Secrets of a Secret Agent

Matthews' specialty was spying behind enemy lines. "It's something not many people at the agency can do."
Matthews' specialty was spying behind enemy lines. "It's something not many people at the agency can do."Photograph by Art Streiber

On a busy Monday morning in March, geopolitical intrigue is running high. In Geneva, the U.S. and Iran are preparing to sit down for nuclear talks, the future of Middle East peace possibly in the balance. In Moscow, a Russian TV station has just aired a controversial documentary in which President Vladimir Putin declared he was prepared to use nuclear weapons over the crisis in Ukraine. The actual Putin, meanwhile, is nowhere to be seen, having gone missing for the past 10 days, following the murder of a popular dissident, Boris Nemtsov, on a bridge near the Kremlin. North Korea is firing missiles; ISIS is digging in to Tikrit. And 7,000 miles away, in his oasis-like backyard in the desert of Southern California, surrounded by a softly trickling fountain and grapefruit and palm trees, sits a mild-mannered novelist with top-secret insight into all of it.

“Whatever it was, it was a pretty slick hit,” says Jason Matthews of the Nemtsov killing. “If you watch the video, there’s a snowplow that comes at exactly the right time to block the cameras and shield traffic on the street. It also probably distracted [Nemtsov] and covered the footsteps of the guy who came up behind him.” As for rumors of Putin’s involvement, he says, “I don’t know if Putin would have said, ‘Whack this guy.’ But he may have, in a private meeting, said, ‘This guy is really a stone in my shoe,’ and waited to see who came up with a plan.”

Matthews, 63, is something of a Putin expert, having authored two spy novels in which the former KGB operative plays a central, if semifictional, role. The first, 2013’s Red Sparrow, was a bestseller whose movie rights were scooped up before it was even published; the sequel, the recently released Palace of  Treason, also debuted on the bestseller list. Both are set against the real-life backdrop of a resurgent Cold War that Matthews believes is the result of Russia’s rapacious empire lust. At his readings, he likes to thank his wife, his daughters, “and Vladimir Putin for the endless content.”

But Matthews also draws from another source, one that lends his books a unique verisimilitude. Before he became a novelist, Matthews spent 33 years in the Operations Directorate, the clandestine wing of the CIA. For three decades he was undercover overseas, collecting secrets to help America fight the Cold War and the global war on terror. He began as a junior case officer pounding the streets of Iron Curtain–era Europe and rose to be chief or deputy chief at seven different CIA stations, winning a vaunted Intelligence Medal of Merit along the way. There’s a long tradition of British novelists — le Carré, Fleming, Cumming — with real-life intelligence backgrounds. But Matthews is the only American spy writer who spent most of his life as a spy.

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It’s a blazing day with the temperature in the mid-90s, and Matthews is in the shade by his pool, wiping sweat from his forehead and puffing on one of his ever-present cigars. He’s wearing shorts and boat shoes, and his pet dachshund, Gus, is in his lap. Matthews speaks carefully, in long, discursive paragraphs, with the soothing bedside manner of a man who used to convince people to commit treason for a living. With his owlish glasses and nonthreatening physique, he’s the last person you’d peg as a spy — until you find out he was one, and then it makes perfect sense.

Matthews says his job was simple: “to recruit sources with access who could provide intelligence to our policymakers to save the world from nuclear holocaust.” (He laughs: “Short version.”) In other words, he befriended foreigners with inside information about their governments and convinced them to share their secrets with the U.S. He specialized in “denied-area operations,” unfriendly locales where the CIA couldn’t operate freely, such as Communist countries in Asia and the Caribbean and various Soviet republics. The secrecy agreement he signed when he joined the agency prevents him from disclosing exactly where he worked, but with a wink he’ll tell you he’s “familiar with” such cities as Athens, Belgrade, Budapest, Hong Kong, and Istanbul.

