It is so secret only spooks can visit it, but on Saturday, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) declassified some artefacts in its newly refurbished museum. Among the exhibits is the model of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s safe house, used to brief President Joe Biden about the al-Qaida leader’s whereabouts before the agency killed him in a drone strike in Afghanistan.
Some of the declassified items can be viewed online, but for the most part, the museum at the CIA’s Langley headquarters is closed to the public, and access is limited to the agency’s employees and guests.
A running agency joke about the collection is that for most people, it’s “the greatest museum you’ll never see,” Janelle Neises, the museum’s deputy director, said.
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CIA unveils model of al-Qaida leader al-Zawahiri’s hideout
Most of the exhibits took years or decades to declassify, with al-Zawahiri’s model being a rare exception.
“It’s very unusual for something to get declassified that quickly,” Neises said.
Al-Zawahiri had led al-Qaida since the militant group’s founder Osama bin Laden was killed in a US operation in Pakistan in 2011.
Shortly after al-Zawahiri’s death in late July, White House officials released a photo showing Biden talking to CIA Director William Burns with a closed wooden box on the table in front of them.
The scale model of al-Zawahiri’s compound in Kabul was in the box.
The strike was significant for the CIA, which lost seven employees trying to find al-Zawahiri.
Also cleared for display was an assault rifle found near bin Laden the night US Navy SEALs killed him in a raid on his compound in Pakistan, as well as a leather jacket found with former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein when he was captured in 2003.
Among the 600 artefacts, there are also concept drawings for the fake film created as part of a 1980 operation to rescue American diplomats from Iran, flight suits worn by pilots of Cold War-era U-2 and A-12 flights and even information on the agency’s darker moments, including its role in the ultimately false assertions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
“Our museum is operational,” Neises said. “It’s here for our workforce to learn from our successes and failures.”
That might be good, considering the agency is now hiring officers in their twenties who are too young to remember the September 11, 2001, attacks.