Where Traitors Met: A Map of Subterfuge, Surveillance, and Spying in the DMV
The creator of a new app that visualizes the city’s history of espionage says there’s no reason to lose sleep.
In middle school I had a cadre of friends who really loved the show 24, in which an enterprising Kiefer Sutherland would save the world season after season through improbable feats. For at least eight of those 24 hours, presumably, the world slumbered around him, and for most of the rest the stand-in crowds and extras remained oblivious to the existential threats that stalked the land.
We were playing hacky-sack during passing period and they were talking again, breathlessly, about spies and explosions. My friend Carson turned to me and asked, “Do you think this stuff is happening all the time, and we just don’t know it?”
I still don’t know the answer. But thanks to a new app — the DC Spy Guide — next time Carson’s in town I can at least show him where spies met in the Civil War to plot Lincoln’s assassination (Chinatown); where KGB deep cover operatives handled their dead drops (Tyson’s Corner); and where an MI6 double agent stole nuclear secrets (Embassy Row).
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In Washington, we sort of accept, on some level, that things will happen around us that we do not understand and which in fact we lack the classification to understand. That makes Brian Raymond — a business school student and former CIA employee — an ideal candidate to expose the world of espionage all around us. We emailed Brian some questions about his new app.
730DC: So what is this — it’s an app, but also a map?
Brian Raymond: More than anything, it’s a major shortcut to learning about the least well known, but also unbelievably interesting, chapter of D.C. history. After reading a few books on U.S. spy history, and attending some presentations by CIA historians while I was working at the Agency, I was floored by the amount of incredibly cool (and most importantly, unclassified) spy history there was to learn about our nation’s capital.
Over the past few years I’ve compiled everything I’d picked up from reading books and old newspaper articles and folded them into an app. The app arrays more than 150 espionage-related sites on a map of DMV. From this map, users can filter by time period or category. For example, users can filter the map to show dead drop sites that have been used in and around D.C. during the past 30 years. Another example would be government facilities, in which users can filter the map to show the unclassified buildings in and around DC that currently, or previously, housed U.S. spy agencies. From the map, users can click on each site to see a photo and read a short synopsis of the site’s significance.
730DC: What was the craziest thing you learned while doing the research for this app?
BR: There’s a great story recounted in Waller’s biography of OSS — predecessor to the CIA — founder “Wild” Bill Donovan, in which Donovan in the fall of 1944 approves an operation to purchase stolen Soviet codes. At that time, the Soviet Union was still a U.S. ally, and after protestations from the Secretary of State over the operation, Roosevelt ordered Donovan to return the code books to the Russians. In January of 1945 the OSS literally drove up to the (former) Russian embassy on 16th street, a few blocks from the White House, and dropped off two hundred boxes of code books on their doorstep.
730DC: I’m imagining the app as a sort of tour guide — are there specific locations where we can actually see cool stuff, hiding in plain sight, or is it mostly behind bars in Langley or Quantico? I’m not going to have to pull a Mission Impossible and rappel down an air vent, am I?
BR: 95 percent of the sites in the app are places where anybody can go visit. For example, Aldrich Ames, one of the most notorious traitors in U.S. history, would meet his Russian handlers at the former Chadwicks Restaurant down by the waterfront in Georgetown. Just up the road British MI6 agents, along with Soviet spies, would frequent Martin’s Tavern. As you walk into the Nat’s Park, a building that used to flank the eastern side of the property is where a great deal of the film from CIA spy planes would be brought to be processed and analyzed during the Cold War. Additionally, as you cross over from Virginia into Washington D.C. onto Constitution Avenue, the government buildings on your left (Navy Hill) served as the center for all U.S. spy operations between WWII and when the CIA moved into its current headquarters in 1961. This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are safe houses, meeting spots, homes of legendary spies, as well as much more.
It’s obvious that a lot less has changed since the end of the Cold War than most may think.
730DC: I just have to ask: Are you watching The Americans? Maybe you could even fold in a data layer for fictional spies.
BR: Yes! and that’s a great idea. What’s really exciting is that The Americans is inspired by true events, many of which I’ve researched and included in the app. For example, the KGB during the ’80s reportedly would use the mall at Tyson’s Corner to evade their FBI surveillance. Also, an “alleged” KGB double agent, who had ostensibly been working for the OSS/CIA since the end of WWII lived in Alexandria.
730DC: So there’s major espionage going on in our backyard. Should that frighten us? Does it ever frighten you?
BR: What I can say is that there are thousands of incredibly patriotic and hardworking CIA officers and FBI agents working day-in and day-out to keep us safe.
Most of the time we focus on their efforts abroad, but they also have a mission here in our backyard. Just looking at the headlines from the past year, from Russian covert action operations against our election and the “diplomats” that were expelled from the Russian Embassy in December, to the State Department employee arrested just last month on allegations she’d been recruited by Chinese intelligence, it’s obvious that a lot less has changed since the end of the Cold War than most may think.
730DC: Where do you go from here?
BR: This was just a fun side project that I hope people enjoy. I have about 150 additional sites that I’d love to add to the app in the coming months to make it an even richer one-stop-shop. More than anything, I designed the app to serve as a compliment to the exhibits at the International Spy Museum and books that have explored D.C.’s unique spy history. At the end of the day I hope the app makes it easy and fun for people to access this history.