Matthews’ books have all the elements of great spy thrillers: double crosses, mole hunts, assassination attempts, outlandish sex. But what really makes them come alive are the fine-grain details of workaday espionage: the cables back to headquarters, the power struggles with clueless bosses who “don’t know the street,” and, most of all, the endless hours spent on foot in European capitals, checking for surveillance to make sure you’re “clear” before a clandestine meeting. A review of Red Sparrow on the CIA’s website praised Matthews’ depiction of tradecraft, calling it basically a how-to manual that would make fellow officers “wonder how he got all this past the Publications Review Board,” the CIA panel that has to sign off on his work. (Answer: It took a while.) One major subplot in the new book rang so true that some higher-ups at the agency at first didn’t want him to publish it.

Matthews and his wife, Suzanne — herself a 34-year veteran of the CIA (more on that later) — moved to this golf course near Palm Springs after his retirement, in 2009. (Matthews calls the area “God’s waiting room.”) He retired “overtly,” meaning his CIA background isn’t classified, but the specifics of it still are, so he asks that certain details be kept off the record in order to protect his former assets. “Theoretically, the Cold War is long over,” he says. “But someone could still say, ‘You know, you were in Athens at the same time as this dickhead . . .’ and start to put the pieces together. It’s a long shot. But it’s the little things.”

He takes another puff of his cigar. “Espionage is the world’s second-oldest profession. And what it has in common with the first profession is: Someone’s going to get it in the end.”

It’s getting hot in the shade, so we move inside, to the cool relief of their chicly appointed modernist house. There are glass walls with mountain views and tasteful Asian-inspired art, the comfortable rewards that follow a career of high danger. Matthews always had diplomatic cover, so he was less likely to be killed, but he could have been jailed or interrogated and his agents might have been killed. “European capitals in the Seventies were very la dolce vita kinds of places, but you’re still walking around with a target on your back,” he says. “If you made a mistake, people could disappear.”

Matthews takes a sip of iced tea. Overhead, the vaulted wooden ceiling beams creak and pop with the heat. “You should hear it at night,” he says. “It’s everything I can do not to shoot a hole in the roof.”

One of Matthews’ favorite words is phlegmatic. It pops up five times in his two books and occasionally in his speech, a linguistic tic that reveals something about the man himself. Matthews, too, is phlegmatic: cool, low-key, seemingly unflappable. Physically he resembles the hero of his books, the young CIA officer Nate Nash, a handsome ex-swimmer whose anonymously dark hair and unremarkable height help him blend into a crowd “the way taller or gangling or redheaded trainees could not do.” Nate’s most distinctive characteristic is his “darting brown eyes,” which can read people and expressions with almost supernatural insight. If Matthews isn’t quite that good, he’s close.

Matthews has prepared lunch, a traditional Greek meal of dolmas, tzatziki, and red-pepper hummus, with an olive-tomato-feta salad on the side. He’s a real food guy: At the end of every chapter in his books is a recipe for a dish that’s mentioned in said chapter. Usually they’re straightforward — babka (Polish rum cake), Viennese croquettes — but they’re also occasionally funny, for instance when a bullet from a lipstick gun turns the inside of an Iranian thug’s motorcycle helmet to a metaphorical bowl of tomato soup, followed wryly by Matthews’ recipe for gazpacho.

(In Europe, during the 1970s, Matthews used diplomatic parties to assess potential targets. Photograph Courtesy Jason Matthews)

“You can tell a lot about a person from the way they eat,” Matthews says, digging in. The way they hold their knife and fork, how well they hold their liquor. It’s all part of what he calls “opening the human envelope” — the psychological process of getting to know a potential source and exploiting his vulnerabilities. He says the process can take years, and the success rate is low. There are certain techniques the CIA uses, with jargony names like “eliciting” and “throwing bones,” but perhaps the most important quality for a case officer is a certain comfort with what Matthews euphemistically calls “untruths.”

