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Paying homage to world of espionage - Visitors to Washington's International Spy Museum can assume a "cover" as they take in the exhibits
  

Sunday, June 11, 2006 M.J. CODY  

The guard at the Russian border stares at me with icy blue eyes. I enter my name and destination on a keyboard connected to a monitor. Oops. I can't remember my age. I enter 47 and the guard squints at me suspiciously, but continues: "Why are you here?"

Business and a family visit.

The guard seems to hesitate.

My heart rate accelerates, and my hands feel clammy. Am I turning crimson? The guard still has that terrible glaring squint, but I am allowed to pass. I do not look back.

The encounter is totally nerve-wracking, and I'm afraid that I might be arrested -- or shot -- on the spot.

But, lucky for me, this is only an introduction to the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.

Dedicated solely to the tradecraft, history and art of espionage -- featuring artifacts, historic photographs, film, state-of-the-art audio-visual programs, computer interactive displays and special effects -- the museum takes the spy thing a step further: Before entering the exhibit space, every visitor is given a selection of "covers" from which to choose and use as they wander through the museum.

I am Natasha, 48 years old, born in Russia but living in London. It is not mandatory that I be questioned by the video border guard, but my sister and I want to try all the interactive activities, including this first "interrogation."

Later, on other interactive video, we spot spies in disguise. We react quickly, "shooting" the bad guys while being careful not to massacre innocents.

We try our hands at de-coding ciphers, and we pick out "drop sites" in wall-sized photo murals of real District of Columbia locations. Hey, we watch "24" and "Alias." We know how agents leave odd marks or items out of context in everyday locations. That toy whistle we see in a nook way above a drinking fountain in a secluded garden near the Capitol Building doesn't fool us.

Elsewhere in the museum, we are delighted to see the real things: lipstick guns, poison spikes that pop out of shoes, button cameras, hidden microphones and video wristwatches.

We love all the imaginative techno gear, from the authentic items, such as the World War II German Enigma Machine, to the fictional items -- including one of James Bond's silver Aston Martins.

The sleek sports car is suspended from a wall and at intervals demonstrates some of its special effects: the engine roars to life and the wheels start spinning; smoke screens are activated; the grill gives way to machine guns, and vicious spinning tire-shredding hubcap knives appear. Wow!

After nearly four hours, we've barely covered half of the four-story building. We didn't have time to peruse documents or to see the films on famous Cold War moles and spies. We could have stayed for days at the satellite photo monitors trying to pick out bunkers, caves and troop movement in Afghanistan, hidden planes and silos in Cuba and other "spy from the sky" intelligence.

But we're so overwhelmed with information and so exhausted from all the excitement that we are in dire need of liquid refreshment. Luckily, Zola, the elegant, upscale spy-themed restaurant and bar named after accused spy Emile Zola, is in the same building.

We hit the museum store on the way to Zola and pick out gifts, like a handy tool kit in a lighter for my neighbor back home. I strongly consider the lipstick pen, disappearing ink and baseball cap with the logo "Deny Everything."

Zola's is sleek and deliciously inviting with amusing touches for the sophisticated wannabe spy.

One divider wall consists entirely of "Top Secret" CIA and Department of Defense documents suspended from ceiling to floor. The documents appear authentic, although vetted -- that is, all sensitive material is blacked out.

Cozy, tucked-away booths in dramatic red and black beckon for secret assignations. The restrooms, meanwhile, are hidden behind a swinging wall.

At the bar, you can order all sorts of fabulous concoctions, including Jade ("things are not what they seem") and The Cardinal ("be careful, be very careful").

My sister and I agree we would not have the steely nerve to be field agents and face interrogations or icy stares from border guards, but we might be good as behind-the-scenes operatives. Get us back to those satellite photos. 

Details: International Spy Museum, 800 F St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20004; 1-866-779-6873; www.spymuseum.org. Adult admission is $15, with discounts for seniors, children and active-duty military. Tickets are time and date specific; available at the museum or via Ticketmaster (www.ticketmaster.com). Summer and weekend reservations highly recommended. Zola Restaurant, 202-654-0999; www.zoladc.com. Spy City Cafe, casual restaurant next door to Zola; 202-654-0995, www.zoladc.com/spycity.html.

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