Covert Model Making at the CIA Museum

Models used as tools of spycraft

SUBMITTED BY bruce willey

The CIA has a museum almost nobody is allowed to visit. Besides many examples of the tools of spycraft, there are a number of models that were made during operations to assist agents and others in planning and performing their missions. The one pictured above was used in planning a strike on a terrorist, while avoiding harm to nearby non-combatants. 

This recently declassified scale model, depicting a three-story structure with a balcony and surrounded by barbed-wire-topped walls, was used to brief President Biden on the planned operation to kill      al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, the one-time deputy to al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, with two Hellfire missiles without collapsing the house and killing family members or others. Despite providing all that information, the model (as shown in the image) isn’t much bigger than a shoe. You can read more about it here: CIA Unveils Model of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Safe House in Revamped Museum - WSJ  

A model was also created in support of the raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) model makers built the Abbottabad Compound 1 Model.  They also made this exact copy of that original model for the CIA to study and exhibit. The entire compound model is about 48" x 38" Model of Abbottabad Compound - CIA

A Daring Deep Sea Salvage

In 1968, a Soviet sub sank more than 3 miles deep in the Pacific Ocean, and 6 years later part of it was recovered in CIA Operation Azorian by the Glomar Explorer. The ship was designed and built specifically for this purpose but had a cover story including publicity and even educational films for schools that claimed it was for deep sea mining of manganese nodules. 

The model of the sunken and deteriorated K-129 submarine was created by the CIA during the Azorian mission, and has never been displayed before.

As part of the effort, a model of the submarine on the seabed was built. It was a very secret artifact because, besides illustrating the resolution of military sonar and underwater photography, its mere existence gave away the goal of the entire project. The Glomar Explorer was out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with no protection. It was shadowed for much of the time by Soviet vessels and overflown frequently by their helicopters. If the Soviets had boarded her and found the model (along with the giant retrieval claw, etc.) the ship and crew could have been seized. This heavily redacted CIA document from 1985 Alchemy Administrator ( that was declassified in 2010 goes into extreme detail about the entire mission, without once mentioning building or using the model in the unredacted text. 

Eventually rumors of the true story started circulating, and when a Soviet ambassador asked outright if the Americans had used the Glomar Explorer to recover their sub, the first use of the phrase "we can neither confirm nor deny" was used. It’s still known as the “Glomar Response.” CIA museum: Inside the world's most top-secret museum - BBC News

Pigeon Cam

A mockup of a pigeon with a camera attached is on display at the Central Intelligence Agency's
museum in the headquarters building in Langley, Va. on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. USA Today KEVIN WOLF, AP

The CIA’s Office of Research and Development developed a camera small and light enough to be carried by a pigeon in the 1970s. With the camera running, the bird would be released and fly over a target on its return home. Pigeon imagery was taken within hundreds of feet of the target, so it was much more detailed than imagery from other collection platforms.  Pigeon Camera - CIA   

Pigeon cameras were ultimately ineffective, as the birds had trouble flying over the exact locations CIA needed images of. They probably got plenty of images of clean cars that were about to soiled. Whether this started the whole “Birds Aren’t Real” thing is up for debate.

More Subsurface Secrecy 

In 1954, the Central Intelligence Agency began a high-risk operation called Operation Gold, a daring plan to tap communication lines running from western France deep into the heart of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

A mockup of the Berlin Tunnel the CIA used for Operation Gold on display in the refurbished museum in the
CIA headquarters building in Langley, VA, on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. KEVIN WOLF, AP

They dug a 1476-foot tunnel from West Berlin into an area containing the main Soviet switching cable facility. Prefabricated rooms were built to house the men monitoring the underground post, and air conditioning systems were installed to provide them with minimum creature comforts.

The first taps were installed in May 1955. The existence of the tunnel had been revealed to the Soviets by a British double agent but they didn’t want to expose him, so East German workers “discovered” it during a maintenance project in 1956. It was later determined that no false information had been included in the over 90,000 communications the US intercepted.