Peter Earnest, who spent decades running undercover operatives for the C.I.A. during the Cold War and later drew on that expertise as the first executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington, died on Feb. 13 in a hospital in Arlington, Va. He was 88.
His wife, Karen Rice, said the cause was congestive heart failure.
Unlike many former intelligence operatives, who tend to be tight-lipped, Mr. Earnest was a savvy and eager raconteur about his career with the C.I.A., including his years in Europe and the Middle East, where he recruited and managed agents involved in spying on the Soviet Union and its satellites. Those experiences — and his attitude — made him an excellent fit to run a museum devoted to international espionage.
One of his favorite stories involved a 1978 assignment to protect and debrief a Soviet defector, Arkady N. Schevchenko, moving him undercover from his apartment in New York to the Virginia suburbs. Mr. Shevchenko, who was posted to the United Nations as an under secretary general, was already spying for the C.I.A., and the Americans worried that he was about to be caught by the K.G.B.
Over a period of weeks, Mr. Earnest’s team interviewed Mr. Shevchenko — among his interrogators was Aldrich Ames, later revealed to be a Soviet spy himself — and dealt with his endless demands for clothing, girlfriends and even a vacation to the Caribbean. Mr. Earnest paid for all of it, handing over cash to the Russian defector’s F.B.I. handlers.
The F.B.I. agents, used to strict spending protocols, were astonished, he recalled in “Business Confidential: Lessons for Corporate Success From Inside the C.I.A.” (2010), which he wrote with Maryann Karinch. “They said, ‘Nobody can hand out money like that except God.’”
Mr. Earnest’s last posting at the agency was as its chief spokesman. He showed a deft hand with the news media as the C.I.A. weathered the Iran-contra scandal, the collapse of the Soviet Union and congressional pressure to declassify Cold War material. By many accounts, he was a success, in part because the C.I.A. rank and file trusted him.
“It’s difficult to be the public relations guy for an outfit that doesn’t want public relations,” Burton Gerber, who served in the agency for 39 years, said in a phone interview. “We liked Peter because he was one of us.”
And some of the work, Mr. Earnest said, was fun: For example, he got to know Harrison Ford after helping arrange for a production crew to visit the agency’s headquarters to film “Patriot Games” (1992), the first time a movie was allowed to be filmed inside the building.
Such experiences made Mr. Earnest a natural choice to lead the International Spy Museum, a $34 million venture that opened in downtown Washington in 2002. As executive director, he had a hand in everything, from the exhibitions and lecture series to public relations; he spoke to reporters almost as often as he did at the C.I.A.
“Someone once said that if you can convince another person to spy for your country, you can probably sell about anything,” said H. Keith Melton, a historian and collector who donated many of the espionage artifacts that made up the museum’s initial holdings. “Peter had those sets of skills.”
Mr. Melton, an early member of the museum’s board, was instrumental in hiring Mr. Earnest, and Mr. Earnest later helped persuade Mr. Melton to donate the bulk of his remaining collection, approximately 7,000 items, including the ice ax used to assassinate the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.
Mr. Earnest also understood the importance of making the museum more than just a tourist attraction. He organized advisory boards filled with retired intelligence officials and historians, and he built both permanent and temporary exhibitions that delved into arcana like spy-camera technology and current events like the war on terrorism.
And he added a personal touch to the museum: Among its collection was a coat with a buttonhole camera that he had worn while working under cover in Greece and Cyprus.
His efforts paid off. Some nine million people visited the museum between 2002 and his retirement in 2017, far above the founders’ initial expectations, despite people having to pay admission in a city where many museums are free. (Adult tickets now cost $26.95.)
“He was a real spy, who believed deeply and passionately not only in transparency, but in helping the public to understand what espionage is,” Tamara Christian, the museum’s president and chief executive, said in a phone interview. She added, “He wanted people to go past thinking of espionage as a James Bond movie.”
With his quick wit and dapper sense of style, he was also a popular guest on television programs like “The Colbert Report” and radio programs like the NPR quiz show “Ask Me Another,” whose host, Ophira Eisenberg, wondered whether spies really liked their drinks shaken, not stirred.
“How do you like your drinks?” she asked.
Without missing a beat, he replied, “One after another.”
Edwin Peter Earnest was born on Jan. 1, 1934, in Edinburgh, where his father, Edwin Burchett Earnest, was serving as a diplomat at the U.S. consulate. His mother, Emily (Keating) Earnest, who was born in England, was a homemaker.
The family returned to the United States in 1939 and settled in Bethesda, Md. Peter’s father died of a brain tumor in 1946; his mother then became an American citizen and went to work for the State Department.
Mr. Earnest graduated from Georgetown University in 1955 with a degree in history and political science and immediately joined the Marine Corps, where he served a tour in Japan. When he returned, his fiancée, Janet Chesney, who already worked at a C.I.A. field office in Washington, urged her superiors to recruit him.
His marriage to Ms. Chesney ended in divorce. He married Ms. Rice, who also worked at the C.I.A., in 1988. Along with her, he is survived by four daughters, Nancy Cintorino, Carol Earnest, Patricia Earnest and Sheila Gorman, all from his first marriage; six grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
Mr. Earnest worked in the agency’s clandestine service for 25 years, after which he worked in its inspector general’s office and as its Senate liaison. He arrived in the late 1970s to smooth relations with Congress after the so-called Church Committee revealed the C.I.A.’s years of involvement in coups and assassinations.
While Mr. Earnest was careful not to glamorize intelligence work, he also seemed to enjoy occasionally pulling back the curtain on the life of the spy.
In an interview for the International Spy Museum, he recounted being assigned to plant a bug in the house of someone whom his superiors suspected of being a double agent. One night the suspect invited Mr. Earnest and his wife to a small reception at his house.
When the host wasn’t looking, Mr. Earnest, dressed in a tuxedo, slipped downstairs to the man’s office, where he slid under his desk, drilled a hole and planted a listening device, laying a handkerchief over his chest to catch the sawdust. He returned to the party unnoticed.
It was, he said, his “Bond moment,” and it worked: The bug captured a conversation between the suspect and his handler on the other side.
“But for a moment,” he said, “lying under that desk, I had to think what my response would have been had he come into that office.”