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Washington Gallery a U.S. Spy Center

By Joel Achenbach
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON

Quaint, charming, the old stone building called the Art Barn in Rock Creek Park here has for many years been a place where struggling artists could exhibit their works. Until recently, it was also a place where American spies monitored nearby communist embassies, using surveillance equipment planted in the attic.

The gadgets were stowed behind a false wall in an area once used as a coop for homing pigeons, Art Barn Executive Director Ann Rushforth said Monday. Government agents -- Rushforth said she believes they were from the CIA -- periodically appeared, climbed a narrow stairwell to the attic, removed storage materials in front of the false wall and entered the listening post through a trapdoor. The agents were targeting the Hungarian Embassy directly across the street and the Czechoslovakian Embassy farther up the hill, she said.

Finally, about six months ago, the agents pulled out all the wires and equipment, and the Art Barn's role in the Cold War came to an end.

"We always knew which guys were the CIA guys because they always wore sunglasses indoors, had real sharp creases in their pants, short haircuts and shiny shoes," Rushforth said.

The story broke in an unusual fashion: by invitation only. The Art Barn Association -- a nonprofit group that uses the gallery to show paintings, sculptures and crafts by local and "emerging" artists -- is holding a $50-per-person fund-raiser Tuesday night at the Spy Club in downtown Washington. The invitations, including one sent to The Washington Post, featured a rather startling explanation of why that nightclub was chosen for the event:

"In honor of the end of the Cold War, we are holding our benefit festivities at the Spy Club to celebrate an end to the Art Barn's years of dedicated service to the Central Intelligence Agency. It is a little known fact that until very recently, the Art Barn's attic housed surveillance devices to watch over our foreign neighbors. Now in the new era of Glastnost (sic) we welcome all our friends and neighbors to come share this evening of intrigue and art."

"Good grief!" said CIA spokesman Peter Earnest when the invitation was read to him over the phone. But he said the agency doesn't do this sort of thing -- in the United States.

"We have no domestic responsibilities. We do not have domestic counterintelligence responsibilities," he said.

He referred questions to the FBI, which is supposed to handle any government surveillance operation inside the United States. FBI spokesman Nestor Michnyak said, "We wouldn't confirm or deny anything like that." The FBI did recently confirm that it continues to conduct counterintelligence operations outside the Russian Embassy.