Peter Earnest, CIA Veteran, Spy Museum Operator, Dies at 88

Peter Earnest, who spent decades running undercover agents for the CIA during the Cold War and later built on that expertise as the first executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington , passed away on February 13 in a hospital in Arlington, Va. 88.

His wife, Karen Rice, said the cause was congestive heart failure.

Unlike many former intelligence agents, who tend to be tight-lipped, Earnest was knowledgeable and eager about his career with the CIA, which included years of stints in Europe and the Middle East, where he recruited and managed spies engaged in espionage. Soviet Union and its satellites. Those experiences – and his attitude – made him the perfect man to run a museum devoted to international espionage.

One of his favorite stories involves the 1978 mission to protect and interrogate a Soviet defector, Arkady N. Schevchenko, transferring him secretly from his apartment in New York to the suburbs. oh Virginia. Mr. Shevchenko, who was posted to the United Nations as secretary general, was a spy for the CIA, and Americans worried that he was about to be caught by the KGB.

Over a period of weeks, Mr. Earnest’s team interviewed Mr. Shevchenko – among his interrogators Aldrich Ames, later revealed to be the Soviet spy himself – and addressed his endless needs. about clothes, girlfriends and even a vacation to the Caribbean. Mr. Earnest paid for it all, handing over cash to fugitive Russian FBI managers.

He recalled in “Business Secrets: Lessons for Corporate Success from Inside the CIA” (2010), he wrote with Maryann Karinch. “They said, ‘Nobody can give money like that but God.'”

Earnest’s last job at the agency was as its chief spokesman. He proved defiant to the media as the CIA weathered the Iran-contra scandal, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and pressure from Congress to declassify Cold War documents. By many accounts, he was successful, in part because of his rank and profile where the CIA trusted him.

Burton Gerber, who has been with the company for 39 years, said in a phone interview: “It’s hard being a public relations officer with an outfit that doesn’t want public relations. “We like Peter because he’s one of us.”

And some of the work, Mr. Earnest says, is interesting: For example, he got to know Harrison Ford after helping arrange for a production team to visit the company’s headquarters to shoot “The Patriotic Game” (1992), For the first time, a movie was allowed to shoot inside the building.

Such experiences made Mr. Earnest naturally selected to lead the International Spy Museum, a $34 million business venture that opened in downtown Washington in 2002. As the executive director, he has everything from exhibitions and lecture series to public relations; he talks to reporters almost as often as he does at the CIA

“Someone once said that if you could convince another person to spy for your country, you could sell anything,” said H. Keith Melton, a historian and collector who donated many of the espionage artifacts that made up the museum’s original fortune. “Peter already has those skills.”

Mr. Melton, an early member of the museum’s board, was credited with hiring Mr. Earnest, and Mr. Earnest later helped convince Mr. Melton donate most of his remaining collectionabout 7,000 items, including the ice ax used to assassinate the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in exile.

Mr. Earnest also understands the importance of making the museum more than just a tourist attraction. He organizes advisory boards of retired intelligence officials and historians, and he has built both permanent and temporary exhibits, delving deeper into arcana such as spy camera technology. and current events such as the war on terror.

And he’s added a personal touch to the museum: In its collection is a jacket with a button-down camera that he wore while working undercover in Greece and Cyprus.

His efforts have paid off. About nine million people visited the museum between 2002 and his retirement in 2017, far exceeding the original expectations of the founders, even though everyone has to pay an entrance fee in a city with many museums. free of charge. (Adult tickets currently cost $26.95.)

“He was a true spy who deeply and passionately believed not only in transparency but also in helping the public understand what espionage is,” said Tamara Christian, the museum’s president and chief executive officer, said in a phone interview. She added, “He wanted people to drop the idea of ​​espionage like a James Bond movie.”

With his quick intelligence and stylish style, he is also a famous guest on TV shows like “Colbert’s Report“And radio shows like the NPR quiz show”Ask another question“The host, Ophira Eisenberg, wondered if spies really liked their drinks shaken, not stirred.

“How do you like your drink?” she asked.

Without missing a beat, he replied, “One after another.”

Edwin Peter Earnest was born on 1 January 1934, in Edinburgh, where his father, Edwin Burchett Earnest, was working as a diplomat at the US consulate. His mother, Emily (Keating) Earnest, who was born in England, is a homemaker.

The family returned to the United States in 1939 and settled in Bethesda, Md. Peter’s father died of a brain tumor in 1946; His mother later became an American citizen and worked for the State Department.

Earnest graduated from Georgetown University in 1955 with degrees in history and political science and immediately joined the Marines, where he served on a tour of Japan. When he returned, his fiancée, Janet Chesney, who had worked at a CIA field office in Washington, urged his superiors to hire him.

His marriage to Miss Chesney ended in divorce. He married Mrs. Rice, who also worked at the CIA, in 1988. Along with her, he was survived by four daughters, Nancy Cintorino, Carol Earnest, Patricia Earnest and Sheila Gorman, all from the marriage. his first multiplication; six grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

Earnest worked in the agency’s secret service for 25 years, after which he worked in its inspector general’s office and as a senate liaison. He arrived in the late 1970s to smooth relations with Congress after the so-called Church Committee revealed the years the CIA was involved in coups and assassinations.

While Mr. Earnest is careful not to flash his intelligence work, he also seems to enjoy sometimes lifting the curtain on the spy’s life.

In an interview for the International Spy Museum, he recounted being assigned the task of sowing bugs in the home of someone his superiors suspected of being a double agent. One night, the suspect invited Mr. Earnest and his wife to a small party at his home.

When the presenter wasn’t looking, Mr Earnest, wearing a tuxedo, slid downstairs to the man’s office, where he ducked under a desk, drilled a hole and planted a hearing device, placing a handkerchief on it. chest to collect sawdust. . He returned to the party unnoticed.

It was his “Bond moment,” he said, and it worked: The bug captured the conversation between the suspect and his handler on the other side.

“But for a moment,” he said, “under that desk, I had to think about what my reaction would be if he walked into that office.” Peter Earnest, CIA Veteran, Spy Museum Operator, Dies at 88

Fry Electronics Team

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