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The skills kids learn from real spies at a museum's Spy Camp

Kids learn super spy skills at a unique summer camp in Washington, DC. Tracking an elusive Agent X teaches them operational awareness, personal safety, memory and communication.

USA International Spy Museum, Washington, DC (DW/Teri Schultz)

Isabella, aka Agent Invisible, is on a mission to rescue another spy

Ten-year-old Isabella is playing hide-and-seek at summer camp in Washington, DC.

Except here there's no hiding behind trees or counting to 10; Agent Invisible - Isabella's code name - and her team are dusting for fingerprints and conducting surveillance. "This is our final mission, to find Agent X," the small-fry spy says excitedly, wearing oversized black sunglasses as a disguise. "We think RAT may have taken her."

RAT is an imaginary foreign intelligence agency in the weeklong Spy Camp for kids aged 10 to 13 at the International Spy Museum, which holds the world's largest collection of espionage artifacts and memorabilia. Isabella has come all the way from Georgia to participate and says the experience beats more conventional camps by leaps and bounds. At regular summer camps, she says, she would usually play with a tablet device or go on random field trips.  At Spy Camp, she says seriously, "I've learned the tradecraft."

Isabella and her co-spies have "cracked every code except one that we think may be a decoy," she confides. "We've delivered some dead drops, and we've picked up a lot of dead drops. We also have these USB messages and they say 'I want more money' in a disguised voice." And then she's off to find the next clue to locating Agent X.

FBI drops by to supervise forensics

The museum's director of youth education, Jackie Eyl, says Isabella's enthusiasm isn't unusual. "There's something about [the concept of spying] that is so ultimately appealing to young children," she says. "You know, listening in on your on your parents' conversations, breaking into into your sister's diary ... This is age-old!"

But the games played at this camp are no walk in the park. "We are talking about true hardcore espionage," Eyl explains,"all the personal communication, dead drops, signals observation analysis. Today we had members of the FBI forensic labs helping our spy campers analyze the evidence that they collected on a countersurveillance mission [where] they lifted latent fingerprints."

At the same time, Eyl emphasizes, the camp is not really aimed at teaching kids to be spies, but at honing skills used in the espionage world and transferring them to the "real world". Martial artists are brought in for "ninja workshops" to teach personal safety; former agents come and share their adventures. Eyl explains this helps young people fill the toolbox they'll need for life, showing them that the most important aid any expert has is not a high-tech gadget but their brain.

"We want them to think critically about the world around them. We want them to be able to solve problems. We want them to work well within a team. We want them to be able to communicate to all kinds of people," she says. "It's about being able to assess threats, vulnerabilities and opportunities. What we're working on with these kids is, as a human being, how are you able to function in this world at the highest level that you can?"

The camp has been running for 11 years now; some former campers have in fact gone on to careers in intelligence. Eyl says there hasn't been a big difference in the popularity of the program with the extremely successful television series about undercover Russian spies, "The Americans"; the fascination with spying has always been high.

Living a legend.

Peter Earnest is a 35-year CIA veteran who helped create the museum and now serves as its executive director. Campers are "trained" in the same building as the exhibitions that trace the craft all the way from the Greek and Roman empires to today and allow visitors to assume fake identities and try their hand at being an agent.

USA Spionagemuseum in Washington (picture-alliance/abaca/O. Douliery)

This shoe with a heel transmitter is from the Cold War era

Earnest delights in the youngsters' eagerness to experience some of what he did as a career spy. "I get the biggest kick," he says with a chuckle,  "when I go down to look at these kids and all the little girls are running around with these glued-on mustaches."

The professionally presented dose of reality for the campers is especially gratifying, Earnest says, because "pop culture, for many people, is the source of all the information they have" about espionage.  He recalls giving a speech to a youthful crowd some 15 years ago in which he tried to remain conversational, avoiding government acronyms and obscure lingo, only to find that some in the audience had still been confused. His assistants told him he'd used a term they didn't know: the Cold War.

By some accounts, the intensity of espionage is as strong today as during those tense decades. Earnest confirms the use of human agents has not declined with the efficacy of cyber tactics. "There is still normal recruitment going on," he says. "We're still reading about people being arrested at Dulles Airport."

The attraction of the exciting double life is undeniable. Just ask Agent Invisible - if you can track her. She'd been picked up from camp crying a day earlier. Asked what was wrong, she could only sob: "Spy Camp ... is ... ending ... tomorrow..."

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