As a young government employee in 1975, Marti Peterson was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. She loved the social scene and it earned her a nickname.
“I was known as ‘Party Marti’ because I was out socializing with the Marine guards, with younger secretaries, the single, social life,” Peterson said. “We did drink our share of Carlsberg beer.”
Peterson was actually with the CIA — the first woman officer sent to Moscow. Her “cover” was to be a fun-loving clerical worker, someone Soviet security could safely ignore as it obsessively tracked actual and suspected CIA officers.
Her mission was to handle one of the most valuable Soviet sources the CIA had ever cultivated, a Foreign Ministry worker who saw the incoming cables from every Soviet embassy in the world.
“So we got a huge insight into what the Soviets were planning, what their intentions were and what their negotiating points were before we even sat down with them,” she said.
Peterson and her source — code name TRIGON — communicated by dead drops, in the dead of night, often at a Moscow park.
She would place a fake log with messages inside. He would show up an hour later and drop a rusty can or an old, oily glove. Tucked inside was film of top secret documents he’d photographed with a miniature camera.
Peterson never met him. And she never saw those photos — but U.S. presidents did.
“We just knew that we were picking up gold off the street,” said Peterson, now retired and living in Wilmington, N.C.
Special rules for Moscow
Jonna spelled out some of those rules:
“You are never alone. Don’t trust anyone. Not the little lady in the restroom who’s sweeping out the stalls. Not the flower girl in the corner. You just didn’t trust anyone in Moscow,” she said.
The CIA considered it too risky to recruit Soviet citizens inside the communist country. They were recruited when they were abroad, and when they returned to the Soviet Union, communication was never direct.
“In Moscow for many, many years, we never met face-to-face because we thought it was too dangerous,” she added.
Chiefs of disguise
At separate points, Tony and Jonna Mendez each served as chief of disguise at the CIA. They were part of the Office of Technical Services.
“We were the equivalent of ‘Q’ in the James Bond movies,” she said.
Tony Mendez, who died in January, is best-known for a previous book he wrote, Argo, which became the Oscar-winning movie of the same name. Ben Affleck portrayed Mendez, who guided trapped American diplomats out of revolutionary Iran in 1980.
The couple was never based in Moscow, but traveled there to help CIA officers operate in the city.
Tracking CIA officers
The main Soviet security agency, then known as the KGB, made that as difficult as possible, said Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB officer who became a critic of the Soviet system. He now lives outside Washington, D.C.
“The Soviet KGB was a strong, powerful organization,” said Kalugin, who was one of its top officers in a nearly 30-year career.
To escape KGB surveillance, Tony Mendez developed one technique called “disguise on the run.”
“He had started as a businessman in a raincoat and a briefcase,” said Jonna Mendez. He turned the raincoat inside out, and it became a pink, woman’s overcoat. He pulled up his pant legs, revealing black stockings. He put on a mask and a wig of an elderly woman. The briefcase sprouted wheels.
In just 45 seconds, “he ended up [as] an old woman in a pink coat wearing a shawl with gray hair coming out, pushing a grocery cart. And it was just kind of an amazing transformation,” she said.
Tony Mendez worked with some of Hollywood top makeup artists to refine his methods of deception and disguise.
Jonna Mendez would develop the tiny roles of film provided by the agency’s Soviet spies who used the CIA’s miniature cameras hidden in items like pens or lipstick cases.
“You’d think about the people that had risked their lives to get that information on film and you’d just be so careful,” she recalled. “Every time you did it, I mean, your heart would just pound.”
Their book looks at the Soviet era, and some of the spycraft may be a bit dated.
But the espionage game carries on, Oleg Kalugin said. Many years ago, he was Vladimir Putin’s boss at the KGB, and said Putin’s background is essential to understanding today’s Russia.
“Putin brought back some of the worst sides of the Soviet regime,” said Kalugin, now 84. “As a former KGB guy, his psychology is based on the old traditions of the Soviet system.”
A source is uncovered
Speaking of the Soviet system, whatever happened to “Party Marti” Peterson and the Soviet source she handled?
After almost two years in Moscow, Peterson went to the bridge one night in the summer of 1977 and hid a package for him. It included money, emerald jewelry and a new camera.
As she walked away, she was “accosted by these three men who grabbed me,” she said. “They knew exactly where the package was and there was a whole van full of people in suits.”
They were KGB, and they took Peterson to their notorious headquarters in central Moscow, Lubyanka.
She learned that her source TRIGON — whose real name was Alexandar Ogorodnik — had been uncovered by Soviet security three weeks earlier.
When confronted, Ogorodnik said he would write a confession — but only with his own pen.
“This pen contained a natural poison the CIA had provided to him, fulfilling his request to have a way to commit suicide, which he did at that time,” said Peterson.
Peterson was kicked out of the Soviet Union the next day. But she worked another 26 years with the CIA before retiring, and now lives in Wilmington, N.C.
Before all these stories could be published in The Moscow Rules, Tony and Jonna Mendez had to submit their manuscript to the CIA for review. It’s a lengthy process that came as Tony’s health was declining from Parkinson’s disease.
The CIA “knew that Tony was not well,” Jonna Mendez said. “I sent a note in, saying, ‘Could you consider pulling our manuscript and putting it on the top of your pile. Because I’d really like for him to know it’s OK.’ ”
The CIA gave its approval this past January. The next day, Tony Mendez died.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.