SPEA's Gene Coyle reflects on how Hoosier basketball and spying came together in Moscow during the Cold War.
Note: The CIA Publication Review Board approved this story prior to its publication – that is, with the exception of those areas X'd out in the copy.
It’s hard to believe that more than 20 years has passed since my days in Moscow, at the height of the Cold War. I spent two years in the mid-1980s working undercover XX X XXXXXXXXX XXXXXX, XXX XX XXXXXX. I was an operations officer for the for the Central Intelligence Agency. As a native Hoosier, I had naturally grown up playing basketball, and I found that an enjoyable pastime while in the USSR. The Cold War is thankfully over, the Soviet Union no longer exists, and, as of 2006, I’m no longer a spy. Even the fact that I used to be with the CIA is now no longer a secret.
My b-ball playing days are also behind me, but with that passage of time, I have the liberty to talk of events and operations that were once considered great state secrets. I had the opportunity to be involved in one of the most spectacular CIA operations ever conducted in Moscow, which earned me the Agency’s Intelligence Medal of Merit. Some aspects of the operation are still considered classified, but enough can now be told to make a good story, including the humorous aspects of how basketball played a role in my espionage.
At the top of the key
My story begins in 1983, while preparing for my assignment to Moscow. I undertook intensive Russian language study for almost a year, followed by training geared to prepare me for an assignment in a hostile Moscow environment. The KGB was a first-class security service, and the section responsible for keeping a watch on foreign diplomats had almost unlimited resources available to it. Many Western diplomats experienced surveillance by the vigilant Seventh Directorate as they traveled about the city, and had their phone calls monitored both at work and at home. The KGB was also known to place microphones and possibly even video cameras in the apartments of foreigners suspected of being intelligence officers. (Upon hearing that last fact, my wife, Jan, commented to me during our training that she was starting a diet before we went to Moscow. “I’ll put up with them seeing me naked, but they’re not going to see me overweight and naked!”)
Once my wife and I arrived in Moscow in the summer of 1984, I settled into my cover duties XXXXXXXXX. This included the purchasing of books published in the USSR that any U.S.G. agency wanted a copy of, and it required me to travel a lot around the city – and about the entire country.
Contrary to the movies, a real spy in such a situation doesn’t go about trying to outrun or lose surveillance, but rather to bore them to death – just doing your XXXXXXX job, traveling back and forth to your apartment, and, for me, often driving XX XXX XXXXXXX to play some basketball on the outdoor court in decent weather, especially on weekends. Some days I was followed around. Some days I was not.
My basketball playing also got me invited to play in a long-standing, friendly pick-up game of Americans versus Russians at the Moscow State University on Sunday mornings. That game turned not so friendly on the occasion that then-Senator Bill Bradley, formerly of the New York Knicks, came to play with us. Even such a trivial game had political significance from the Soviet perspective and on that Sunday, a center from the Red Army basketball team “just happened” to show up to play – to ensure that the Soviet side won. Senator Bradley announced to us that as he hadn’t played in years, he’d have to play easy, and we should play zone defense. The Russians trounced us in the first game.
You can take a player out of the game, but you can’t take the desire to win out of a former NBA champion. After that first embarrassing game, Bradley was a changed man – even diving to the floor for balls – and quickly gave his young Russian opponent a lesson in how basketball is really played. In the fifth and tie-breaking game, I tied the game up with three jump shots in a row and then we won on a Coyle-to-Bradley pass for a lay-up. I was insufferable for weeks thereafter with my fellow basketball buddies around XXX XXXXXXX! Bradley’s signature and inscription on my water bottle from that game –“Thanks for pulling us through in Moscow. You didn’t miss.”—is one of my favorite souvenirs from those days.
Along with all the other training, the CIA prepared me to play a role in a “compartmented” technical operation, code-named “GTTAW”. A compartmented operation was one that, in addition to being Top Secret, one had to be on a BIGOT list – an even smaller list than those on the Top Secret list – to even know about. The target of the operation was the buried telephone trunk line that ran to Moscow from a military research facility in a “closed” city near Moscow. “Closed” meant that foreign diplomats could not receive permission to even travel to that city. According to the memoirs of Rem Krasilnikov, a KGB official who was responsible for keeping an eye on the Americans in Moscow in the 1980s, the targeted facility located in Troitsk did defense research associated with laser development. Satellite photography had revealed the digging of this new telephone trunk line in the early 1980s.
Thus was born our imaginative idea of tapping the phone calls that scientists and officials at this secret facility made to colleagues in Moscow and perhaps talk of their research work. Access to the phone cable was through one of the manhole covers placed along the line that ran parallel to the Kaluzhskoye Highway. According to Krasilnikov, the “tap” was done within the conduit pipes below ground and connected to a metal box buried nearby, just under the surface of the dirt. It was that box, full of recordings over a period of several months, that needed to periodically be exchanged by a CIA officer.