“You have to be able to — how should I say it? Suspend morality,” he says. “Basically, you have to lie. You have to inveigle people. You take care of your agent, you step in front of a bus to protect your agent — but at the same time, you are intrinsically stringing him along. To recruit someone is to get him or her to agree to something absolutely illogical: committing treason against their country. So there is a modicum of being a little sneaky, a little manipulative, and sometimes a little cruel.”

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Matthews maintains that lying by CIA officers isn’t as pervasive as it seems. “We don’t carry it around like a gun in a holster,” he says. For our purposes, he promises that he’ll either tell the truth or simply not answer. “Right now I can’t conceive of anything I would need to tell you an untruth about. For instance, if you ask me if I ever killed anybody, I’d say, ‘I can’t tell you that.’ ” He grins mischievously. “The honest answer is no.”

Matthews’ books, with their ever-present surveillance and midnight double-dealings, are so vivid and immersive that they have a way of making you feel just a tiny bit paranoid. The first time I visited them at home, Suzanne excused herself early to attend a meeting of the community cultural board on which she volunteers. When I got back to my car, I noticed that my suitcase, locked in the trunk, was partly unzipped. For a minute or two, I was convinced that she had broken in and tampered with it, just to mess with me. When I tell them about this the next day, Suzanne laughs. Matthews doesn’t.

“Oh, we tossed your car,” he deadpans. “Just wanted to make sure.”

“Jason Matthews” is not an alias, although it sounds as if it could be. He believes the family’s name was originally Mathaious; his grandparents were ethnic Greeks from Greece and Turkey who came to the U.S. at the turn of the last century. Matthews grew up in a Greek-speaking household in Connecticut, then majored in French and Spanish at college. After graduation, he enrolled in journalism school and soon went to D.C. for job interviews. (“For all I knew, I’d be writing brochures for the Forest Service.”) Instead he wound up landing a few bonus interviews via a relative at the State Department. “And one of those interviews,” Matthews says, “turned out to be Christians in Action” — the CIA.

As Matthews recalls it, that first meeting was less than glamorous. “Nondescript building in Rosslyn, Virginia. Gray little office. Gray little man.” But the agency needed Greek speakers, and he fit the bill. So after a background check and several polygraph exams, he joined the CIA’s entering class of November 1976.

Matthews can’t say where his first posting was, but given that Greek was his selling point, Athens is not a bad guess. “I was a junior guy,” he says, “and my job was to shut up and make sure the safe house had beer in the fridge. But that was the first time you got the sense that there were people in these dangerous little corners of the globe doing the same thing you were. As a young person, that was really cool. Obviously you couldn’t say anything. But there was a self-sustaining pride: ‘We’re actually in the CIA!’ ”

Matthews’ cover identity was as a political officer in the State Department. As a rule, foreign intelligence services tend to assume that a certain number of employees at every American embassy are spies, but they don’t know which ones. As a result, much of his time was devoted to maintaining his cover, stamping visas on the visa line like any other junior employee. In a job where he was supposed to find foreigners who might want something from the U.S. in exchange for information, they were being served to him on a platter. “You could always tell the spooks on the consular line,” Matthews says. “They were the guys inviting applicants for coffee later.”

(Matthews and his wife, Suzanne, in the Mediterranean in the 1970s. Photograph Courtesy Jason Matthews)

After clocking out at the embassy, Matthews would go to work at his actual job, recruiting potential agents. (To note: In CIA speak, an agent is a foreigner who provides information to an American case officer; the agents are the sources, and the officers are the spies.) In the late Seventies, the jackpot for an American officer was a Russian or Chinese target, but other Communist nationals and certain left-wing paramilitary groups were also prized. On his first tour, Matthews says he “fell into a pretty big one.” He can’t really elaborate, except to say that “it was the first time that someone from his country had been recruited. It was sort of trailblazey.” (“It was a pretty big deal,” Suzanne confirms.) Whatever it was, it set his career on an upward track.

