In Other Words

A Father's Secret…

And his journalist son's search for the truth.

For most of my childhood, I didn't know my father was a spy. He and I traveled the world for a quarter-century as he worked in Yugoslavia, India, Pakistan, Spain, and several other countries. To my knowledge, he was a diplomat, which I understood to mean cocktail parties, foreign languages, and embassies.

He cut a dashing figure -- tall, handsome, charming -- and I wanted to be just like him. His shelves were crowded with books about espionage, and he encouraged me in my obsession with James Bond movies. Sometimes my dad would disappear for long stretches and out-of-town trips. "Gotta see a man about a horse," he'd say with a wink, and I knew I wasn't meant to indulge my curiosity further. In Yugoslavia, he would take our dog, Duke, out for long walks alone at night. It was only much later that I learned he was slipping away to deliver "dead drops" in the parks near our house. In Pakistan he took me on trips to the North-West Frontier Province, where we stood on hills and watched as Afghan refugees fled the 1980s war against the Soviets. My childhood was filled with adventures like this. My father seemed uniquely capable of living life with such panache.

Only when I was 14 did he finally tell me the truth. We were sitting in a car in a parking lot on Detroit's outskirts. Above us was his office, three small rooms with a sign that said "Apex Insurance." "Do you know what I do?" my father asked me. After a brief hesitation he told me the answer: He had been an undercover CIA officer since the late 1960s, and all his embassy jobs had been designed as cover assignments for his real task, spying. He instructed me that from then on I was to be the keeper of his secrets. There was a greater good, he explained. I was old enough to understand it and old enough to be a part of it. His secret became mine.

When I became a foreign correspondent many years later, I had a vague notion that journalism was about as far as one could get from spying. One was about disseminating information as widely as possible; the other was about keeping it a closely guarded secret. As I traveled, however, I found far more similarities in our professions than I had been comfortable admitting. When, as a CIA contractor, my father traveled to Afghanistan after I had worked there in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, he often talked to the same people, asked the same questions, and traveled the same roads I had as a reporter. In Khost he lived in a Special Forces camp just down the road from where I had stayed and spent his days talking to provincial governors and grizzled Pashtun elders about their problems, just as I had.

A few years later we both found ourselves in Jordan. He was stationed there, and I was on my way into Iraq. Once again we were both confronted with the parallel tracks our lives and careers were taking. In Baghdad I struggled to stay on top of the daily drumbeat of attacks in an attempt to document Iraq's growing civil war, while my father, in Amman, focused more closely on identifying who was behind the spiraling violence. Although our tasks were different, the larger story of the war's effect on the Middle East had caught both of us in its grasp. It was unnerving to be so close to him physically, in a dangerous part of the world, yet in the dark about what exactly he was doing. Journalism was about telling stories, but it seemed the one story I could not tell was the story of my father.

IT WAS IN Mexico City, of all places, that I finally became determined to get that story -- the real story, that is. I had been assigned there as Newsweek's Latin America bureau chief -- 34 years after my father had moved there, as an adventurous student and then teacher, and found himself on the way to becoming a Cold War spy. It's often forgotten today, but Mexico in the 1960s and 1970s had become an important proxy battlefield between the United States and the Soviet Union, teeming with spies for both sides as they sought advantage in the tumultuous political protests racking Mexico City in 1968. There were excesses on both sides, and the year I arrived in Mexico, President Vicente Fox had begun pressing his government to open up its files about "the dirty war" -- the period in the '60s and '70s when the Mexican government had waged a brutal campaign to suppress and ultimately destroy nascent leftist rebel groups and communist guerrilla movements. For the first time, government officials were beginning to talk openly about the country's darkest secrets. Mexico had established a freedom of information law by then, and reporters, myself included, were poring through old documents, trying to piece together what had happened more than 30 years before.

Much attention focused on the night of Oct. 2, 1968, when several thousand protesters gathered in Mexico City's Plaza de las Tres Culturas, angry about police violence and the government's recent crackdowns on free speech. As the demonstrators milled about, Mexican Army and security forces, for reasons that remain contested to this day, moved into the plaza and began shooting. At least several dozen were killed; many more were abducted -- "disappeared" in the language of the time -- never to be heard from again. That massacre in Mexico City's Tlatelolco area would forever be cemented as the single worst episode in the long, sorry history of Mexico's dirty war against its own people.

The turbulence Mexico was experiencing as these facts came spilling out in many ways mirrored the personal story I was just beginning to probe -- cracked, partial, and fragmented, to be sure, but there all the same. I soon learned the year of the Tlatelolco massacre was the year my father had lived in Mexico and was recruited by the CIA. As I began reporting on Mexico's political evolution decades later, I found myself returning again and again to my father's past -- and my own complicity in it. As Mexico faced its secrets, I faced mine.

