. The Soviets had already discovered that Americans had built a tunnel beneath their embassy in Berlin to tap into their phone lines, so it was not out of the realm of the possible. Then again, the tunnel was never found, so it may simply be a spy myth.

Carol is extremely knowledgeable and well read on the material, she is friendly and grandmotherly, and she relates many of the neighborhood's stories to her own experiences with colleagues or giving tours. She refers to young women "entertaining" men in their apartments or hotel rooms, with a sort of faux modesty that is very endearing. Mostly, she tells a good story, and with such a juicy and romanticized topic as spying, it is great fun to listen to.

Carol will resume her walking tours in the fall.