Spies like us
Local contingent views underside of D.C. during bus tour
What’s in a Yurchenko Shooter?
Who was apprehended in the Hollowed Nickel Case?
What do chalk marks, Coke cans, adhesive tape and bed linens have in common?
If answers come readily to mind, chances are you’ve just been on the “Spies of Washington Tour.”
Introduced in 1995, the fundraiser for the Cold War Museum made its Richmond debut in June with a motorcoach trip that blended history and international intrigue with tidbits of trivia and “lifestyles of the rich and famous.”
“We’ll be seeing Washington,” said tour guide Carol Bessette, a retired Air Force intelligence officer, “in a very different light.”
Noting the renewed interest in intelligence issues following recent revelations about Sept. 11, she remarked that the day’s itinerary held much more than could be encompassed in the term ‘spy.’
“I wish I could call this an ‘Intelligence Tour,’” Bessette shrugged with a wry grin. “But that’s not marketable!”
‘Confidential informant’ aboard
As the bus hop-scotched across Northern Virginia and Washington, pausing at sites that included embassies, parks, hotels and private homes, Bessette made frequent reference to the analogy of intelligence work as a “Wilderness of Mirrors.”
Francis Gary Powers, Jr., who boarded the bus in Fredericksburg to play the tour’s “Confidential Informant,” attested personally to the distorted, conflicting information that is a hallmark of cold war events.
Powers has spent years sifting through military records and media accounts about his famous father, the U-2 spy shot down over Russia in 1960, and plans to include propaganda disseminated by both sides in the Cold War Museum that he spends every spare moment promoting.
Proceeding with the story of his father’s narrow escape from his crippled U-2 and his subsequent capture, trial, and imprisonment, Powers paused often to contrast 21st-century perspectives with the relative innocence of Americans in those pre-Watergate, pre-Monica days.
“In 1960,” Powers reminded his listeners, “no one had even heard of the CIA. It was not a weekly television show.”
Gary Powers, Sr. was released, after 21 months in prison, in exchange for a Soviet spy who had been caught in the Hollowed Nickel Case. (The spy carelessly paid a paperboy with a phony coin that had been hollowed out for storage of secrets.)
After the death of his father in a helicopter crash in 1977, Powers, Jr., began a quest to learn more about his father’s life and times – a quest that eventually led him to found the Cold War Museum in 1996.
The museum, which became an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute last year, currently houses its artifacts in a traveling exhibition. Officials are negotiating for a site at the former Nike Missile Base in Lorton, which will serve not only as the exhibit’s permanent home, but as a base for educational programs. A third goal of the museum is to erect Cold War memorials.
“The Cold War was not always a cold war,” Powers pointed out. “Sometimes it got very hot. My father’s U-2 was just one of 38 Cold War shootdowns.”
Of the 250 crew members involved in the shootdowns, Powers added soberly, 138 remain unaccounted for. “A memorial will help the families find closure.”
‘The bridges of Fairfax County’
As the bus glided through the Arlington neighborhood that was once the home of CIA employee Aldrich Ames, Bessette provided a sample of suspicious spending habits – such as paying for his half-million-dollar home in cash – that eventually gave away Ames’ role in providing secrets to the Soviets. During a pause at the nearby stop sign where Ames was arrested one morning in 1994, Bessette indicated the upscale-but-ordinary suburban surroundings and mused about the likely reaction as the intersection suddenly swarmed with police.
“The neighbors were just getting up...puttering around in slippers or in their yards, “ she speculated, “[when] one vehicle blocked [Ames’] way, and one pulled in behind him...Imagine!”
Among other spies Bessette profiled were Cold War figures John Walker and Robert Hanssen, and Civil War spies Thomas Nelson Conrad and Rose O’Neal Greenhow. The tour group disembarked at Lafayette Square to see the former haunt of Conrad, a Confederate spy who watched President Lincoln’s movements from a bench near the White House. Greenhow, a Washington socialite who gathered military information from her vast network of contacts, passed it along to Confederate leaders by hiding papers in the folds of her skirts.
The group also got off the bus in McLean to see one of the footbridges used as a drop site by Hanssen, the FBI agent caught spying for the Russians last year.
“We call this tour ‘The Bridges of Fairfax County,’” joked Bessette.
In addition to drop sites, the tour also visited “signal sites,” such as the mailbox that replaced one that Aldrich Ames marked with chalk to indicate when a drop was waiting. Bessette’s list of other interesting codes used by Washington spies included items ranging from adhesive tape on utility poles to Coke cans “discarded” at designated intersections. In Civil War days, Confederate sympathizers waved sheets and pillowcases from Georgetown University windows to broadcast troop movements and other news.
Lunch among spies
For lunch, the Richmond group dined at Au Pied de Cochon in Georgetown, where a plaque marks the seat used by Soviet defector Vitaly Yurchenko in 1985. The KGB colonel was the highest-ranking Soviet official to defect to the U.S. – but within three months he re-defected to the Soviet Union by slipping out the back door of Au Pied de Cochon.
In his honor, the restaurant serves a “Yurchenko Shooter” composed of half vodka, half Grand Marnier. Bessette informed the group that Yurchenko was said to have eaten poached salmon for his last meal in the U.S.
“So those of you who opted for the salmon for lunch,” she laughed, “are doing something historic.”
As the bus returned to Parham Park & Ride that evening, Vern Joyce of Glen Allen was among the participants who agreed that the tour had been both unique and educational. “It was different,” said Joyce, “not what you’d expect.” Patti Pitts, who lives in the Innsbrook area, added that she also liked seeing the new Russian Embassy and viewing some of Washington’s “beautiful homes.” Although she lived in the Washington area for years, said Pitts, “I would never be able to find all those places!”
Donna Criddle of Glen Allen was pleasantly surprised to learn that the tour guide was a friend she had not seen in many years – but was not at all surprised, being familiar with Bessette’s background, to find her a wealth of information. Bessette was quick to counter that the “Spies of Washington” trip is regularly patronized by military officers, government employees and intelligence experts, and they continually enrich her knowledge and expertise.
“I learn as much from the people on the tours,” admitted Bessette, “as they do from me.”
For information on the next Spy Tour to depart Richmond, call SignaTours at 379-6500. Information on Spy Tours originating in Washington is available at the Cold War Museum website at http://www.coldwar.org .
To read more about Francis Gary Powers, Jr., and his recent visit to Henrico County, see the March 7, 2002 Citizen, available at http://www.henricocitizen.
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