That same spring of 1968, I learned, my father was working as a political science instructor at the University of the Americas. A group of Soviet spies had infiltrated my father's campus attempting to recruit one of his students. When my father discovered the plot, he cleverly engineered a meeting with the local CIA officers -- and was soon recruited himself. He would go on to serve as an "access agent" for the U.S. spies in Mexico, helping them orchestrate a dangerous operation to ensnare a KGB officer who had penetrated the university -- and even spending several hours in a Mexican jail to help them trap the Soviet spy. The experience was enough to whet his appetite for more. He left Mexico for training in the United States soon after and within a year embarked on his spying career.

One of my father's stories of his time in Mexico had always stood out for me. He found himself on a Mexico City rooftop, peering down into a crowd of student protesters. My father sympathized with the students, he had frequently told me, and he often marched with them in the streets. A friend from the university had wanted to take some footage for a movie he was making that day, and he and my dad went up to the roof to get a better view. As a child, the image of my father peering out as thousands of people gathered below was mysterious and intriguing, but also vaguely unsettling.

By the time I was in Mexico working as a reporter, I began to wonder whether my father's role was more than mere coincidence. I knew people who had lost loved ones to the government's tyranny. My father had been a witness, and possibly more, to those terrible times. As a journalist I wanted to know everything about what he had seen or done, but as a son, I was afraid of what I might discover.

When I filed requests with Mexico's newly formed freedom of information service, writing my father's name in the topic line felt like an act of betrayal. Digging through documents unearthed by the National Security Archive, I found evidence that "trained observers" had been present on the rooftops of the nearby Chihuahua Complex the night of the Tlatelolco massacre. I also read about an anonymous "American" who had reported on some of the goings-on in those weeks and months. Had my father witnessed the massacre?

The more I dug, the more suspicious I became, and I was soon forced to question my own motivations. The year I moved to Mexico I had met and fallen in love with a woman whose father, a leftist guerrilla commander, was jailed in 1968 for allegedly subversive activities. Her father had been on one side of the dirty war and was punished badly for it. Which side, I wondered, had my father been on? The possibility, however slight, that there was a darker truth to my father's life in Mexico also opened up the uncomfortable prospect that the rest of his life and career were black holes. I wondered how much of what he had told me was the truth and how much he could never tell me. Most troublingly, I began to wonder how well I knew my father at all.

I finally decided to confront him. When my father responded by telling me the same story about the rooftop he had related so many times, I didn't believe him. I was reminded instead of something he had told me years before. I had wanted to know how he had learned to extract information from his agents, about the dangers of navigating the line between secrecy and disclosure, and how he, how anyone for that matter, went about recruiting Soviets, a crowning achievement for any American spy. My father told me something he had learned from one of his teachers, a former Soviet intelligence official who had defected to the United States and was by then, in 1969, working for the CIA in Washington, D.C., training young recruits. You'll never be able to recruit a Soviet with Sears, Roebuck catalogs or golden tales about the capitalist high life, the Soviet officer told the class. "Soviets recruit themselves," the teacher said. His students just needed to learn how to be -- or how to become -- "the kind of person" in whom Soviets would entrust their fate.

Over the course of my career in journalism, I've spent years reporting in conflict zones -- in Afghanistan and Iraq, and across Africa -- and trying to live up to my father's advice to become the "kind of person" who could procure and then deliver valuable information. Digging into my father's past, however, I found myself using the same methods he had taught me -- eliciting information rather than asking for it outright, making myself available for him, trying to build conversations rather than interrogations.

Eventually I discovered that he had not, in fact, been on the same rooftop the night of the Tlatelolco massacre. This was not a journalistic revelation so much as it was a personal one. I had wanted to confirm through my reporting what I already knew as a human being -- that my father was a good man. He had become a CIA spy in Mexico, but he had never come anywhere close to being involved in a dirty-war massacre. As a reporter, I sort of wished he had told me more. But as a son, I couldn't have been more relieved. If there is a coda to any of this, it is that I will only ever know part of the truth. My father's life, and mine to a certain extent, will only ever be a story. Any child of a spy will tell you the same thing.

Photos courtesy of Scott Johnson

In Other Words


The son of a Red Army intelligence officer sent to die in a Siberian gulag discovers his father's KGB file, and a cottage industry of children-of-spies memoirs.

Ten years ago, on a blustery March morning, I found myself in front of Moscow's infamous Lubyanka prison, the dreaded home of the KGB, where thousands of political prisoners were jailed, interrogated, and tortured. I had come to find the file of my father, a man I did not know -- a man who, when he was arrested in the hellish days of Joseph Stalin's purges, was not even half the age I am now.

