A chill wind whipped off the Warnow as a retired railroad worker shuffled through the streets of the port city of Rostock one winter night in 1956. He wore the drab clothes typical of East German residents. But when a second man appeared from the shadows, the elderly German revealed that he was wearing a pair of distinctive gold cuff links embossed with the helmet of the Greek goddess Athena and a small sword.
The second man wore an identical pair. Wordlessly, he handed the German a package of documents and retreated back into the shadows. The German caught a train for East Berlin, where he handed the package and the cuff links to a CIA courier. The courier smuggled them to the agency’s base in West Berlin—to George Kisevalter, who was on his way to becoming a legendary CIA case officer.
The man who retreated back into the shadows was Lt. Col. Pyotr Semyonovich Popov, an officer of the GRU, the Soviet military intelligence agency. Three years earlier, Popov had dropped a note into an American diplomat’s car in Vienna saying, “I am a Soviet officer. I wish to meet with an American officer with the object of offering certain services.” He was the CIA’s first Soviet mole, and Kisevalter was his handler. Popov became one of the CIA’s most important sources through the 1950s, turning over a trove of Soviet military secrets that included biographical details on 258 of his fellow GRU officers.
It was Kisevalter who had decided on the cuff links as a recognition signal. He gave them to Popov before Moscow recalled the GRU officer in 1955, along with instructions: If Popov ever made it out of the USSR again and renewed contact with the CIA, whoever the agency sent to meet him would wear a matching set to establish his bona fides.
Popov renewed contact after he was assigned to Schwerin, East Germany, and the cuff links worked as intended. He fed Kisevalter information through the retired railroad worker for another two years. But after Popov was recalled to Moscow in 1958, he was arrested by the KGB. There are various theories on why he fell under suspicion. However, in a series of interviews two decades ago, Kisevalter told me it was the result of a botched signal: He said George Payne Winters Jr., a State Department officer working for the CIA in Moscow, “got the instruction backward” and mistakenly mailed a letter addressed to Popov at his home. The KGB spotted him in the act and fished the letter out of the mailbox. Popov was doomed.
The Soviets expelled Winters from Moscow in 1960, the same year they executed Popov—by firing squad, Kisevalter believed. He told biographer Clarence Ashley he doubted a rumor that Popov had been thrown alive into a furnace as a lesson to other GRU officers, who were required to watch.
Today, the cuff links rest in one of the most compelling and least visited museums in the United States. The museum has an extraordinary collection of spy gadgets, weapons and espionage memorabilia from before World War II to the present—more than 28,000 items, of which 18,000 have been cataloged—and hundreds are on display. But the museum is run by the CIA and housed at its headquarters in Langley, Virginia, eight miles outside Washington, D.C. The agency’s entire campus is off-limits to the public, and the museum is open only to CIA employees, their families and visitors on agency business. By special arrangement, Smithsonian magazine was allowed to tour the museum, take notes and photograph select exhibits. Our guide through the looking glass was Toni Hiley, the museum’s director. “Every day, CIA officers help to shape the course of world events,” Hiley said. “The CIA has a rich history, and our museum is where we touch that history.”
The Hi-Standard .22-caliber pistol is described in the exhibit as “ideal for use in close spaces or for eliminating sentries.” Developed by Stanley P. Lovell, the chief of gadgets and weapons for the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s World War II predecessor, the long-barreled weapon was flashless and silencer-equipped—designed to kill without making a sound.
How quiet was it? According to Lovell’s account, Maj. Gen. William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, the chief of the OSS, was so eager to show off his agency’s latest lethal gadget that he took a Hi-Standard and a sandbag to the Oval Office. While President Franklin D. Roosevelt was busy dictating to his secretary, Lovell wrote in his book Of Spies and Stratagems, Donovan fired ten rounds into the sandbag. FDR gave no notice and never stopped talking, so Donovan wrapped his handkerchief around the still-hot barrel and presented the weapon to the president, telling him what he had just done.
Roosevelt is said to have responded, “Bill, you’re the only wild-eyed Republican I’d ever let in here with a weapon.” Donovan gave FDR one of the guns, Hiley told me: “It was displayed in Hyde Park. But the OSS came one day and said they’d have to take it back because it was classified.”