As many are aware (and many more not), my first job in the DC area – what brought me here in the first place – was a full-time position in management with the International Spy Museum. At that time, I made the acquaintance of the Executive Director, Peter Earnest. As founding director, Peter brings to the museum over 35 years of experience with the Central Intelligence Agency, including two decades in the CIA’s Clandestine Service. He’s also served in the Office of the Director of Central Intelligence as liaison officer to the Senate and as an investigator / inspector with the Inspector General. He was a member of the CIA’s Senior Management Service and awarded the Agency’s Intelligence Medal of Merit for “superior performance” throughout his career.
A fascinating man who’s led a most interesting career with the CIA, Peter was gracious enough to sit down and talk about Washington, his career and espionage within DC with me. We had such a great time and shared so much info, I’ve had to break the interview up into two segments. We’ll publish Part 2 next week.
What is it that keeps you here in the Virginia/DC. area?
Peter: Pretty much since about 1940, I’ve lived in this area. This is my home area. I’ve lived in the District. I’ve lived in Maryland, and I’ve lived in Virginia so I’m not one of those people who lives in Maryland and can’t find his way around in Virginia.
I pretty much find my way around in all three places. When I travel, people say, “Where are you from?” I typically say Washington even though right now I’m living in McLean, for example. But I was born overseas. My father was a diplomat but we settled here so we lived here through World War II.
I went to all local schools here, graduated from Georgetown, and this is my home. Now, with my career with CIA—35 years in CIA, the Central Intelligence Agency—I traveled a great deal, and I like to travel.
So I’ve lived abroad upwards of 12, 13 years or so but this is home for me. I have children born abroad, but actually, they all live around this area now. I have a couple in Virginia and a couple in Maryland. So this is very much a home area for me.
Speaking of having lived abroad for so long—and you’ve lived in, obviously, a lot of different cities, including Europe—are there any cities internationally that have the same appeal or the same dynamic or environment that DC does?
Peter: I think most of the big cities we think of—Paris, Berlin, London and so forth—they have their personalities. If you’re in them for any length of time, there’s a look that the people have. There’s a way the traffic moves. There’s an atmospherics, if you will.
Many things play into that whether it’s the weather—and it may be very bad weather—but I think that cities have a personality. I think Washington has a personality, and I think that sometimes gets lost in the “people focus on the political.” Right now, we’re going through a transition because we’ve elected a new president. But that’s exciting. It’s exciting for the nation but it’s particularly exciting here in Washington because it’s happening here. But I think being a world capitol and, certainly World War II and beyond, very much a player on the world stage—I think as a citizen of Greater Washington, you tend to follow events more closely. We are more interested in world affairs, current events, and I think people who—this isn’t to disparage anybody-but I just think it sort of goes with living here.
How would you describe the personality of the city or the area?
Peter: Well, I think it was Kennedy who described it as a southern city with northern charm or northern efficiency, I think, something to that effect. Part of what marks the city, of course, are the many historical monuments and many of them have a life of their own like the Lincoln Memorial.
But more than monuments, things happen here. This is where it goes on. The Congress is where the legislation is hammered out. The Supreme Court is where these landmark cases are brought to the bar, and these things are going on right under our noses, and because we live here, we get news of it very quickly, too.
So I think you’re aware of that in the atmospherics of the city. Physically it’s an interesting city. We don’t have high rises. It’s a comfortable city to walk around in. You can see where you are. You can see where you’re going. I know people sometimes have trouble with the traffic circles, but once you adjust to that, I think you’re fine.
I know that there’s some discussion within the DC Council about lifting the height restriction of the buildings in the area.
Peter: Oh, yes.
Do you feel that that would change or alter the personality or landscape of the area?
Peter: Well, it would. It depends what the new restrictions become. I mean, you can drive across the bridges into Virginia and you can see Rosslyn right there in Virginia. You can get a little bit of a feel for what that might look like. You can go out to Bethesda in Maryland, and again, that’s an area that I spent many years of my youth in, and Bethesda was a small town. It was very similar to, say, today’s Vienna, Virginia. But now with the taller buildings and the office buildings, it’s taken on a slightly different cast. It’s lost some of the small-town-ness of it, which isn’t to say that people might not be quite happy there but it does change the character, I think, of a place to permit a major change of that nature.
So what drew you to the CIA?
Peter: Well, I graduated from Georgetown. During the Korean War I had gone to a Marine Corps program that enables you to do boot camp and then when you graduated you were commissioned, but you still had to go through basic officer’s school, which is another six months in Quantico.
From there I was assigned to Japan, and that was the occupation force still in Japan. While I was there, my then-fiancé was working in a CIA office here in DC, and so because of her, CIA became aware of me here. I was a graduate of Georgetown about to complete his military service, returned to civilian life perhaps.
