Spy Watches, Women and Espionage
At the height of the Cold War, a female CIA officer operated with impunity on the streets of Moscow, free from the ever-present KGB surveillance. But it all changed one warm summer night when she was ambushed while servicing a dead drop for a sensitive asset, TRIGON. The Seiko on her wrist would later be reported as a recording device, a falsehood which was actually part of a complex KGB disinformation campaign. While the Seiko wasn’t used as a tool used to collect intelligence, it did play a role that night, as a tool of espionage and diplomacy. We spoke with that Case Officer, Martha "Marti" Peterson, to learn the truth behind that operation, her service, and the larger role of women in intelligence.
1035 pm local - Moscow, 15 July 1977
After a multimodal Surveillance Detection Route (SDR) through the Moscow streets, Case Officer Marti Peterson did not detect surveillance and made the decision to proceed with the operational act - the loading of dead drop on the Krasnoluzhskiy Bridge over the Moskva River. The impersonal agent handling tradecraft allowed her agent, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) official Aleksandr Dmitrievich Ogorodnik, codenamed TRIGON, to retrieve the package without ever making contact with a US official, an added layer of security during the high-stakes spy games of the Cold War. As the first female Case Officer sent to Moscow, Marti was able to slip past the ubiquitous surveillance teams that followed her male colleagues. She didn’t fit the KGB’s profile of a typical “spy,” and that was her secret weapon.
Dead drop asset instructions/casing report. (Photo Credit: CIA)
In preparation for the operational act, Marti adapted her profile to meet the environment and removed all jewelry that could identify her as a non-Soviet. One piece she kept on was the Japanese-produced automatic Seiko, a gold-plated women's watch she purchased at the PX at the Ubon Air Base in Thailand when she and her late husband were stationed in Laos (he was a CIA Paramilitary Officer) in 1971. The Seiko was a simple but crucial piece of gear. As Marti would later recall during our conversation, “As you know, time is essential in running an agent.” The Seiko would ensure she met the operational windows required. In this case, the timepiece was a tool that aided in espionage.
After placing the concealment device, a piece of asphalt containing money, film and agent handling instructions, inside a narrow window in one of the pillars on the bridge, she moved to her egress route. As Marti reached the base of the stairs to the bridge, she noticed three men in white shirts emerging from a nearby cemetery. They quickly closed the gap and grabbed Marti forcibly by each arm, a Case Officer’s worst nightmare. She would reflect years later, “My question was whether I was going to be raped or mugged, or worse.” Seconds later a van pulled up and Soviet officials poured out. In the chaos, hands forcibly groped Marti under her blouse, searching for evidence.
KGB photographs of incident. Note women's watch on KGB officers’ wrist. Marti would later remark “It’s clearly a Soviet watch, probably didn’t work.”
Marti did not go down easy, leveraging her martial arts training she fought back, landing a blow in the shin of one and kicking another in the groin. According to some reports, it led to at least one KGB officer being hospitalized. She was angry, but the point of the fight and loud yelling was calculated, she was trying to warn TRIGON to escape if he were nearby. As a Case Officer, your number one priority is protecting the Agent.
Moments later Marti was in a van enroute to Lubyanka Prison, held tightly at the wrists by the KGB officers. Marti’s mind raced as she tried to relax, absorb the details of the night and piece together what happened. She was confident that she had not brought surveillance to the ops site, which left her to fear for the worst: TRIGON was compromised. The operation was a set-up.
Glancing down, Marti noticed that the Seiko’s bracelet around her left wrist had come apart during the struggle. In a rare moment of personal connection between a KGB officer and a CIA officer, Marti would later recall:
Following my eyes, the militiaman looked down. He gently adjusted and clasped the watchband. I realized then that we were actually holding hands, this young man and I. So, the devil made me do it, I squeezed his hand twice. Damned if he didn’t squeeze back. I’m sure he was amazed that this young woman had been arrested. Could she really be a spy?
Marti was known for her sense of humor, a common and valuable trait for a Case Officer, given the stress of the trade.
The man was KGB Captain Vladimir Nikolayevich Zaitsev of the 7th Directorate, responsible for surveillance of foreign Diplomats and Intelligence Officers. But Marti was one of the few officers within the Station to not draw surveillance. She was unknown to Zaitsev. CIA would later determine: “the KGB discounted the ability of women to conduct intelligence operations, so Marti went unnoticed for almost 18 months.” KGB chauvinism was a vulnerability she was happy to exploit.
Zaitsev would later recall that he aided his fellow militiamen in restraining Marti and would claim the struggle would ultimately lead to the breaking of the wristwatch band. Zaitsev would insert another detail into this narrative, claiming that the watch contained a “microphone connected to a recording device.”
