Veteran chief of the KGB’s elite Alpha Group Maj. Gen. Gennady Nikolaevich Zaitsev recounts the 1977 operation to arrest CIA intelligence officer Martha Peterson, who worked out of the US Embassy under diplomatic cover. Peterson had been handling a valuable agent – Aleksandr Ogorodnik, code-named Trigon, a highly-placed staffer at the Soviet Foreign Ministry. Little did Peterson know at the time that Ogorodnik had already been arrested and committed suicide in custody with poison supplied from Langley. The trap carefully laid by the KGB’s Second Chief Directorate was set…
It so happened that I had the opportunity to participate in an arrest of a spy even before joining the spetsnaz Alpha Group. At that time, I served in the Seventh Directorate of the KGB of the USSR. Do you remember the film TASS is Authorized to Declare …? It told the story of how the KGB exposed Trigon, an enemy agent. In reality, this was Alexander Ogorodnik (Trigon), a staff member at the American Department of the Directorate for Planning Foreign Policy Measures at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He committed suicide during arrest.
Yet the games with the Americans continued. We decided to catch them at the scene of the crime. The events in question took place on Krasnoluzhskii Bridge in the Luzhniki area of Moscow. The Vice Consul of the U.S. Embassy, Martha Peterson, was on her way to a meeting with Trigon. We followed her from the Embassy, but she managed to change her clothing, drastically transforming her appearance.
It happened like this. On the evening of July 15, she parked her Embassy vehicle next to the Russia (Rossiia) movie theater and walked in. The theater was featuring The Red and The Black based on the novel by Stendhal with the same name, and the final screening of the day already started. Outside intelligence monitored her from a distance, since this spy was wearing a white dress with a large flower print, which was easy to spot from afar.
“The Woman in White” sat down in a chair next to the emergency exist and pretended that she was watching the movie for ten minutes. Making certain that everything was calm next to her, Peterson pulled black pants over her dress along with a jacket of the same color, buttoning up tightly and let loose her hair that was pulled into a bun earlier.
She, however, had the foresight not to return to the car and instead first caught a bus, then rode the trolleybus and the subway—she was checking if she were being followed. Only then did she catch a cab and arrive at the Krasnoluzhskii Bridge. Even though this area looked completely deserted at this late hour, there were approximately 100 operatives from different units. They were secretly observing everything.
When Peterson climbed the stairs that led to the railway tracks, we—this was night time—could not determine who this was, since Martha resembled a man when she was wearing pants. It’s a good thing that our group included specialists who knew the walking style of every U.S. Embassy staff member. These experts determined that the person stuffing things into the secret hiding place was indeed Peterson.
She needed to walk through a number of arches cut in the giant pillars of the bridge. At this time, she disappeared from sight, staying longer than necessary inside one of the arches. We came to the conclusion that she left a package there. When Peterson turned around and started walking back halfway through the bridge, then began going down the stairs, she was caught red-handed. In order for her to understand that we were not street thugs but rather the authorities, I had to wear the uniform of a police officer.
Madam Peterson bravely fought our operatives—who were searching for a small reconnaissance receiver attached to her body—while screaming loudly, so as to warn the agent responsible for picking up her package.
Seeing that the arrest was taking longer than necessary, I helped the guys by firmly grabbing her hand, squeezing it at the wrist. As a result, I broke the bracelet of her watch, which, as it turned out, contained a microphone connected to a recording device on her body. While riding in the car, I repaired her bracelet. Nevertheless, later the U.S. Embassy sent a complaint to our Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the broken watch and bruises on her hands.
What were we supposed to do? After all, when she was being detained, Madame Vice Consul demonstrated brilliant knowledge of profanity and karate (in terms of classification, she ranked sixth dan). And was it really necessary to scream like that?
Peterson was taken to Lubyanka, where the staff of the U.S. Embassy were summoned for the purpose of her identification. In her presence, we unsealed a container disguised as a rock. We found instructions, a questionnaire, specialized photographic equipment, gold, money, and two capsules with poison.
U.S. Ambassador Malcolm Toon, who arrived at the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately after Martha Peterson’s deportation back to America, insisted that these events not be given public attention, which “would be greatly appreciated by the government of the United States of America.”
They say that my fleeting acquaintance (we were not introduced to each other) later taught at one of CIA’s intelligence schools, instructing future spies about behavior tricks during detainment that she herself experienced.
Excerpted from Hunting Spies article
By Gennadii Nikolaevich Zaitsev, Hero of the Soviet Union, Alpha Group commander in 1977-1988 and in 1992-1993.
In Spetsnaz Rossii (Russia’s Spetsnaz) journal, 3 (174), March 2011.
Translated by Nina Kouprianova