The Widow Spy comes to Aberystwyth

This week we had one of those guest speakers in the Department who really excite the students: Martha (Marti) Peterson, a former CIA agent and author of a book, The Widow Spy, that gives her own account of her experiences working for the CIA in Moscow in the 1970s. The undergraduates and MA students are in the midst of their exams, and my colleague Meighen McCrae, who chaired the event, was making contingency plans for an audience of very small numbers, but the turnout was impressive. Nearly 80 (mostly) students crowded into the room, sat spellbound as Ms Peterson spoke for about an hour, posed some challenging and insightful questions that she responded to with good humour, and then crowded around her after the formal end of the talk to chat, unwittingly delaying her escape to the tea and cakes that we had organised as a small reward for entertaining and informing us.

Practitioners are always popular speakers with the students, who crave that authenticity of hearing from people who are out there, doing international politics. Practitioner speakers are also extremely useful for academic staff, who also, dare I say it, look for validation that what we teach has some resonance with what is happening in the wild, where our subject is being formed.

The most popular guest speakers are undoubtedly the ones who have some link with the world of insecurity and danger, especially those with personal experience of the intelligence services. In this respect, Ms Peterson was ideal – as a case officer for the CIA placed in the US Embassy in Moscow during Brezhnev’s leadership, she had lived a life of insecurity and danger for nearly two years. The main focus of both her talk and her book was her experience working “with” (although she never met him) a Soviet diplomat who spied for the US, with the code name TRIGON. She did all the things that outsiders find so compelling about spies in fiction and in real life: she led a double life, unable to tell friends and family the true nature of her job; she regularly handled gadgets (miniature cameras that fit inside fountain pens, hollowed out logs, special paper that concealed the messages written on it); she had to take exceptionally roundabout routes to “dead drop” points, involving multiple forms of transport and several hours of travel each way; and she lived under the constant threat of being discovered by the KGB while undertaking her duties for the CIA. Eventually she was arrested by the KGB and was brought to Lubyanka prison for a carefully staged interrogation, which brought her time in Moscow to an end.

A significant theme of her talk and her comments in the Q&A session afterwards was the distinctive challenges and pressures that she faced as a woman in her CIA role. She was not just a woman among other women doing the same job but the only woman and indeed the first woman that the CIA sent to Moscow as a case officer. But if her fellow CIA agents at times were openly sceptical that a woman might be capable of carrying out the range of actions required to do the job, the KGB apparently simply could not imagine such a thing. While the KGB routinely followed her male counterparts (as well as male Embassy staff who had no connection to the CIA) and clearly regarded them with great suspicion, Ms Peterson was virtually ignored by Soviet intelligence agents. This meant she was able to hide in plain sight, which is surely the greatest possible asset for someone in that line of work. But while being underestimated by her opponents provided Ms Peterson with some operational advantages in the field, being underestimated by her colleagues meant she had to endure a significant gap in pay and never-ending struggles to have her abilities acknowledged; she lived everyday sexism before it was a hashtag.

One of challenges that Ms Peterson clearly felt she needed to work hard to overcome in speaking to an audience (most of) whose members could not remember life before smart phones and wifi was to spell out just how different the world was in the 1970s from the life that we now take for granted. The world that she was describing to us was doubly or trebly different from our own, really, considering she was operating in the USSR. The main continuity that she emphasised was the importance of human intelligence and having one of your people “in the room” to gather details and nuances that drones and electronic surveillance can never convey.

But I think another continuity that Ms Peterson deeply believes in was inadvertently revealed during the Q&A, when she was asked what she thought of President Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey. She immediately brushed aside the question with the statement that she supports her president. A tiny shock wave went through the room at the response. How could Ms Peterson, someone who had sacrificed much and seen others sacrifice even more in order to secure valuable intelligence for the United States, express support for a man who has repeatedly demonstrated contempt for the very agency she had worked for – and, it is now being suggested, might have given away valuable and sensitive information when he met with Russia’s Foreign Minister and Russia’s Ambassador to the US recently in the Oval Office. I think, though, that her response was not so much an expression of support for the individual as it was an expression of loyalty to the institution of the presidency and indeed institutions of the state in general and a patriotic loyalty to her country. This kind of loyalty that transcends personal and political affiliations is essential for the smooth functioning of government agencies of all sorts, and not only in the United States, of course. The problem, though, is that Donald Trump doesn’t seem to value, or even understand, this key feature of governments, and we can only hope that it survives his presidency more or less intact.