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Behind the scenes at the CIA museum

Filled with secrets, the CIA museum -- which is closed to the public – houses all kinds of artifacts: from a 70s-era drone, to the gun found next to Osama bin Laden when Navy SEALs killed him in a midnight raid. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

By Mary Murphy and Neal Carter, NBC News

Arriving at the Central Intelligence Agency feels a little like being in an action thriller -- the sign that says Langley, the gates, the elaborate security check in -- it’s the stuff you see in movies. But to walk the halls of CIA headquarters with two camera crews, a correspondent, three producers and a still photographer is quite another story.

Our rare access to the CIA’s private museum was many months in the making.  The idea came from Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel. He and producer Robert Windrem lobbied the agency’s public affairs officers. 

Once the CIA agreed, it was up to us to figure out how to schedule and plan a shoot around all the security demands. First, we had to find a day to do it. The CIA suggested a Saturday would be best. That meant less foot traffic on the compound and reduced the chance that an agency employee would end up on our tape.  We would not be permitted to show any other CIA employees -- under cover or not -- while filming at headquarters. Meshing the calendars of busy CIA Museum director Toni Hiley and a correspondent who is based in Istanbul was no small feat.  After a few go-arounds, we settled on June 29th.

NBC News producers Mary Murphy and Neal Carter

Then, everyone in our crew needed to submit social security numbers, birth date and place of birth for a background check.  Every single piece of equipment -- make, model, serial number -- was submitted in advance, a document that took weeks to compile and was nearly a dozen pages.

No wireless equipment is permitted at CIA headquarters. In fact, some people say their cell phones go dead when driving past the place! So be very skeptical the next time you see actress Claire Danes talking on her cell phone on the cable TV show "Homeland."

Since our crews traditionally record sound from wireless microphones clipped to lapels or shirts while the correspondent and interview subject walk and talk, figuring out how to do this with hard-wired fuzzy boom microphones on a pole held aloft by a sound man was a challenge.   

We studied the relics and had several conversations with Hiley about which artifacts best represent the collection. Not everything was fair game, some parts of the collection were off-limits.  And as Hiley told us, there’s just a fraction of the museum’s large collection on display. She says there is a vast storage area with thousands and thousands more pieces which she compares to the last scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark."  

We did a site survey in advance of the shoot so we could plot out how best to use the time we were given -- six hours from start to finish. This would include loading in all our gear, setting up for a two camera interview, tearing down our equipment and loading out.

On Saturday, June 29th, eight of us cleared security. Waiting on the other side were more than 10 agency employees who would follow us around all day, monitoring our every move. They were checking to make sure we did not inadvertently shoot an office number, capture a CIA employee walking off in the distance, or capture an employee’s reflection in the museums glass cases. When we shot exteriors, they needed to make sure no one was visible through a window, that no CIA vehicles or license plates ended up in the frame and taking pictures of any equipment on the roof was off limits.

Time was of the essence. We were prompted at certain intervals to move on or we would not make our departure on time.  It was tense and intense but we got everything we needed to tell the story of the greatest little museum most of you will never see. 

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