In 1970s Moscow, Martha Peterson led a double life — embassy worker by day, CIA agent by night
By Kevin Maurer
Martha Peterson let the hollowed-out log fall to the base of a lamppost outside a Moscow park. Inside the log were code books and a poison-filled pen. The pen was for a Soviet spy — code-named Trigon — who was coming for his scheduled meeting with Peterson. She set the package in its hiding place and walked into the maze of apartment buildings nearby. An hour later, she returned to the spot and found a crushed milk carton with what looked like vomit — really mustard plaster — smeared on top of it.
The log was gone.
It was 1975, the American and Soviet governments were locked in an ideological cold war, and Peterson — the first woman to get posted to CIA’s Moscow Station, a premier posting for the CIA’s best clandestine personnel — was on the front lines. “Service in Moscow is equivalent to a foxhole,” said a foreign service officer in a 1978 Washington Post story about Peterson. “There were so few places you could speak openly. Offices? Bedrooms? All are bugged. You resorted to writing on paper.”
When Peterson arrived in Moscow, the KGB thought she was a low-level secretary who had slept her way to her post and ignored her. To Peterson’s credit, she played the part. She hung out with the Marine guards and the other secretaries, and drank a lot of Carlsberg beer. She earned the nickname “Party Marti,” she told NPR in an interview. But at night and on weekends, she spied, carrying out dead drops and going on excursions to take pictures. Once, she and a girlfriend went to Latvia and took pictures of Soviet Navy ships moored at the dock. No one paid them any mind because they were women, Peterson said.
“One of the great exercises while in Moscow was to try to find out who were CIA among the nine foreign service officers),” an American living in Moscow told the Washington Post in 1978. “I can’t recall anyone who ever even imagined Marti, which makes me think now, ‘Boy, she must have been a good one.’”
One of her main missions was to handle a Foreign Ministry official who had access to incoming messages from Soviet embassies around the world, giving the U.S. government insight into what the Soviets were talking about and planning. Alexandr Ogorodnik, code named Trigon, passed the pictures of the messages he shot with a miniature pen camera to Peterson at night in a Moscow park. They used fake logs, trash, rusty cans and even a rat’s carcass to hide the film and messages.
Four decades later, Peterson still tells the story of outfoxing the KGB as if it happened yesterday. Now retired, she moved to Wilmington in 2003. People often ask how she was recruited into America’s clandestine service because at a glance, she doesn’t look the part. That’s the point, Peterson said. “When you look at me, I look like someone’s grandmother,” she says. “That’s the key to CIA’s success, looking like everybody else. Underneath is a person who understands spying and tradecraft.”
But old habits die hard. She recently met a woman in a class at her retirement community. The woman made a point of seeking her out and talking with her for a minute before leaving the class early. Peterson’s first thought was the meeting was a bump — finding a reason to get your target talking. “Was she trying to find out about me?” Peterson says with a slight grin. “I went into the whole counter-intel.”
Peterson grew up in Connecticut and went to Drew University to become a teacher. But that plan fell by the wayside after meeting John Peterson, a former Green Beret with a Fu Manchu mustache who had enlisted as a paramilitary officer with the CIA. The couple went to Laos in 1971. John Peterson was there to train Laotian troops attacking North Vietnamese supply lines. Peterson took a job as a clerk with the CIA station.
More than a year after arriving, John Peterson was killed when his helicopter was shot down. Now a widow, Peterson returned to Florida — where her mother lived — and eventually applied for the CIA’s clandestine service. She started with the CIA on July 3, 1973 — her late husband’s birthday — and was trained as a case officer. But after training, she had problems finding an assignment. She turned down jobs at the United Nations and Burma.
“They were girl jobs,” she says. “I wanted to do real work. I wanted to be like the male officers.”
Peterson got her wish when she got a call to meet the CIA’s chief of station, a man named Bob, who recruited her to his team. “Why?” she says. “Female. Young. No history overseas. I could blend. Women don’t work for the CIA on the street.”
During the day, she worked in the U.S. Embassy, where she interviewed potential Soviet immigrants and helped American visitors with passport issues. “I really was that, but at night and weekends I was doing other things on the street,” she says.
Ogorodnik, a Soviet diplomat, was the station’s main effort. He was recruited in Bogota, Columbia, after the CIA learned he was having an affair with his boss’s wife. Ogorodnik lived alone, taking pictures with his pen camera and leaving them for Peterson to collect. Soon after arriving, Peterson started making regular drops to Ogorodnik. The two never met, but they shared a connection.
“I knew when I put that package in the cold and snow I had it under my coat and kept it warm, and it was my warmth that I was giving to him,” she says. “It was hard, though. Never meeting him.”
Peterson had a scheduled drop at a pillar on the bridge over the Moscow River on July 15, 1977. She worked her day job and then changed clothes, picked up a package with money, emerald jewelry and a new camera, and headed for the bridge. After spending hours walking around to make sure she wasn’t being tailed, Peterson approached the pillar. On her way there, three men passed her. Peterson had an SRR-100, an electronic monitoring radio, Velcroed under her bra. The CIA knew the frequency KGB surveillance teams used and the radio allowed them to listen in. Peterson didn’t hear any radio chatter. “Nobody was following me,” she says. “If they were, they were silent.”
She walked down the bridge, entered the pillar and shoved the package into its hiding place. But Peterson didn’t know Ogorodnik had been betrayed by a CIA employed translator three weeks before. During his interrogation, he offered to write a full confession. He asked for his pen with the poison. When the KGB interrogator gave it to him, he bit down on the poison cartridge and died.
As Peterson left the bridge, the three men she spotted earlier snatched her. They tore at her blouse, pulling the radio receiver from her bra. Peterson remembers her anger. She lashed out and kicked at least one of the KGB men, sending him to the hospital. The scene was captured on film and was displayed for a while in the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.
A van pulled up and more KGB arrived. They recovered the package and took Peterson to Lubyanka, KGB headquarters and prison, in central Moscow. “They didn’t abuse me,” she says, never fearing for her life. “It’s professional. Why didn’t they beat me up? Because it was tit for tat. The FBI here would pick one of theirs up and beat them up.”
As the KGB interrogator was taking the things out of the package, he paused when he took out a black pen and placed it far from him. “Nobody touch,” he said. At that point, Peterson knew Trigon was dead. “It was in an identical pen,” she says. “I know right then Trigon had used the poison.”
Peterson was arrested around 10:30 p.m. The KGB released her at 2 a.m. She went back to the CIA station for a debrief and then boarded the first flight out of Moscow the next day. Peterson had diplomatic immunity, but her career in Moscow Station was over. She was quickly declared persona non grata, but continued her careers for another 26 years before retiring.
The day she left, the KGB followed her to the airport and watched her leave. “They had respect for me,” she says. “I had fooled them.”
Kevin Maurer is the author of nine books, including No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden. He lives in Wilmington.