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CIA Museum: Exploring the known unknowns

From the desk of: Dr. Palina Louangketh | Founder and Executive Director, Idaho

Museum of International Diaspora, Emeritus Board Member, Legacies of War

The CIA Museum

Nestled inside the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley, VA – is a museum cloaked in secrecy. A museum at CIA headquarters? I couldn’t believe it either, but it’s true! The CIA just celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2022 and has a newly renovated in-house museum that now features an expanded 9,800 square footage of new spaces with 605 artifacts that have shaped history. The secret stories of these cloak and dagger exploits are the known unknowns – things we know that we actually don’t know about.

Source: CIA Museum | Museum entrance. The entrance to the CIA Museum introduces visitors to the overarching themes they can find throughout the exhibits: counterintelligence, partnerships, analysis, clandestine collection, and covert action.

The CIA Museum’s very selective and one-of-a- kind unique items – spy gadgets, espionage memorabilia and weaponry – give the agency’s staff a sense of pride and their profession’s distinctive history. While a few journalists have been invited to the agency’s headquarters for a private tour, the museum remains closed to the public. How do I know this? Surprise! I actually toured the museum last month with Idaho Museum of International Diaspora’s (IMID) partner, Legacies of War, guided by an officer from the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs. Let’s take you on my journey to #LearnDiscoverExplore and understand the world of the CIA, its people, and the agency’s history, mission, and contributions to our nation’s security.

Introduction: Laos and the American Secret War

Last month (June) marked the beginning of IMID and Legacies of War’s discovery of the known unknowns at the CIA Museum. It all began when an article in The Sacramento Bee (Wilner & Smith, 2023), They served in the CIA’s first ‘secret war’ – and are finally being recognized, made its way to Sera Koulabdara, CEO ‘KOUL-mander in Chief’ of Legacies of War. The article’s historical recollection of the American Secret War that took place in Laos recounts the experience of the Hmong people in Laos who took part in this secret war – one of the CIA’s largest covert operations in Laos (1955 – 1974). The CIA Museum’s first exhibits displayed in 1988. Thirty-five years later (2023), this exclusive museum now showcases one of the agency’s largest covert operations – Laos and the American Secret War.

The American Secret War in Laos resulted in the displacement of millions of peoples from Laos to various countries around the world. As a former refugee from Laos, Wilner and Smith’s article naturally drew my interest, and as Founder and Executive Director of the IMID, exploring the CIA Museum from a diaspora museum lens was an immediate next step.

An Awestruck Journey: Into the Known Unknowns

I met up with Sera and Legacies of War’s Chief of Staff, Aleena Inthaly, on June 23 in McLean, VA, the area where CIA headquarters is situated referred to as “Langley.” We, a team of three Lao-Americans, embarked on what would be an awestruck experience in U.S. intelligence with an exclusive access to the agency’s private in-house museum. As we neared the agency’s compound, warning signs – “Restricted U.S. Government Installation” and “It is unlawful to enter or attempt to enter this installation with proper authorization” – greet us along the drive in. One last warning sign appears as a reminder that no cameras and mobile devices are allowed from that point on. After passing through various checkpoints, we finally arrived at CIA headquarters. Two CIA officers greeted us outside the front entrance and escorted us inside and through security clearance. We are in!

The CIA Museum showcases stories well-known in the intelligence community, but less known to the public. It is the only place that displays cold war era secret communications devices, items used in the ARGO operation made famous by Ben Affleck’s film, boots worn by one of the first CIA officers in Afghanistan after 9/11, a camera designed for a pigeon to wear, and more. The CIA coined the phrase, “neither confirm nor deny,” known as the Glomar Response related to the exposed CIA's classified Glomar Explorer and its connection to the U.S. intelligence operation, Project AZORIAN. The museum modernized its visitor experience over the past few years including interactive opportunities. What caught my attention lurked above – a mesmerizing ceiling with sets of symbols and codes that represent hidden classified messages. Modernization was a necessary transformation to bring the museum into a modern era of immersive learning “to inform, instruct, and inspire new generations of visitors and CIA officers.”

Awakening of Senses: The American Secret War in Laos through the CIA lens

Source: CIA Museum | Hmong Display and Artifacts

The CIA Museum is now the foremost national archive for the collection, preservation, documentation, and exhibition of intelligence artifacts, culture, and history. I was awestruck by the discoveries and depth of captivating stories of covert operations and the shadowy world of intelligence, including the exhibit of the American Secret War in Laos. Exploring the halls of the museum and learning about the timeline of special operations and incredible moment-to-moment lived experience of CIA officers was a fascinating journey. As we turned left down a long corridor, colorful paintings lined the right of the hallway with several collections capturing events from the American Secret War in Laos. These paintings recounted stories and events by the CIA operatives. They resonated with all three of us as we stood silently, faces solemn, holding in emotions while studying the collection of paintings of the American Secret War in Laos. You could hear a pin drop as we processed our emotions in silence before proceeding to the next phase of our exclusive tour.

Source: CIA Museum | Hmong Powder Horn

#HistoryHealingHope represent the pillars of Legacies of War’s work to raise awareness about the UXO resulting from the American Secret War in Laos and its impact then and today. Legacies of War is IMID’s legacy partner in the development of our Southeast Asian Diaspora Exhibit (SEADE). Koulabdara’s leadership and role as Chair of the SEADE Committee will inspire a path for collaboration between Legacies of War, IMID and the CIA Museum.

Gratitude: A Path Forward to #LearnDiscoverExplore Together

While the CIA Museum is not physically accessible to the public, curious minds have access online. My time spent touring the museum and discovering known unknown histories enhanced my understanding of the craft of intelligence and appreciation for the CIA and its people’s contributions to national security. As the IMID prepares for its inaugural signature global conference – Museums: The Future of Diaspora Engagement – in Banská Bystrica, Slovakia this September 20-23, 2023, this immersive experience will enhance the planning and preparation of IMID’s 2024 conference. Follow us to stay tuned!

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