Modeler Pieced Together a Top-Secret Career in CIA
There was a time when Kenny Lane was well acquainted with Mao Tse-tung’s ear--although he never met the man.
But then Lane, a 56-year-old Manassas, Va., resident, has seen a lot of strange stuff. All from a windowless workshop at the Washington Navy Yard.
He knew the ins and outs of the Son Tay prison in North Vietnam. His fingers traced every room in Manuel Noriega’s vacation home in Panama. He surveyed the streets of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait City.
And when he finally stood before the Kremlin in 1985, he had already built it. “My colors could have been a little better,” he said.
For most of his 36-year career at the Central Intelligence Agency, Lane made fine-scale models of foreign weapons systems, prisons, government buildings and sundry far-flung terrain. And, in one odd departure from replicating the hardware of the Cold War, he created an oversize, water-putty model of the ear of Mao, the former Chinese leader.
“As I understand it, in his later years, we didn’t know if Mao was living or dead,” Lane said. “Every once in a while, his photo would show up in the newspaper, but the only thing you could see was his head. He was always in a river up to his neck. You can identify a person by their ear, so they had us build this 12-inch ear to figure out if it was him or a stand-in.”
Lane retired late last year. And his departure from the CIA coincided with the agency’s decision to shut down its three-dimensional-modeling shop, a victim of government downsizing and the rise of sophisticated computer imaging.
“It’s just so much easier to do that on a computer screen,” said Chase Brandon, a spokesman for the CIA. “You can generate three-dimensional images on a computer screen. . . . And you can put that on a videocassette and take it over to a policy-maker, which is a whole lot easier than transporting a 200-pound terrain map.”
Lane, who used wood and plastic to represent some of the pivotal moments in recent U.S. history, can only look back wistfully. “They can do fantastic things with computers, but it’s still not the same as seeing a model,” he said. “We were all sad to see it go.”
Lane was hired by the CIA straight out of high school in 1960. For his first nine years at the agency, he worked as an armed courier out of the National Photographic Interpretation Center, a CIA facility at the Navy Yard, carrying classified material across the United States.
In 1964, the agency started a three-dimensional-modeling shop at the NPIC, using artisans to build replicas from intelligence reports, especially overhead photography taken from satellites and U-2 reconnaissance planes. It was the only operation of its kind in the alphabet soup of intelligence agencies.
Lane, an amateur modeler who worked with kits he bought at hobby stores, applied for a job in the new section. He was turned down. He kept trying, and in 1969, he was asked to show what he could do.
Toiling every evening after work for two weeks, he built a model of his house and yard. He was hired.
Among his first projects was a model of the Son Tay prison 30 miles outside Hanoi, where a U.S. strike force planned a raid to rescue prisoners of war believed to be held there. No prisoners were found in the November 1970 raid, but there were successful rescues at other POW sites in North Vietnam that the shop had modeled.
Lane, who became chief of the modeling shop in 1987, stresses that the shop’s work was a team effort. Just before Operation Desert Storm, for instance, five modelers put in 246 hours of overtime in five days to build a model of a section of Kuwait City from the U.S. Embassy to the Persian Gulf shoreline, based on overhead photography and intelligence reports.
Over the years, the shop turned out 862 products, the CIA says. Much of the work focused on reproducing Soviet military equipment and sites. Occasionally, to save time, Lane and others went to local model shops and bought kits to make Soviet planes. Then they would add details from intelligence reports.
Store employees “were kind of wondering why we would buy a couple dozen Russian aircraft,” Lane said. “We didn’t announce we were CIA, but eventually they knew.”
After the hostage crisis in Iran, which ended in 1981, the shop produced models of many U.S. embassies. And during the hostage crisis itself, Lane spent 18 months working on models of the U.S. Embassy compound and the Iranian Foreign Ministry and creating large sections of Tehran in miniature.
While in Moscow in 1985, he visited Red Square and stood before the Kremlin.
“It was an unbelievable feeling, standing there and physically seeing what you had already modeled,” he said. “I felt like I had already been there.”
But it was the excitement produced by a world crisis and the need to turn around a project quickly that really stirred Lane.
“That’s what you live for,” he said. “Lives are at stake. Somebody, the president, needs something quickly. You get a high for projects like that.”
Lane has returned to his original avocation--modeling as a hobby. Over the years, he has stored hundreds of model kits, which he bought in stores and now wants to build.
Much of his life’s work has been warehoused by the CIA, but he hopes that one of these days, he can get one or two declassified pieces he worked on to keep as souvenirs.
“It’s a little bit of history and a little bit of my own history,” he said.