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Former CIA operations officer speaks to government students about spy work in Russia

Imagine working undercover in Russia, aiding secret agents as they commit espionage. For former CIA operations officer Marti Peterson, this was the downside of working in operations, even though it benefitted the United States’ interests.

Liberty University’s Strategic Intelligence Society (SIS) under the Helms School of Government welcomed Peterson to a virtual conference on Feb. 11, and members listened as she recalled some of her most intense operations.

Peterson was the first female operations officer to be sent to Moscow under the Soviet Union (USSR). She is best known for her job assisting a Russian who was working undercover in the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs to find intel on the Soviets for the United States — codename Trigon. The case lasted from 1975-77. During the two-hour conference, Peterson detailed how she helped Trigon, sent encrypted messages, and even survived an incarceration after a secret drop off.

Peterson’s cover job was at the U.S. Embassy; she secretly served as a CIA operations officer on the evenings and weekends. Peterson familiarized herself with the Moscow map, finding hot zones to avoid, as she identified police stations, barracks, security installations, and more so she could avoid surveillance while communicating with the agent.

“It was a challenge to learn that big city,” Peterson said to the group of 30-plus students and guests watching online. “But studying the map before I went was just amazingly useful. We were always studying the map. … And I had to know that any invitation I accepted, I’d have to turn down in a second with a good, plausible reason, if an operation requirement came up that night. It always kept me from fully committing to friendships.”

Peterson was eventually flanked by three KGB officers after making a drop off, which was intended for Trigon: money, scheduling changes, and a camera disguised as a writing pen. The officers interrogated her. Thankfully, given her cover job at the embassy, Peterson was released on diplomatic immunity — she never revealed her true identity.

Trigon was eventually compromised and captured in his apartment. After volunteering to write a confession, Trigon committed suicide, leaving the KGB without any evidence of the operation. Peterson later briefed President Jimmy Carter on the operation.

Following her story, Peterson gave the students critical advice for working in the CIA in such a perilous role.

“Your skills on the street and your understanding of the operational mindset are most important for operations,” she said. “To be a good operations officer, you have to have life experience. I encourage any experiences you have, in internships and that kind of thing. You have to have a lot of common sense. You have to have the ability to judge character as well as learn where you live and get around in a city.”

Peterson is the author of “The Widow Spy,” an autobiography detailing her experiences working in one of the most dangerous operational environments of the late 20th century.

“The Helms School was thrilled to be able to host Marti Peterson to share her fascinating experiences with the CIA with our government students and our Strategic Intelligence Society,” said Helms School Dean Robert Hurt. “Thanks to Ms. Peterson, our students learned a great deal about the mechanics of intelligence work and were inspired by her courage and patriotism.”

Strategic Intelligence Society president Christian Butler expressed appreciation for Peterson taking the time to speak and answer questions.

“It was an honor to be able to hear more about the wonderful work she did for our country, both at home and abroad, and we thank her for her encouragement and inspiration to the next generation,” Butler said.

The Strategic Intelligence Society seeks to connect students with employment opportunities within the Intelligence Community. Students interested in becoming a member of Liberty’s club can fill out an application form.