CIA was then recruiting so they asked me if I was interested. Now, mind you, in those days, we knew almost nothing about CIA. There weren’t all these books and movies and so forth, television shows, and I knew that it had to do with dealing with the Soviet Union and our concern about…this was in the mid-‘50s, keep in mind, so the Cold War was now certainly underway. We were very concerned about the spread of communism, and so, as they say, it seemed like a good idea at the time so I joined. I had no idea it would last virtually to the end of the Cold War. My last job in the CIA, I spent about 25 years in Clandestine Operations. I was in the Clandestine Service.
Then my last jobs were more public, heading our staff, dealing with the Hill, dealing with the Senate, and then my last job was Director of Media Relations and Spokesman. Sitting in my office the day the Soviet Union dissolved literally—the Empire dissolved itself, brought down the flag and there was no more Soviet Union—was a surreal experience, just a surreal experience.
What was the tone of the city like? At the time, that was pretty much the preoccupation of an “us versus them” mentality. Did it feel like there’s a new tomorrow? Was there a sense of confusion as to “what we do now?”
Peter: Well, I think there was a sense, and it varied depending on where you lived, and, obviously, young people would react different than older people and so forth. It was somewhat anticlimactic because that was the end of December in 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved. But I think perhaps the most climactic thing before that was in November of 1989, the breach of the Berlin Wall. That was the crumbling of a wall heard around the world. That was truly a major occurrence in the world. People were aware of that all over the world.
I think by the time you had the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it was almost anticlimactic. I think it happened with a whisper, not a scream. Those of us obviously who had been caught up in the Cold War which meant our lives—professional lives—certainly, yes, we experienced it differently.
But two things. First of all, there were no victory parades. No one said, “All of you who are fighting the Cold War, we’re going to have a big parade.” It was nothing like that. Secondly, I think that the president, George H.W. Bush (41), took a very good approach. He said we’re not going to be crowing about this. We’re not going to pound our chests and scream, “Victory, victory, victory.” I think that was a very wise decision so that it did happen quietly. Now, once it did happen, there was sort of a collective sense that with the Cold War over, peace would break out. There would be—I don’t know the phrase—but a peace dividend.
In other words, now the world would be peaceful. I think even Bush talked about a “new order” and so forth. As we know, it was only a matter of a few years before it was quite clear that as the old order dissolved, the new order would not be one of peace. There were conflicts all over the world that emerged that had been frozen in time by the Cold War, and, of course, the threat of terrorism that emerged. So those happened over that decade of the ‘90s.
Why is DC still a hotbed of spying today?
Peter: Well, I think the thing that you have to remember is that there are probably two major things that people are spying for today. First of all is, what decisions are being made in the city? What is American policy? What are the things that are going into American policy?
How does the Washington—I’ll use that for shorthand—understand the world and what do they plan to do about it? That’s a great interest to other countries, and that’s why the countries all have embassies here. The purpose of embassies is to collect information. Many embassies also have a covert arm that will resort to spying and espionage.
Another major target of espionage today—we certainly see this out of Russia, just as in the old days, we see it out of China—and that is our technology, our scientific advances. What have we done in the digital revolution? All of that is of great, great interest to other countries because to the degree that they can learn our secrets—and they can learn some in Washington and some out in Silicon Valley, if you will—that advances their own research by months, if not years.
That’s the greatest value of industrial espionage. So Washington as a capital—the place where the decisions are made, the place where intelligence comes—continues to be of great interest to people who gather information.
Check out Part 2 of this interview.
Great writeup, Ben. 35 years in the CIA – I can only imagine the things he’s heard and seen. It’s one of those jobs that has been overly glamorized but is probably not as sexy as it seems.
One of these days I may actually have to go to the Spy Museum (although I’ve heard mixed reviews).
I think Kennedy’s saying goes DC is a city with Northern Charm and Southern Efficiency… :)
Well done, Ben!
For those interested in more on the subject, Peter Earnest also hosts a monthly podcast where he interviews folks in his former line of work:
And he was hilarious on 2 recent episodes of “The Colbert Report.”
Hey, no jumping the gun, ~Rupe! :) [We go into that in Part 2…]
This is very cool, thanks Ben!
I have been following your blog for a few weeks now. Until last June, I was working in the offices above the Spy museum as viewed in your second picture. Have moved away, but still have a lot of DC photos in my blog.
I remember when the Berlin Wall fell and when the Cold War ended. It was very interesting to learn Peter’s perspective.
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Peter and I were classmates at Georgetown, Class of 1955 – both of us being dayhops (as opposed to boarding students). This was during the Korean War and about half of our class got drafted prior to graduation. On TV he looks (at age 75) pretty much as I remember him.