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Exploring the Shadowy World of Espionage

Gotlieb Center hosts hands-on event for students tonight


The history of American espionage is rife with secrets. Tonight, students will have a rare opportunity to see and handle some of the artifacts from the nation’s clandestine intelligence world, including photos once stamped top secret and documents that were supposed to have “disappeared.”

Hosted by the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center (HGARC), Espionage, Secrets, and Spies is part of the center’s Student Discovery Seminars series, which encourages students to explore historical topics by viewing primary artifacts in the Gotlieb collections.

“We want students to come and see the material, know what’s here, and interact with it in a personal way,” says Ryan Hendrickson, HGARC assistant director for manuscripts.

Joseph Wippl, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of international relations and a former CIA officer, will give historical context and significance to the artifacts.

Wippl, who spent 30 years working as an operations officer in the National Clandestine Service, believes tonight’s event will create “an awareness of a particular time in American history when the intelligence community was formed and why it was formed.”

HGARC staff has pulled material from its collections that reveal the nation’s history of spying and intelligence. Artifacts range from news articles and reporting to photographs, government documents, and physical objects, including a knife recovered from the Office of Strategic Services, the U.S. intelligence agency founded during World War II and the CIA’s precursor.

Tonight’s seminar is structured to make it easy for students to examine the material, with artifacts grouped chronologically and thematically on tables. The archivists’ aim is to make students more aware of the center’s collections as research tools.

“We hope students get over the trepidation of coming to the research center,” Henrickson says. “This is a less intimidating setting.”

Some of the items on display deal with the country’s most notorious espionage cases, such as that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, charged with conspiracy to commit espionage stemming from charges that they passed information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. Executed in 1953, they were the first—and to date only—American civilians put to death for spying. Students can view transcripts and newspaper clippings from the trial, Rosenberg family photos, and propaganda flyers from both the Rosenberg camp and the government. Also on display will be artifacts from the BU Optical Research Center, which sponsored the Corona program, the first U.S. orbital spy satellite. At the time, the operation was so top secret that the U.S. government denied its existence.

“It shows that as a community, we can be involved in this history too,” says Hendrickson. “It’s cool to think that this happened just a few feet from where you are standing.”

The center’s many documents from World War II and the decade immediately following include papers from the first book about the intelligence agency, CIA: The Inside Story by Andrew Tully, as well as numerous military documents.

“These documents give insight to controversies that followed the beginning of the Cold War regarding communist subversions and operations in the United States,” says Wippl.

Although most of the material on view tonight focuses on the early era in American intelligence, more recent documents related to the events of the 9/11 terrorist attacks will be available for students to examine as well.

Since they began in 2004, the Gotlieb Student Discovery Seminars have covered a variety of topics, but the first seminar each year is devoted to espionage and spies.

“People are always interested in it,” Hendrickson says. “They are always curious. You get access to a world that you don’t always get to see, but is always going on.”

Espionage, Secrets, and Spies is tonight, Wednesday, September 21, at 6 p.m. in the Mugar Memorial Library HGARC Reading Room, fifth floor, 771 Commonwealth Avenue. This event is free and open to all students with a BU ID. More information about the Gotlieb Center’s Student Discovery Seminars can be found here.

Allison Thomasseau can be reached at althoma@bu.edu.

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Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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