In Other Words

A Father’s Secret…

And his journalist son's search for the truth.

Photos courtesy of Scott Johnson
Photos courtesy of Scott Johnson

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.

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