We realize we’re at the wrong entrance when a police cruiser pulls up behind our car. An officer steps out with one hand on his sidearm, eyes locked on me, as I approach a guard posted in front of the Central Intelligence Agency’s hyper-secure headquarters in Langley, Virginia. My photographer, Ferdous “Danny” Al-Faruque, stays in the car, hands in plain view to avoid spooking the spooks. Thus begins our bizarre descent into the CIA rabbit hole, not to unearth classified documents on torture at Guantánamo Bay or UFO warehousing at Area 51 but to sneak a peek at the controversial million-dollar-plus art collection hanging inside—a collection that has grabbed headlines of late not only because few outsiders have laid eyes on it but also because for years the CIA seemingly didn’t want anyone to know its contents.
Unbeknownst to many, the CIA established its own arts commission in 1963 for purposes that vary from “the selection of the colors of paint for the walls” to “the development, location and display of exhibits.” The agency website briefly mentions a collection of abstract paintings that “represent an elemental approach to art, a swashbuckling donor and a connection to the architecture of the [original headquarters building].” This collection is separate from the CIA’s highly publicized museum of intelligence-themed artwork and historical ar