The number one criteria of being a successful field agent for the Central Intelligence Agency during the Cold War doesn’t get covered in the movies. If it did, the James Bond and Mission Impossible movie franchises would not be around very long.
That’s because the field operative spends most of his time listening to others talk. That’s according to retired CIA field agent Gene Coyle, who along with his wife Jan, spent two days meeting with students during their Global Studies Institute visit.
The field agent’s primary job is to gather “human intelligence,” which involves meeting with other people, and earning their trust and respect. During those times, it involved 70 percent listening and 30 percent talking. That’s how you find ways to help them help you, he explained.
Coyle served in the CIA from 1976 through 2006, working as a field operations officer in Russia, Kyrgyzstan, New Zealand, Brazil, Greece, and New York City. He also worked in the main office in Washington, D.C. He is now a professor of practice in Indiana University’s new School of Global and International Studies.
The actual covert action work detailed in the movies makes up only 5 percent of the work being done by the CIA, he said, but receives 95 percent of the media coverage. Coyle never fired his gun at another person. The closest he came to dying was riding horseback up steep mountain passages in the dark to hunt bighorn sheep with two Kyrgyzstan generals.
Jan, who already had security clearance as his wife, spent 24 years in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, with assignments that included the Iranian Task Force and the agency’s Special Activities Division. She pulled the most glamorous location – Vienna – while working on the task force.
They worked together as a couple during a special two-year assignment in Russia. The Russian assignment took 18 months to prepare for at CIA headquarters. During their time in Russia, they were followed by KGB agents; Coyle found a tracking wire stuck in the heel of his shoe and tracking dust in the pockets of his coats.
Officially listed as part of the U.S. Embassy’s Diplomatic Corps, the Coyles figured their apartment was bugged with listening devices and, maybe, even a small video camera. The apartment was supplied by the Russian government. He even kept a pair of “clean shoes” at the embassy to change into each day.
That constant feeling of being watched does “warp your mentality,” Jan said. You look at crowds differently. They recently spotted a person tailing someone else, just by how he was walking.
Their riskiest assignment was changing out a black box in a communications tunnel that went to a suspected Russian missile site. That was the biggest risk they had of being exposed. Although, Coyle said he was also nearly found out by a Russian grandmother who just happened to walk by with her grandson shortly after he made a “dead drop” behind a small parking garage at an apartment complex.
Since he was obviously a stranger, Coyle started staggering and pretended to zip up his pants. The old woman started yelling at him for being a drunken fool and walked away, obviously disgusted by his behavior. If she had called for police, Coyle would have been arrested and the KGB would have waited to pick up the person who came to pick up the package he left. He would have been exposed and his contact most likely would have been executed.
“You do play God a little bit,” he said of recruiting people to supply information. “You’re playing with someone’s life. If he is found out, he winds up dead.”
Along with learning to speak Russian, Coyle said “I can be misunderstood in” French, German, Portuguese, and Greek. He had French classes and learned some German during an internship after he graduated from Indiana University. The CIA provides intensive classes in languages, which normally last six months. However, the Russian classes lasted 10 months.
Possibly the biggest irony of working at the CIA is that you have to “lie, cheat, and steal with the best of them” on behalf of the agency, but integrity is a key component of being a successful field agent, Coyle said. For example, when an agent makes a $25,000 drop to pay an informant, it would be easy to take some of that money out. “It’s how ethical and honest you are when nobody is watching.”
Getting a position in the CIA is difficult. The Agency receives 110,000 applications a year and possibly “hires a couple hundred,” he said. He applied three times before being accepted. He believes the tipping point was his 10-month internship in Germany. But once Coyle became a field agent, he enjoyed playing the different roles he was asked to assume.
“I enjoyed being 12,” he said. “I stayed being 12.”