Marti Peterson ’67 says she enrolled at Drew “to grow up and have a good time.” What happened next was less expected: a life as a CIA agent with assignments in Cold War Moscow and beyond.
By Mary Jo Patterson
Illustration By Jeff Koegel
She went home after work and changed into clothes suited for the task at hand: ugly gray tweed coat, dark knit hat, gloves covering manicured fingernails. Then she drove—“aggressively”—for a couple of hours, constantly making hard turns, checking her rearview mirror, seeking to smoke out any possible surveillance. Finally satisfied that no one was tailing her, she parked her car and disappeared into the Moscow subway.
She emerged, walked into a park and headed for the spot where she was to drop the package tucked inside her purse. Cunningly disguised to look like a crushed pack of cigarettes, it contained a miniature camera, six miniature cassettes of film, writing pads used to decipher coded messages and other spy gear. It was dark and cold and nearly 10 p.m. She was nervous, and her heart was pounding. She made the drop while play-acting casual moves to conceal movement—stopping to lean on a snow bank, blowing her nose, adjusting her boot. The package slid down the icy bank and landed perfectly.
She moved on, hypervigilant but poker-faced, as if she were just some Russian woman out for a late-night walk. For more than an hour she walked the streets, biding her time until she could return to the drop site and confirm the package was gone. When she got back, it was still there. Disappointed, she stretched over a three-foot bank of snow to retrieve it and stashed it back in her purse. Martha Denny Peterson had just concluded her first undercover drop for the United States Central Intelligence Agency, and it was a bust. But two weeks later Peterson made a successful delivery. Her boss was ecstatic. Skeptical colleagues were impressed. Peterson’s reputation as a spy within the agency’s fabled Directorate of Operations was sealed.
Intrepid female CIA agents are everywhere these days, from the blockbuster movie Zero Dark Thirty to the hit TV series Homeland. But in 1975, when Peterson was sent to Moscow as a spy under diplomatic cover, the women of the CIA were in the secretarial pool, not clandestine intelligence operations. That worked to her advantage.
Because the KGB—the Soviet secret police—also could not imagine a woman as a CIA operative, Peterson roamed the streets free of the surveillance teams hampering male colleagues. For nearly two years, while working at the American Embassy in Moscow, she carried out elaborately choreographed dead drops to a prized Soviet agent, passing along intelligence equipment or retrieving film he’d used to secretly photograph documents in his office at the Soviet Foreign Ministry. His tiny camera was concealed in a pen. Driving into a Moscow neighborhood, Peterson would park her car, ride subway trains in different directions, and then proceed by foot to the designated spot. She pulled her long blonde streaked hair back with a rubber band and dressed frumpily to blend into the crowd. It was scary, hairy work.
If you’re wondering how these stealthy details became public—Don’t CIA agents lie about what they do?—it’s because Peterson reveals them in a book, The Widow Spy. Cold War historians and spy buffs might already know a piece of her story.
On July 15, 1977, as Peterson made a risky drop on a railroad bridge over the Moscow River, a team of KGB agents nabbed her. They manhandled her, tried to remove the small radio receiver attached to her bra, interrogated her and quietly kicked her out of the country. One year later Izvestia, the government newspaper, publicized the arrest, prompting extensive media coverage in the United States. The Washington Post ran a front-page story identifying Peterson by name accompanied by a photo of her being grilled by her inquisitors. The article blew her cover, although Peterson denied the story. “I said, ‘It’s propaganda. The Soviets will write anything,’” Peterson says. “In Washington, that sells. People may have thought, ‘She probably does work for the CIA,’ but there are so many people in Washington in that category, or who don’t say where they work, everyone is kind of respectful.”
Peterson never planned to become a spy. She and her older sister grew up in a comfortable home in Darien, Conn., an hour outside New York City, living in what she calls “a very small cocoon.” She was attracted to Drew because it was not far from home and, although small, held the promise of expanding her world. She majored in sociology, with a minor in religion. “Drew had an amazing faculty and a wide range of subjects,” Peterson recalls. “I went there to grow up and have a good time.”
During her junior year she began dating a fellow student, John Peterson ’67, a physics major from Bellingham, Mass. John planned to study journalism after graduating. But he decided, Peterson says, “to be an authentic journalist, he should have life experience first. ”
American involvement in the Vietnam War was building, and John wanted to be where the action was. Instead of graduate school, he enlisted in the Army for two years and served as a Green Beret in Vietnam. Martha, known as Marti, got a master’s degree and taught sociology at a community college. They married in 1969, after he came home.