For his first few postings in Western Europe, Matthews followed a routine cycle: “Recruit a guy and send him back in. Meet behind the soccer stadium at midnight, plan things, and then hold your breath while you read Pravda every morning to see if his execution has been announced.” He says at any given time a case officer probably has a dozen agents: foreign attachés, reporters, hotel clerks. “It’s all part of how the octopus spreads its tentacles.”

But after a couple of tours, Matthews decided to seek special training in what the agency calls “internal operations” — essentially spying behind enemy lines. “It’s something not many people at the agency can do,” he says. He spent two years in D.C. undergoing education in so-called denied-area trade­craft, where surveillance was assumed at all times. He learned tricks like dead drops (delivering packages to agents without arousing suspicion) and the MCD, or moving-car delivery (hand brakes, no brake lights). A crack in-house CIA team played mind games with him, simulating hostile KGB surveillance: breaking into his house, taking a dump in his toilet, pouring anchovy oil on his car’s engine block. “It’s sort of the psychic equivalent of Hell Week for SEALs,” he says. “They want to see who can handle it and who can’t.”

Matthews spent the next decade or so in denied-area postings: sneaking around the Balkans during the Yugoslav Wars, reinventing internal operations in Cuba after a previous CIA foul-up. There were some close calls: In one Eastern-bloc country, he arrived at a clandestine meeting in the woods 30 minutes early and happened upon two men diving into the bushes. It was to be an ambush, but they hadn’t set it up yet. “I got out,” he says. “But it was very close.”

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But those kinds of days were the exceptions. For the most part, says Matthews, “the job of a case officer is not terribly action-packed. There are no car chases or guns being carried. You’re in an embassy writing reports.” There’s a great moment in Red Sparrow when Nate Nash and a superior are trying to break in to someone’s apartment. “Can you pick the lock?” Nash asks. “Be serious,” his boss says.

As Matthews describes it, case officers are more like clandestine journalists, developing sources, pumping them for information, and writing up what they learn in cables for their bosses back at HQ. He always liked writing cables: “Without bragging or hyperbole, you had to write a very careful, descriptive account of who you saw, what you did, and some of the atmospherics.” Suzanne says colleagues at the agency used to comment on how good Matthews’ cables were, saying he should be a writer. In his books, even minor characters get a rich backstory, touching on everything from their financial status to their sex life. “I never thought of it,” Matthews says. “But it’s a lot like the foreign contact reports I used to write: When he started talking about the Ukrainian diaspora, his eyes welled up. You’re basically doing character sketches.”

After a few “ass-kicking denied-area tours,” Matthews was so skilled at internal operations that he was assigned to be an instructor and later the I.O. chief. His job was teaching young spies how not to get caught. One day he offers to give me a lesson. “It will be a little corny,” he says. “But it’ll give you an idea of some of the things we had to think about and let you feel how the adrenaline starts to pump.”

Matthews used to love being in the street, dodging surveillance. You can tell from the quasi-mystical way he writes about it — the tingling on the arms, the coolness on the neck, the way a veteran officer feels coverage before he sees it. “You almost try to establish a metaphysical bond with them,” Matthews says. “The goal is not to lose them. It’s to lull them into feeling comfortable — then use that few-second gap to make something happen.”

We’re in Matthews’ Audi SUV, making our way to a nearby shopping mall, where he’s going to demonstrate the espionage cat-and-mouse game. On the way, he explains the concept of an SDR, or surveillance-detection route — a circuitous, sometimes hours-long journey designed to shake loose any surveillance you might have. He says in one country his surveillance team nicknamed him “the Fly” because of the long, meandering loops he would drive to work every day. If protecting one’s agent is an officer’s top priority, as Matthews believes, then a solid SDR could be the most important thing he’ll ever do. “If you whiff it,” Matthews says, “the agent is dead.”

We pull up to the Gardens on El Paseo, an upscale shopping arcade that Matthews calls “the Rodeo Drive of Palm Springs.” There’s an Ann Taylor and a Brooks Brothers, and lots of retirees and moms with babies out for a stroll. On the corner in front of Williams-Sonoma, we meet the person who’s going to be our target for the day: Matthews’ lovely wife, Suzanne.

