Conspicuously missing, especially in an age of terror, is any public edifice commemorating the sacrifices–including the ultimate ones–made by the men and women of America’s intelligence services. Instead, spooks and spies must make do with the International Spy Museum, a techno-slick for-profit enterprise that opened a few years ago among Washington’s downtown tourist warrens, right between a high-class hotel and a brewpub. On a recent Saturday afternoon, I made my first trip to the museum, joined by John Spinelli, a former field officer of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Spinelli was a New York cop for 12 years before making the jump to the CIA (“As a city police officer, never try to arrest the mayor,” he explains cryptically). He’s sharp, laconic, and difficult to impress. He looks bored when a name-tagged tour guide invites the throng of visitors to choose a “cover”–“that’s an identity that spies use to protect their identities,

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Justin Peters is a correspondent for Slate and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.