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11 Things You Didn’t Know About America’s Spymasters

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© JASON REED/Reuters/Corbis

There’s more to being a spy than drinking martinis, talking into shoe-phones, and discarding messages that self-destruct in five seconds. Here are 11 surprising facts about America’s spymasters.

1. The CIA had a mad scientist on the payroll

Dr. Sidney Gottlieb sold Christmas trees at a roadside stand, raised goats and was an accomplished square dancer. He also made poisons for the CIA. In the 1950s, the “Company” became interested in mind control. The fear was that the Soviets could do it and America couldn’t. Project MKULTRA sought to bridge that gap with experiments involving LSD and test subjects who were unaware they were being dosed. The CIA later tasked Gottlieb with brewing toxins that would kill someone without leaving a trace. (Fidel Castro was a popular target.) From smallpox to rabbit fever, the self-described Dr. Strangelove knew his business, but the agency never quite managed to pull off an assassination. The department was exposed and shut down in 1973.

2. They have a secret museum

It’s been called “the best museum you’ll never get to see.” Housed at CIA headquarters in Langley, the 11,000-square foot museum is accessible only to members of the agency and cleared guests. New recruits receive a tour on their first day, and thousands of CIA officers walk the galleries for inspiration. Technologies used in the past, and the lessons learned from those technologies, often lead to new applications to ongoing CIA operations. The museum’s budget is classified.

3. The FBI spied on its own director

J. Edgar Hoover served as director of the FBI (and its precursor agency, the Bureau of Investigation) for an astonishing 48 years, serving under eight presidents and 16 attorneys general. No one dared fire him for fear of a public backlash, or worse, Hoover opening his files. But you don’t amass that much power without making a few enemies, so special agents from the Washington Field Office of the FBI were regularly assigned to secretly follow him around, and monitor his house at night. This was called HOOWATCH. (Hoover, of course, knew about it, but rarely spotted his observers.)

4. Nixon tried to fire Hoover—and failed

Near the end of his career, J. Edgar Hoover put a stop to FBI participation in activities that skirted the law, such as unauthorized wiretaps or surveillance. This irritated President Nixon, whose issues with the law would become famous, and later be his undoing. So in 1971, Nixon finally mustered the courage to fire Hoover in order to install a more malleable director. The two met so Nixon could deliver the news. Things didn’t go as planned: whatever was discussed, not only did Nixon lose his nerve and back down, but he actually gave Hoover new authority to expand the FBI legal attaché program in U.S. embassies abroad.

5. The CIA was saved by a guy named Beetle

When General Walter Bedell "Beetle" Smith took charge of the fledgling CIA in October 1950, he recognized at once the disaster he had inherited. The fourth Director of Central Intelligence in four years, he greeted his new staff by saying, "It's interesting to see all of you fellows here. It'll be even more interesting to see how many of you are here a few months from now." During World War II, Smith was indispensable to General Eisenhower, able to instill terror and get the impossible from his subordinates, while soothing tensions and allaying conflict among his peers. As noted by journalist Evan Thomas, soldiers said Smith’s "mood never changed: he was always angry."

Smith reorganized the agency, gutted the worst of its activities, and got rid of the worst of its officers. When Eisenhower was elected president, Smith was appointed undersecretary of state, expanding his authority to reshape American covert operations. Where everyone else in the administration referred to Eisenhower only as "Mr. President," Smith had no problem picking up the phone and saying, "Goddamn it Ike, I think..."

Walter Bedell Smith’s institutional reforms are still in place to this day. As Samuel Halpern, a former senior officer with the agency, would observe, “If it hadn't been for Bedell, I don't think there would be a CIA today.”