Suzanne joined the CIA in 1975, a year before Matthews. They met on his first tour, her second, and got married the tour after that — thereby becoming what the agency calls a “tandem couple,” or a pair of married spies. Suzanne later went part-time, but they still worked operations together. In one Eastern-bloc country in the mid-’80s, they were assigned to make contact with a compromised asset’s wife in order to smuggle her to the West, and Suzanne was the one who rolled out of the car during a snowstorm with surveillance on her tail to make the approach, not knowing if a team of thugs would be waiting for her. As Matthews recalls: “I spent a harrowing three hours playing darts and drinking beer at the Canadian embassy while my bride did the dangerous job of cold-knocking on the apartment door.” (As it turned out, the wife had already been arrested.)

Today Matthews and I are playing a foreign surveillance team keeping eyes on Suzanne, a CIA officer. We follow from a distance as she drifts in and out of stores, browsing merchandise. Matthews explains how she’s keeping tabs on us with her peripheral vision instead of using amateur tricks like reflections in windows or pretending to tie her shoes — both giveaways that she’s “surveillance conscious” and thus possibly operational. We trail her for about 45 minutes, using tourists to screen ourselves while we scan the crowd for her blue sweater. Nothing she does ever seems fishy, but when we meet up afterward, it turns out she made a dead drop in a cactus planter, retrieved a package from a flower bed, and left three signals for agents, including Vaseline on an escalator handrail and Scotch tape on the door to Saks. “So those are just some examples of different ways things can be done,” Suzanne says over lunch at Tommy Bahama. “But in real life you’d only do one of them, and it would take a month of planning.”

(The couple at their home near Palm Springs, California, in March. Photograph by Art Streiber)

By the early Nineties, the couple had two young daughters and were still posted overseas. Now they were like a reverse of Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys on The Americans: two married CIA officers raising children undercover. Paradoxically, says Matthews, this sometimes made Suzanne more effective: “No one expects the lady with the baby carriage to be picking up dead drops.” They kept their work secret — as far as the girls knew, they just had boring office jobs — but every once in a while reality intruded.

In one Mediterranean country, Matthews was station chief when his name appeared on a terrorist group’s hit list. He got an armed security detail and a car with ballistic glass. When his guards used mirrors to check under his car for bombs, he and Suzanne told their daughters they were “looking for kitty cats.” By far the scariest moment was pulling up to the front steps of the kindergarten each morning, because it was a scheduled stop. “Any known place,” Matthews says, “that’s where the X gets drawn.”

In the late 1990s, during the Kosovo War, the family had to flee the Balkans-area embassy they were posted in, and their home was looted and burned. (It just happened to be their younger daughter’s eighth birthday. “We evacuated the cake,” jokes Suzanne.) When they got back to the States, Matthews took a job at Langley, and they thought they were done going overseas. At this point they decided it was safe to tell the girls. As Suzanne recalls it: “We took them to see Spy Kids, which had just come out. And then we told them they were spy kids!”

“We were such little brats. We were just like, ‘OK — can we go play now?’ ” recalls their younger daughter, Sophie, 24. The couple then made the girls promise that if anybody ever asked what they did — teachers, friends, friends’ parents — they would stick to the story that they worked for the State Department. “I always knew my line,” Sophie says. “Even today, if I don’t want to have a long conversation about it, I still say State Department, because no one cares.”

Sophie was just in second grade when she found out the truth, so she never suspected anything out of the ordinary, apart from occasionally wondering why her dad’s business trips lasted a month. “But now I really enjoy hearing those stories,” she says. “They were so badass — my mom is out there rolling out of cars, and meanwhile she’s home making me Kraft macaroni and cheese for dinner. Now that I’m old enough to appreciate it, there’s really no other word for it — it’s just really cool.”

