The “coolest museum you’ll never see” has a new piece de resistance – the gun found next to the body of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan when Navy SEALs killed him in a midnight raid.
The AK-47 is a recent addition to a collection that’s among the toughest tickets in the country for museumgoers. Tucked into various hallways at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., the museum displays the gadgets, artifacts and trophies of 70 years of spycraft, from World War II through the War on Terror. Closed to the public, it had only been visited by employees and invited guests until NBC News recently became the first news organization allowed to bring in video cameras.
The Russian-made assault rifle, identified on a simple brass plaque as “Osama bin Laden’s AK-47,” shares a glass case with an al Qaeda training manual found in Afghanistan soon after 9/11.
"This is the rifle that was recovered from the third floor of the Abbottabad compound by the assault team," said curator Toni Hiley. "Because of its proximity to (bin Laden) there on the third floor in the compound, our analyst determined it to be his. It's a Russian AK with counterfeit Chinese markings."
Neither Hiley nor the agency will say how the AK-47 got to the museum, other than that the agency director at the time of the operation, Leon Panetta, "asked that it come into the museum collection," said Hiley. But one source told NBC News that it came from the "dark side" of the agency, the operations staff that worked with the SEALs on the May 2011 raid.
The agency also will not comment on the specifics of how the weapon was recovered or whether it was loaded when retrieved.
"I wasn't there," said Hiley. "So I can't confirm or deny exactly where the weapon was. I just know that I have it in my museum and I'm happy to have it."
In the movie "Zero Dark Thirty," which was written in consultation with military and intelligence sources, a member of the assault team is shown grabbing the weapon from a shelf above bin Laden's bed in his third-floor bedroom moments after the al Qaeda leader’s death.
Hiley said the weapon is in good working condition, but that the origin of the Chinese markings is a mystery. She said it’s not the weapon seen at Osama’s side in many propaganda videos.
The CIA’s private museum, which was started in the early 1990s, fills three corridors in two buildings at the CIA campus just outside Washington. Agency officials call it “the coolest museum you’ll never see.”
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