The dark central stairwell in the Lubyanka annex where I was directed was barely illuminated; a sole light bulb hung above the second-floor landing that housed the reading room. There, I was handed his file under the watchful eyes of a couple of dour officials behind an all-glass wall. My Russian guide, Lada, nervously translated the contents, while I stared at my father's mug shot taken at the Butyrskaya Prison, built in the time of Catherine the Great and still the largest in Moscow. He looked haggard and soulful.

The file revealed that my father, Wilhelm Schwarzfeller, a German national, had been an agent for Red Army intelligence in the 1930s before being arrested in Moscow in January 1938 during Stalin's Great Terror. I was just a baby, born only six months before in Los Angeles, and too young to have any memory of him. He had been sentenced to an eight-year term in Vorkuta, one of Stalin's Gulag prisons north of the Arctic Circle, where he starved to death in 1943. My mother and I left Moscow during the German invasion and returned to America, where I grew up without a father. My mother, born in Ukraine but a naturalized U.S. citizen, deflected or simply ignored my questions about him -- and for good reason.

As a boy in the late 1940s and 1950s, I was imbued with America's collective anxiety about the "Red Menace" that so occupied the waking hours of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Legions of Soviet spies, it was thought, lurked everywhere. But it came as a shock when I learned from the Lubyanka file what I had long suspected -- that my father was one of those spies. Soon thereafter, and with a sigh of great relief, I learned that he never spied against the United States. Instead, his principal mission was to spy for the Soviets against Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Stalin was greatly concerned about the intentions of the increasingly militaristic Japan toward the Soviet Union. Would Manchuria, abutting its Siberian border, become the launching point for a Japanese invasion? After all, Japan had thrashed the tsar's military in 1905, becoming the first Asian country to best any of the Western powers. My father, I learned, had been stationed in Mukden (now Shenyang), posing as a Canadian businessman.

I knew none of this, however, until that morning in the Lubyanka; I had spent most of my life thinking of my father as a distant figure, a ghost. Since then, though, I've found that I was not alone in finally deciding to unwind my family's hushed secrets, in my refusal to keep them buried in a sort of personal Cold War vault. I've spent the last few years working to re-create and write of my father's journey and secret life -- and while doing so, I've encountered many other spy kids along the way who also decided to investigate the mysteries of their missing dads. The children-of-spies memoir, it turns out, is a virtual cottage industry these days. Consider just this recent sampling: John Richardson's My Father the Spy: An Investigative Memoir (2005), Lucinda Franks's My Father's Secret War: A Memoir (2007), Jimmy Burns's Papa Spy: Love, Faith, and Betrayal in Wartime Spain (2009), Sara Mansfield Taber's Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy's Daughter (2012), Scott Johnson's The Wolf and the Watchman: A CIA Childhood (2012), and Carl Colby's soon-to-be-released The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby.

For those of us who grew up reading le Carré or Clancy or Fleming, there's more than a bit of swashbuckling in these books. At times, there's even an odd but palpable nostalgia for the Cold War cloak-and-dagger, good-vs.-evil spy game, and yet something tuned to another, different generation: After all, baby boomers like to talk about their feelings. What's common in these books is a tension in the children: What's most important -- country, family, love, honor? And it stretches across borders, from Britain to Spain to Australia. Did my father -- a German working for the Soviet Union, while pretending to be Canadian and living in Manchuria -- think about giving up the business when I was born in America? Did he realize that his death was something we might have to live with, that deception can be corrosive? There are lies your country asks you to tell and those that ruin the life of a kid.

SPY LITERATURE HOLDS a special fascination for readers. It's the thrill of being let in on a secret, the sense of sharing an adrenaline-pumping adventure, and the allure that the earthshaking global events we watch on TV are shaped (or perhaps prevented) by a few men and women operating covertly. But the narratives by children of spies add another dimension altogether. They overlay the story of their fathers' -- yes, most of them are men -- exploits with the inchoate anguish of feeling excluded from an essential part of family life. These memoirs read half like hero worship and half like the product of 15 years of asking, "Daddy, what did you do at work today?" and getting a lie for an answer.

Precious little attention has been given to the filial cost of espionage. Taber's book title, Born Under an Assumed Name, captures the essential predicament. After she was born in 1954 in Japan, her birth certificate was registered under a made-up surname to avoid blowing her father's cover as a diplomat -- though he was a U.S. intelligence officer whose secret mission was to debrief individuals who had escaped from communist China and to recruit agents to operate there. Her father's life in the shadows and the veil of secrecy forced on her, she writes, dominated her adolescence and led her to write her memoir decades later. "Now and then, I sipped tiny tastes of my father's clandestine activities -- they were like the little sips of scorching Chinese tea my father shared with me from his glass," Taber writes, "but I didn't know that I was sipping."