Matthews’ last job before his retirement was station chief in Los Angeles. (“I think I can probably say that.”) Retiring in California saved him from joining one of the outfits he calls Beltway Bandits, in which former spies return to Langley as private contractors. (“It’s Groundhog Day, man. Same shit meals in the cafeteria — only your badge is a different color.”) But he still needed a hobby and, as he jokes, he doesn’t fish. For a while he worked as a consultant on a J.J. Abrams show called Undercovers, about a pair of married ex-CIA officers who start a catering company but find themselves dragged back in.

(He found it silly: “It’s two black officers — they couldn’t really go undercover in North Korea, but if you insist . . . .”) He says he wrote the first draft of Red Sparrow “as much for therapy” as with any hope that it would be published. But he happened to know an entertainment lawyer who happened to know a high-powered literary agent, and before he knew it, his manuscript had sparked a bidding war.

“In retrospect, it wasn’t because the book or my writing was so good,” Matthews says. “It’s because I was a former spook.”

These days Matthews writes at home, in a wood-paneled office under a map of the Turkish Aegean coast, where his grandfather grew up. On one side of the room are bookshelves of Cold War memorabilia — a Minox spy camera, a red Mao clock — along with “some of the bullshit” from his CIA years, like the two medals he won for distinguished and exceptional service. “At the end of the day, that’s my career,” he jokes. “Dusty medals on a bookcase.”

If you’re in the market for a clear-eyed, skeptical take on the CIA, Matthews is not your guy. He’s a lifer, a true believer, a company man proud of his service. “Not to get too corny about it,” he says, “but we did stuff for our country.” In his books, field officers are good guys “who accomplished heroics from the depths of the shadows.” He defends the agency against criticism over faulty WMD intelligence in Iraq, says enhanced interrogation “got information, thwarted plans, saved lives,” and calls Jose Rodriguez, the CIA official who helped oversee the waterboarding program, “a fantastic guy.” “It’s horrendous out there,” he says of the world. “You’ve got to get tough to tell the brutes to stop.”

At the end of the day, he says, the personal costs of the job — the years of putting other people in harm’s way for the theoretical greater good — don’t weigh on him. “We’re not choirboys,” he says. “But it didn’t bother me, because I was doing it for my country and what I thought were the right reasons. Sometimes it turns bad, and that’s a gut punch. To lose someone who’s shown tremendous courage and with whom you’ve developed a friendship . . . there is mourning and depression and stuff. But if it bothers you, you couldn’t sustain yourself for 33 years.”

In his new book, Palace of Treason, Matthews writes about a fictional CIA plot against a real-life nuclear-enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran. This is a world he knows deeply: After returning to Langley, he spent five years helping to supervise the CIA’s Counterproliferation Division, where he collected intelligence about nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons around the globe, “trying to figure out the supply chain so we could disrupt it, starve it, and cut it off.” Long-term, he thinks, the greatest threat to America’s national security is China, “but short-term it’s the Iranian nuclear program. If the Iranians have a bomb? Holy crap. They could sit at any conference table with a nuke in their pocket and become a player.”

Matthews believes the world is full of threats right now — which is why he believes case officers in the field, as opposed to drones and mass surveillance, are so necessary. “I have to guard against saying it was better in the good old days,” he says. “But if you step back and look at the sum total of the global war on terror, you could argue that we lost some of the classic skill of humint,” or human intelligence. “The Pentagon’s definition of intelligence is ‘What does the bridge over the next hill look like?’ But if we want to recruit a Syrian defense minister, it takes 10 years. It’s two totally different things.”

It won’t be him recruiting those ministers — he’s out of the game. Matthews says the Hollywood stories about grizzled ex-spies getting called for one last job are just that: stories. Once you’re out, you’re out. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel the pull sometimes.

“The curse of our life,” he says, “is that Suzanne or I will be reading the paper, and we’ll run into the other room and say, ‘This is bullshit! Here’s what the real story is.’ ”

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