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A rare look inside the newly renovated CIA Museum


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: As the CIA marks its 75th anniversary, it gave us a rare peek into its newly renovated museum.

The space is for its own officers. It's not open to the public, and it displays mementos from some of the agency's most clandestine operations.

Nick Schifrin got a tour for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Nick Schifrin: In a working hallway in one of the world's most clandestine buildings, the new CIA Museum begins with one of the U.S.' single worst intelligence failures.

Janelle Neises, Deputy Director CIA Museum: The attacks on Pearl Harbor are definitely something our organization can look at and say, we need to make sure this never happens again.

Nick Schifrin: Janelle Neises is the CIA Museum's deputy director. She shows us CIA artifacts, Osama bin Laden's gun and a model of his Pakistan home where the CIA hunted and found him.

The CIA hopes the museum helps officers find lessons from past mistakes.

Janelle Neises: When the CIA looks back at Curveball, I think it really was that turning point of looking at the other things, making sure you stay away from tunnel vision and that you really don't focus in on one possibility.

Colin Powell, Former U.S. Secretary of State: Every statement I make is backed up by sources, solid sources.

Nick Schifrin: Twenty years ago, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, with CIA Director George Tenet behind him, used intelligence that came in part from an asset known as Curveball to make the case for war in Iraq.

Colin Powell: They can produce anthrax and botulinum toxin. In fact, they can produce enough dry biological agent in a single month to kill thousands upon thousands of people.

Nick Schifrin: Curveball and his claimed intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, proved false.

Janelle Neises: It is a lesson and always look to the other sides, what are the other possibilities, and make sure that, again, you are speaking truth to power. If you know something, say something to your managers, or say something, in this case, to the president.

Nick Schifrin: The president is known as the CIA's first customer, who receives a daily brief, once called the President's Intelligence Checklist.

It got that name under President Kennedy, after another notorious failure, CIA-funded and trained Cuban rebels who failed spectacularly, to overthrow Fidel Castro. They landed at the Bay of Pigs, which wasn't the original plan Kennedy approved.

Janelle Neises: He wanted to change a plan that we had spent months, almost a year planning, and then gave us less than a week to kind of reassess and operate very differently.

And we should have said something. Telling the president this isn't going to work is obviously not an easy thing for a CIA officer to do. But the American people depend on us to do that, because we're the ones with the information, with the intelligence.

Nick Schifrin: And the museum ends with a more recent failure, the August 6, 2001, President's Daily Brief, or PDB, just five weeks before 9/11, titled "Bin Laden determined to strike in the U.S.."

Janelle Neises: Sometimes when we notice things, maybe we need to push them sooner.

Robert Byer, Director, CIA Museum: We need to make sure our officers don't forget the lessons of the past, because, if so, they're just going to repeat them.

Nick Schifrin: Robert Byer is the museum's director. He says acknowledging failures is the only way to learn from the past.

Robert Byer: When you look at the failures of CIA and then understand what you need to do in order to build upon that, you get incredible success stories.

For instance, Red Cell analysis was accelerated after the WMD issue. And what that leads to is, when you get to the raid at Abbottabad, we show President Obama all the different possible permutations of who could possibly be at Abbottabad.

Nick Schifrin: It is not only about lessons learned. There's the gadgets that inspired James Bond, an Arctic suit, boots, a helmet, and instructions for a 1962 operation called Cold Feet, when a low-flying plane picked up CIA agents who had stolen Soviet research in the Arctic.

That was a real-life escape copied for the end of Bond's "Thunderball." Real spy work is, of course, not as glamorous. This building used to be an annex in downtown D.C., and it used to be known as the PICL Factory for that President's Intelligence Checklist, or PICL. This is actually commemorative from the day Kennedy was assassinated, with a poem that Kennedy read to reassure the public during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when he managed to apply the lessons of his own past failures.

Robert Byer: This can't be just history for history's sake. This has to be history to improve today's and tomorrow's operations.

Nick Schifrin: Many CIA stories remain secret, like the still-undisclosed messages coded into the ceiling. But it's an attempt to study the past to try and improve the future.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin in Langley, Virginia.

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