As 17th-century British poet John Dryden observed, "[S]ecrets are edged tools/And must be kept from children and from fools." It's not just children, however, who suffer from the lies that result. Throughout these new spy-children memoirs runs a deep, persistent sense not just of trying to understand one's father, but also of speaking for one's mother -- the unwitting or unwilling accomplice to the deception. Johnson's The Wolf and the Watchman attributes his parents' divorce at least in part to such strain. In my own case, the stress on my mother, Frieda, long after my father had disappeared in the Soviet Union, resulted in mental illness during the McCarthy era. But the real source of her terror remained a mystery to me even after I went to Moscow and discovered my father's secret past. Spying in the family, it turns out, generates many riddles.

According to the Lubyanka file, after my father's arrest he spent 13 months in Butyrskaya Prison, where he was subjected to nine interrogations, one of them lasting all night. Finally he was tried by a military troika and sent to the notorious Gulag. When informed of his sentence, my mother resolved to stay in Moscow until his release. But Adolf Hitler's armies invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. She had no choice but to flee. The problem was that she had been traveling under a false Canadian passport, and the U.S. State Department was hesitant to issue a replacement for the U.S. passport she claimed to have lost. Based on proof that I had been born in Los Angeles and was, therefore, a citizen, a special passport was issued. I was 4 years old.

The rest of the details came only last year when my long-standing Freedom of Information Act request turned up my mother's FBI file. Hoover's G-men, I discovered, had conducted a 13-year espionage investigation of her, stemming from the passport incident. Sadly, my mother died in 2007 at age 97, and I was never able to share the file with her. Throughout my childhood the life she could not tell me about lingered like a malevolent mystery over our small family. She could not keep a job. She was constantly looking over her shoulder, conscious of the investigation. I understand this now, and I realize that the stress of constant surveillance, mail interceptions, and surreptitious searches of our one-room apartment when we were out were more than her sensitive temperament could take. Undoubtedly, she was afraid of being charged as a spy and for using a false passport. My guess is that she was intent on protecting not only herself, but also my father -- whose fate she did not know -- and me, her only child. No wonder she descended into madness for a time.

THE SENSE OF a mystery slowly unraveling, of one secret leading to still more, is a common thread throughout these books; having a spy for a father, however loving, is about eventually acknowledging that you do not know the truth about your parents. And never far from the surface is the sense that a government sanctioned this betrayal -- that somehow your own private life had become a matter of high politics.

In Richardson's My Father the Spy, for example, we learn that during the Cold War his father, John Sr., was a "high-ranking" member of the CIA who had previously operated in stealth in Vienna's Soviet zone. Later, he served as CIA station chief in Saigon before he was recalled as a scapegoat for Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge when U.S. policy was in disarray. "His bitterness," Richardson wrote of his father, "was the mystery of my childhood." At the far end of this continuum is An Execution in the Family: One Son's Journey, by Robert Meeropol, one of the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed as spies for the Soviet Union. In a passionate defense of his parents, he relives the childhood trauma of being shunned because of his parents' notoriety. Perhaps reconciling the tugs of loyalty to parents versus country, he asserts, "I believe that my parents acted patriotically." While my father's espionage was focused on Japan, not the United States, I hear echoes of Meeropol's plea in my mother's anguish.

Oddly enough, it's a recent book about a treasonous father that speaks most closely to me. Wibke Bruhns's My Father's Country: The Story of a German Family tells of her father, an army officer during World War II, who was executed in 1944 -- when she was 6 years old -- for his role in the plot to kill Hitler. "I never knew him, and as a result he didn't affect me. I never missed him," she writes of her childhood. As an adult, she had great trouble coming to grips with her family's support of National Socialism; ultimately, though, his participation in the failed assassination plot made her come to see her father as a hero for renouncing Hitler. She ruefully speaks to her dead father: "I would have liked to laugh with you."

Looking at my father's haunting mug shot, I find it hard to think of laughing with him. My gut reaction, when I first learned of his treatment in prison and the Gulag, was hatred for his oppressors. But where can I direct my anger? Stalin is long dead, as are his brutish henchmen; the Soviet system is no more. It's a memory of a time and a politics long ago. Yet when I look at his picture, he's so young that I can't help but feel oddly protective -- as if he were my own son. It pains me that he died, of starvation and cold, unremarked, only to be buried in the wastelands of the Russian tundra. So I write to reclaim him from the Gulag, to piece his life back together from a few dusty files at the Lubyanka -- to give him the funeral he never had.

Historical photos courtesy of Peter Buck Feller

From top, the author's father in the Butyrskaya Prison and in Vorkuta Gulag