6. The NSA was initially housed in a girls' school

Before there was a National Security Agency, there was the Armed Forces Security Agency. Its headquarters was at the Arlington Hall Junior College for Women, a non-profit girls' school seized by the Army Signal Intelligence Service in 1942 under the War Powers Act. The AFSA was largely ineffective at collecting and intercepting signals, which was a problem because that was its entire purpose. General Walter Bedell Smith, who was busy rescuing the CIA, took time to fix the AFSA while he was at it. He outlined the problems to President Truman, and set in motion events that would result in the NSA and the “panopticon” at Ft. Meade.

7. Getting money to secret agencies can be complicated

Funding secret agencies tends to involve sleight of hand. Before the National Security Agency was acknowledged as an actual organization, it was listed in budgets as the Bureau of Ships. Meanwhile, when the CIA decided to build its headquarters in Langley, Virginia, a fake aircraft carrier was created on paper, and the money going to its “construction” went to the CIA.

8. NSA headquarters may be the biggest invisible city in the country

It’s hard to overstate just how massive the agency actually is. As James Bamford notes in The Shadow Factory, if NSA headquarters at Ft. Meade, Maryland, were incorporated, it would be one of the largest municipalities in the state. The agency employs 30,000 people who work in 7,000,000 square feet of office space. The site has 37,000 registered cars that drive on 32 miles of road and spend their off-hours on 325 acres of parking. Its police force is one of the largest in the country, with 700 cops and a SWAT team. The main building is so large the U.S. Capitol Building could fit inside of it—four times.

9. The Company has a wicked sense of humor

Following World War II, Frank Wisner helped found the Office of Policy Coordination. Officially, its mission was refugee assistance and working with the International Red Cross. Its actual mission involved covert actions against the Soviet Union. Wisner was a wily, charming, Southern aristocrat who was forever changed when he witnessed the brutal Soviet occupation of Romania. His office invested heavily in psychological warfare, which was still a relatively new concept. Ideas that came from the office included delivering American toiletries across the Iron Curtain (to demonstrate superior Western standards of comfort) and airdropping enormous condoms labeled “Medium” onto the Soviets, to demoralize them against an anatomically superior American army. (Sadly, this plan was never carried out.)

10. The NSA gave rise to the computer age

Major General Ralph Canine, the founding director of the NSA, didn’t know much about computers. But he knew a lot about intelligence, and he knew that the NSA wasn’t producing it. So when the agency’s scientists proposed a computer that would theoretically see a hundred-fold increase in processing speed over top-tier computers on the market, the director said, "Dammit, I want you fellows to get a jump on those guys! Build me a thousand-megacycle machine!”

To produce this impossible computer—named Harvest—Project Lightning was established. It was modeled after the Manhattan Project and is thought to be the largest government-supported computer research program in history. It brought together the best minds in computer science and engineering, and would help vacuum tubes give way to transistors, which would give way to magnetic cores. It produced the first magnetic thin-film content-addressed memory, fundamental materials properties, new developments in hardware fabrication, and high-speed circuitry. Lightning research into practical applications for the Josephson Junction would apply half a century later to the development of quantum computers. Harvest was so mind-bogglingly powerful that it remained in use until 1976, and even then was only discontinued because the custom, high-performance automated tape library had worn out and could not be replaced.

11. The FBI and NSA dug a tunnel under the Soviet embassy

Not all espionage involves bribery, blackmail, cloaks, and daggers. Sometimes the best tradecraft is done with a pickaxe. In the 1980s, the United States began digging a massive tunnel that led directly beneath the Soviet embassy. The goal was to better eavesdrop on its Cold War adversary. (Ironically, while American spies were chiseling away beneath the streets of Washington, the United States was bitterly accusing the Soviet Union of bugging the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.) The project cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and was a joint operation between the FBI and NSA. Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent secretly spying for the Russians, compromised the program.

D.B. Grady is a freelance writer and novelist. He is coauthor of The Command: Deep Inside the President's Secret Army, author of Red Planet Noir, and a correspondent for The Atlantic. He lives in Baton Rouge with his wife and family, and can be found at

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
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Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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