WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Martha Peterson was like any other Mom. She did the laundry, bought the groceries, and cooked meals for her husband Steve and their two children in the family's home outside of Washington, DC. In 1997, with her two children well into their teenage years, Martha, known as Marti to her friends, thought it was time to reveal part of her secret to Tyler and Lora. They learned mom was a spy for the Central Intelligence Agency.
"There is a point with covert people in the CIA, we have this discussion among us about how to do this and when to do it," Marti says about deciding to tell her children. "If you wait too long, then they think you're lying about everything. If you tell them too early, they don't treasure the secret and they tell too many people."
The world knows about at least one of Marti Peterson's missions as the first female CIA operative in Moscow. Marti described the details in her book "The Widow Spy", published in 2012. It is also chronicled in the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC and the KGB Museum in Moscow (the KGB was the intelligence agency that operated inside the Soviet Union). KGB agents captured Marti on July 15, 1977 on a bridge in Moscow, after she had delivered a package for an agent. Marti did not know at the time that the agent, code named TRIGON, had committed suicide in front of KGB interrogators weeks earlier.
Martha did not aspire to be a spy for the CIA growing up in Connecticut. She went to Drew University with the idea of becoming a teacher. But she met John Peterson while in college, and later married the Green Beret. After John returned from Vietnam, he went to work for the CIA, and an assignment took the couple to Laos in the early 1970s. John was responsible for equipping and training local Laos soldiers to attack North Vietnamese army, to stop the flow of weaponry from getting into the south, where it would have been used against US soldiers. Marti details his work starting at 6:30 of the podcast, including the devastating news she received on October 19, 1972.
"I was sitting in the living room reading, and I heard the crunch of tires on the gravel in our driveway, so I thought John was home," she says. "It was about six o'clock. Then our (station) chief appeared at the door, and I thought 'why didn't John tell me he invited him over for dinner?' I was just as naïve as you could imagine. I went to the door, and he looked at me and said 'Oh, Marti!'. I knew right away that something had happened. He came in and told me that John's helicopter had been shot down. Then the house was filled with people, and they were all looking at me. I remember thinking how awful it must be to look at me, to know how sad I must feel."
Marti returned to the United States after John's death, and lived with her parents in Florida while recovering from her grief. One night at dinner a good friend suggested Marti look into working for the CIA. She had a Master's Degree, spoke other languages, and had experience working overseas. That's at 14:00 of the podcast.
"They wanted me to be a secretary or admin assistant, and that wasn't what I had in mind," she says. "I wanted, I guess, to take up where John had left off. I think they realized because of the experience I had just had, and I was surviving and coherent and I had a feeling that this is what I want to do, I found a mentor within the CIA who helped me get the right interview."
Marti went to work for the CIA on July 3rd, 1973, on what would have been John's birthday. At 15:30 of the podcast, Marti talks about the training she went through to become an operative. Performing dead drops. Car tosses. Taking covert pictures with miniature cameras. She was learning to be a spy.
Marti later interviewed with a man named "Bob", who was going out to be the CIA's Station Chief of Station in Moscow. She describes him as a "very happy man" who saw she did not cling to the past and was willing to take on a new challenge. He was also straightforward on how Marti would be treated if the Russians learned she was a spy.
Marti went to work in Moscow. During the day, she worked as a diplomat in the U.S. Embassy. At night, on weekends and during her lunch breaks, she would report to the CIA station in the same building to do her work as an operative. Marti says her co-workers in the embassy never suspected her of being CIA agent.
"I had a woman working for me, and she years later she said 'I never suspected you were doing anything but what your job was'. I even worked with eight Soviet women in my office in the Embassy and they never suspected, because I did the job," she says.
Marti did the job with the help of experts in the CIA's office. Agents like "Ed", who while pretending to be drunk used slight of hand to slip a lighter into the open window of a parked car. She worked with "Neal", best explained as the station's version of James Bond's "Q", who devised creative ways of hiding cameras and documents that were passed between agents. Marti describes their efforts and ingenuity at different points of the interview.
At 25:15 of the podcast, our conversation turned to TRIGON, the code name for Alexandr Ogorodnik. An official in the Soviet Embassy in Bogota, Columbia, Ogorodnik began working for the US after the CIA learned he was having an affair with his boss' wife. Marti and TRIGON never met in person, but they traded information through dead drops and intelligence. At 32:00 of the podcast, she details how a "normal" exchange of information would work.
On the night the KGB agents arrested her, Marti was supposed to drop off a package for TRIGON in a pillar on the bridge over the Moscow River. The three men she had seen earlier in the evening, but did not suspect of being with the intelligence group, proceeded to search Marti and recover equipment she had on her body. That equipment later made it into the International Spy Museum.
KGB agents took Marti to Moscow's Lubyanka Prison for questioning. A picture of Marti seated next to an official from the U.S. State Department was later made public. Marti says she never feared for her life while in Soviet custody. She talks about the experience at 42:00 of the podcast.
Marti later found out that the KGB had arrested TRIGON weeks before her capture, and he had committed suicide by biting into a poisoned pen. You'll hear that story at 44:00 of the podcast.
Marti returned to the United States the next day. Within 72 hours, she was in the Oval Office of the White House, detailing her operations to then-President Jimmy Carter. The story of her arrest came out a year later. Marti would continue in the CIA as a covert case worker, completing assignments overseas before retiring after 32 years.
In our conversation I asked Marti which television shows or movies do the best job of portraying the life of a spy. She also spoke about recently meeting TRIGON's daughter, who never knew her father but is learning about him through letters written by her mother. Marti shared her thoughts on the man she never met, but got to know as they worked to gather intelligence for the United States.
You can listen to the entire interview with Marti Peterson on the free "1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast:
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