During our conversation, Marti laughed at this narrative, explaining that this was disinformation from the KGB. While Marti would be declared persona non grata and expelled from the Soviet Union, the news of the arrest would not be made public until a year later. In June 1978, the KGB would place a piece in the Moscow newspaper Pravda Investia (“Truth Knowledge”) heralding the KGB’s prowess and indicating that Marti wore a watch with a recording device. Marti believed the purpose of this disinformation was to show that all Americans were spies, supporting the Soviet narrative.
While not concealed in a watch, Marti was indeed wearing spy gear. Under her blouse was an SRR-100, a CIA OTS fielded tool that allowed the officer to listen to unencrypted radio transmissions by KGB surveillance teams through an earpiece. For Marti, it was another indication that she was free from hostile surveillance; in contrast to her male counterparts, she never detected radio transmissions with the SRR-100.
1130 PM, Lubyanka Prison Moscow
The interrogator ordered Marti to remove her watch and a necklace. Her purse, driver’s license, and the concealment device were placed on the table in front of her. A photographer in the corner of the room captured the event, which Marti correctly assumed would later be used for propaganda. Marti refused to cooperate and repeated a request to call the US Embassy and recited the telephone number.
After failing to coerce Marti to sign a confession, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) relented and called Cliff Gross, the Counselor for Consular Affairs. Cliff arrived shortly thereafter and to his surprise, found Marti sitting in the interrogation room, spy gear on the table in front of her.
(Photo Credit: KGB)
Interestingly, Cliff arrived at Lubyanka with a watch on each wrist, one large enough to potentially contain a microphone, another detail that the KGB would exploit to indicate Cliff was wearing a Hanhart Protona recording device. During our conversation, Marti would clarify that Cliff always wore two watches, one set to Moscow time and one to DC time. (Similar to General H. Norman Schwarzkopf.)
Marti described Cliff as a practical man, and his two watches were tools of diplomacy, a practical application to enable communications between Moscow and DC. She again laughed off the notion that Cliff, a State Department bureaucrat, would wear a spy watch. The myth of the “microphone watch” continues today and is repeated in both historical publications and watch media outlets. This watch is often reported as a German-produced Hanhart Protana watch, a watch that did indeed exist at the time, but was not worn by Cliff. This is an important detail, as Watches of Espionage has confirmed the story from Marti herself.
In fact, Cliff was not even aware of Marti’s true role in the CIA Station, and was just as surprised as the KGB was to find out that Marti was a “spy” (Case Officer). Marti would later recall: “Cliff likely assumed I did clerical work in the CIA office. He had no clue I went out on the street at night conducting operations.” Her cover held.
Aleksandr Ogorodnik - Lethal Pill (L-Pill)
Another piece of spy gear played a role in the events of 1977, this one more tragic and lethal, but necessary. A month prior to Marti’s detainment, her Agent Orgorodnik (TRIGON) was arrested. He killed himself using a cyanide pill embedded in a CIA provided pen, a tool he requested from CIA. Marti would later recall in her memoir, The Widow Spy:
Opening the pen as if to begin writing, he bit down on the barrel and expired instantly in front of his KGB interrogators. The KGB was so intent on his confession that they never suspected he had poison….TRIGON died his own way, a hero.
(Photo Credit: CIA)
Ogorodnik was a Russian MFA official with access to classified cables about Soviet Foreign policy. Motivated by a dislike for the Soviet system, he was originally recruited in Bogota, Colombia in 1973. He was a valuable asset for CIA until he was betrayed by Karl Koecher, a CIA translator who was working for the Czech intelligence service.
Women at CIA and in Human Intelligence:
In Hollywood depictions of CIA, women are often relegated to femme fatale characters, a seductive “spy” dispatched to use her charm and physical features to seduce men. While “sexpionage” certainly does exist and is used by many hostile intelligence services (notably the Russian FSB/SVR), at CIA women play an integral part of intelligence collection, analysis and covert action.
Red Sparrow, Jennifer Lawrence, written by former CIA Case Officer Jason Matthews.
When asked about her legacy as a trailblazer for women at CIA, Marti modestly responded that she didn’t necessarily think of it that way. She was a Case Officer doing her job like any other. Modesty aside, Marti did set the precedent and example for women at CIA for decades to come.
Some of the best Case Officers and Collection Management Officers I worked with were women and their gender and way of thinking continues to be an asset to strategic-level national security priorities and intelligence collection.
Many hostile intelligence services are still sexist and underestimate the capabilities of female Case Officers. This is a bias we welcome and an opportunity for CIA exploitation. Women are still less likely to garner scrutiny than male officers as they conduct their operational acts and are often more successful in striking up conversations with unwitting targets at diplomatic functions and other targeting events. The one thing every Case Officer has in common–male or female– is a watch on their wrist, ensuring they meet their operational windows and conduct operations securely.
This newsletter has been reviewed by the CIA’s Prepublication Classification Review Board to prevent the disclosure of classified information.