The following year John joined the CIA as a paramilitary officer. He was assigned to Pakse, Laos, where the United States was fighting a secret war against Soviet-backed communists. Marti went along, the trailing spouse.
While John supervised Laotian troops, trying to prevent the North Vietnamese from reaching South Vietnam, Marti worked for the CIA as a part-time clerk. The fighting moved closer, at one point causing Marti and other American wives to be evacuated. After an American colleague was killed, John instructed Marti about what to do if he met the same fate. Three weeks later, on Oct. 19, 1972, North Vietnamese troops fired a Soviet- made AK-47 at the helicopter in which John was riding. The helicopter crashed and burned.
Marti was a widow at 27. She struggled for months to come to terms with her loss. Ultimately, heeding the advice of one of John’s CIA friends, she followed him into the agency. “I was not a political sort,” she says. “That’s not who I was, or am. Some people have suggested that I joined to avenge him. I don’t know if that’s true. All I knew was that I couldn’t go back to teaching. I didn’t have a home. I was a new widow, kind of lost in the world.” She was firmly ensconced in her new career when, on Thanksgiving Day 1978, she married Stephen J. Shogi, a U.S. State Department official. She took his name, and they had a son and daughter. (Later the couple divorced, and he has since died.) The kids figure in the book’s prologue, set in Virginia in 1997 when they were teenagers. Peterson believed it was time to dispel the family myth that she also worked at the State Department, and asked them to meet her in Langley.
“What’s up?” they asked after arriving.
“I work for the CIA,” she blurted out.
“She’s a spy,” her 17-year-old son quickly responded.
“We all laughed together at how absurd it sounded,” Peterson writes. “Mom, a spy.” Then she took them inside agency headquarters for lunch and a fuller explanation of her past.
During an interview from her home in Wilmington, N.C., where she settled after retiring in 2003, Peterson is friendly and open. But she provides few details about her post-Moscow life in the CIA. A second overseas tour took place in the mid-1990s, but Peterson declines to say where. Asked how her career ended, she says, “My last five years was counter-terrorism. I had a certain responsibility for that. I had a large office I was responsible for. We were tracking terrorists around the world.”
Having to lie to friends and neighbors about her true identity all that time never troubled her. “You just live that way,” she says. “After a while, it becomes who you are. Was it fun? Absolutely. Anything illicit is fun. Was it uncomfortable? No, and it was the culture of the CIA.” After she retired, however, she began telling the truth. “It was liberating,” she says.
Peterson next set out to write a book. CIA friends had encouraged her to tell her story, and she was proud of her career. She also saw a book as a way to honor her first husband and Aleksandr Ogorodnik, the Soviet spy she serviced, code-named “Trigon.” The two never met, although he once passed within a few feet of her. Peterson considers Ogorodnik a hero for attempting to undermine the Soviet system. She once delivered to him a pen concealing a tiny camera he used to photograph secret government documents that crossed his desk in the foreign ministry. “There was huge personal risk to him,” she says. “What he did had great value for us, but the thought of him taking those pictures, thinking he could get away with it, makes my mouth go dry.”
Shortly before Peterson’s arrest, Ogorodnik was arrested for espionage. He committed suicide on the spot, biting through a pen containing a lethal pill. He had earlier requested poison from the CIA for just such an eventuality. It was Peterson who supplied the pen.
In Wilmington, Peterson took a memoir class and began to write. The hardest part was describing the day John died, a trauma she had never fully recounted or explored. Two years later she submitted the completed manuscript to the CIA for clearance. A literary agent was enthusiastic about the book, but publishers complained the story was dated. People wanted to read about terrorism. One publisher was interested, but wanted the book rewritten. Peterson consulted several professional writers but decided to self-publish. “I wanted my story, told my way, without anyone else reinterpreting it,” she says.
The Widow Spy came out last year. Since then Peterson has given 33 talks to 1,600 people at libraries, universities and other venues. In February she was the featured guest at a festive $250 “Dinner with a Spy” evening at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., and in April she spoke at the Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Texas.
For someone who spent 30 years in the shadows, it’s a lot of exposure. But she loves it. “Isn’t that strange?” she asks. “Putting myself out there is not characteristic of me. I’ve never been one to brag. On the other hand, I’m very social and have always loved speaking. I’m also a Gemini. People say Geminis have two lives.”