H. Keith Melton is an intelligence historian and a specialist in clandestine technology and espionage “tradecraft.” His personal collection of espionage artifacts is considered the largest private collection in the world. He has selected hundreds of his finest items, together with prized artifacts from both the CIA and FBI, to display in San Antonio this month.
Melton has authored several books, including “CIA Special Weapons and Equipment” and “Ultimate Spy” and has coauthored other books on Spycraft and Trickery and Deception. Melton also serves on the board of directors for the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., and is the technical tradecraft historian at the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Interagency Training Center.
Don Mathis: Are these objects primarily from the U.S.?
H. Keith Melton: They come from all over the world; Russia, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Great Brittan, the U.S., and other countries.
DM: What does the U.S. call a “License to Kill” – is there a designation similar to the zero-zero series in James Bond?
HKM: The James Bond, 007 comparison of a roving assassin isn’t a reality for U.S. intelligence services. James Bond’s fictional world is about seduction and assassination. In the real world, however, it’s about gathering information and communicating it secretly.
DM: Is the technology in this exhibit dated? Why are the CIA and FBI doing this?
HKM: Everything has been declassified, that’s why you can view it now. But we will have hundreds of items that have never been on exhibit previously.
DM: What age group will be interested? Who is your target audience?
HKM: It will appeal across the board. If you like James Bond, if you like spy stories, if you like intrigue and mystery, you will find this to be an amazing exhibit. Some of the items on exhibit have inspired books and movies, such as Argo. Political science students, history lovers and those in the military will especially be interested.
DM: Who is world’s most famous spy?
HKM: The best spy is one you’ve never heard of … and is a person who accomplished his mission while serving silently. The spies we hear about are almost always the ones that got caught. In the Cold War, Berlin was the hotbed of espionage. Markus Wolf was known as the man without a face due to his elusiveness. He was the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service (HVA) of the Ministry for State Security (MfS), more commonly known as the Stasi. He amazingly held this position for 33 years.
DM: What are the challenges facing our country after the end of the Cold War?
HKM: R. James Woolsey Jr. was the head of the CIA in the ’90s. He spoke of the need for the CIA to remain strong even though the Cold War had ended and the USSR no longer existed. “We have slain a large dragon,” he said, “but we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes.” It may have been easier to fight the dragon rather than all those snakes.
DM: Who was the worst spy?
HKM: I have artifacts of Mata Hari in Florida. She is not part of the exhibit because I wanted to keep it contemporary. She was a better courtesan than a spy. Her spying career only lasted a single afternoon and was amateurish.
DM: Are spies still necessary?
HKM: Every government in history has an intelligence service. It helps leaders make good decisions. More wars have been caused by bad intelligence. Good intelligence stops wars.
DM: Where has this collection been so far?
HKM: The exhibit was in New York, Philadelphia, at the Reagan Library in Los Angeles, and most recently in Seattle.
DM: What is this contraption that looks like a typewriter?
HKM: It is an Enigma machine. It is a German electro-mechanical cypher machine. It became the key component in blitzkrieg, the ‘Lightening War,’ during World War II. A military tactic is to surprise the enemy with a coordinated quick attack. The Enigma machine was a key component of that by sending and receiving coded messages securely.
DM: How did the Allies deal with the Enigma?
HKM: It caused the development of the first computer, the Colossus. The Imitation Game is a recent movie about the cracking of the Enigma code. Alan Turing was a British mathematician and scientist and he helped develop the computer to decipher the Enigma and other German ciphers.
DM: How did your government service pique your interest in espionage?
HKM: I am a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and served in Vietnam. I returned from the war with an interest in intelligence and espionage. My collection has focused on the devices or gadgets used to support covert communications – specifically to get secret information from a spy to his handler without detection.
DM: What kind of gadgets did they use?
HKM: There are many examples on display in the exhibit. During the Cold War, construction sites were littered with bricks. This one is hollowed out and was used to convey messages. Dead rats were also used by the CIA to communicate with their agents in Moscow. No one is going to pick up a dead rat. But agents kept complaining the rat was not where it was supposed to be. So there was counter-surveillance placed on the dead rat the next time it was used. It was found that the hungry cats in Moscow were eating them. So Tabasco was used to deter the cats.
DM: What object were you surprised to obtain?
HKM: This ice axe is the one used to assassinate Leon Trotsky. There was more global newspaper coverage of this incident at the time than the assassination of JFK two decades later. Trotsky was the last competitor to soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Artists Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo went to Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas to request asylum for him. Trotsky lived with them for a while near Mexico City and had an affair with Khalo. On August 20, 1940, Ramón Mercader, who was considered a friend and had spent years getting close to him, hit Trotsky from behind with this mountaineers’ ice axe. He wanted to kill him quietly but Trotsky, who was seated at his desk, sensed something was wrong and turned at the last second. Instead of a death-blow, the wound caused his death the following day. There had been previous attempts on Trotsky’s life. Three months earlier, Stalin sent a gang of Spanish Civil War veterans, disguised as policemen, to kill him. Hundreds of bullets were fired into Trotsky’s bedroom but amazingly, none of them hit him. This ice axe did him in though. Trotsky’s version of communism died with him.
SPY! The Exhibit offers the uninitiated a unique opportunity to look at these artifacts and other relics of the undercover operations of the KGB, Stasi, and CIA. The exhibit opens Friday, July 17 at Rivercenter Mall near the IMAX Theater. Visit their website or Facebook page for more information about the exhibition.
*Featured/top image: Many types of vessels, from dead rats to hollow bricks, were used to convey messages between spies and their handlers. Photo by Don Mathis.