It came time for one of the periodic exchanges of the “black boxes” of GTTAW and I was selected to carry out the operation because I was only rarely getting surveillance at that time. I had a “pattern” on weekends of often driving XX XXX XXXXXXX to shoot some baskets and wash my car on the XXXXXXXX. There was a militia man on guard at all the apartment buildings where foreigners lived. Ostensibly, he was there to protect us, but really he was there to keep track of our comings and goings. On the days I went to play basketball, I would carry a very large gym bag containing my sports clothes and ball out to my car and drive off. A few days before the actual operation, our CIA chief XX XXX XXXXXXX had the good idea of making me go through all the technical steps that would be required at the GTTAW site, with him and a few others watching so as to add some “pressure” to the exercise. This occurred just after lunchtime. About ten minutes into my “practice,” I heard snoring. I looked up and saw our chief, who was close to retirement age and who had just eaten a heavy lunch, sound asleep in his chair. So much for the pressure of being watched!
On the day of the actual operation, my wife and I left our apartment building, waving and smiling at the militia guard as always. I carried, as usual, my gym bag – except this day it contained a fairly large and heavy metallic box, as well as a basketball. We headed first toward XXX XXXXXXX, but then veered off in other directions. As time passed, we became convinced that no one was following us that day. However, the extreme tension of the day had gotten to my wife’s bladder and she informed me that she could wait no longer. The same paranoia about microphones in our apartment extended to our automobile as well and she actually had to convey this fact to me with body language and voiceless mouthing of words. God knows what nearby drivers thought was going on in our vehicle. There were no fast food restaurants or even gas stations in those days where one could easily find a restroom. We pulled down a side street that had some bushes and she made use of a bit of privacy, as was the practice of many citizens of Moscow in similar circumstances. We joked later that, had we been followed, surely that would have flushed somebody out as they would have come forward to see what espionage ploy she was up to in the bushes!
Posing as a couple out for a walk in the woods in the suburbs of Moscow, we finally reached the desired manhole cover. While some thin bushes hid us from view from speeding cars on the highway about ten yards away, there was a footpath close by and no sooner had we arrived than another young couple, holding hands, came along that path. To “explain” what we were doing off in the bushes, we immediately started necking, sitting on the ground (Ah, the things I’ve done for my country!).
Housing space was at a premium in Moscow and many young couples had to live with one or the other set of parents. This afforded young people little privacy in one-bedroom apartments, so couples necking out in the woods in good weather were a fairly common sight. I began exchanging the recording boxes. My goal was buried much deeper in the ground than I had expected and required a good bit of digging. Jan kept a lookout, passed me tools, and took pictures of the area. To say there was stress is an understatement. I had her take one of me while making the “we’re number one” gesture and grinning. When I later saw the picture, I could tell just from my taut face how much strain I had been feeling at the time. That, of course, is where one’s training comes into play – to be able to function under pressure. The overall CIA selection process to find people to become field operations officers and the even-smaller circle of those picked to serve in the USSR, looked for that trait of grace under pressure. There were and are many fine CIA officers around the world, but those of us who served in Moscow during the “evil empire” days always felt we were pretty special. I had always been a self-confident, cocky kid growing up in Indianapolis and my attitude didn’t change much during my years at the Agency. While I respected the capabilities of the KGB, in my heart of hearts, I knew I was better and that they’d never catch me – and they never did.
Several hours later, we were finally back in our car and almost to the XXXXXXXX XXXXXXX with our “buried treasure box.” We had a Bruce Springsteen tape playing and as we were about to the XXXXXXXXX, “Born in the USA” began. We smiled at one another. That tune captured perfectly our feelings of exhilaration and triumph. I never felt antipathy for the average Russian citizen, but it was hard to spend time in the USSR, seeing how badly the government treated its people, and not come to detest the ruling circles and the KGB that served to suppress their fellow countrymen. Call it by any name you want, but it was a brutal dictatorship and it felt good to beat them on their own turf.
To keep up the “story” of having come to XXX XXXXXXX that day to play basketball and wash the car, I pulled the car into the car wash area and gave it a quick rinse. I then quickly changed clothes and spent the next 20 minutes shooting baskets. Having been a gymnast at Indiana University, even at only 5'7", I could touch the rim on good days. On that afternoon, with the adrenalin still flowing, I was doing it easily. Jan had gone in to the XXXXXXX to give the good news to the chief, who had been sweating it out for hours waiting for our return – or the dreaded phone call reporting our arrest. When I finally got to the XXX XXXXXXX, they had already started drinking champagne in celebration. Even Mother Nature was on our side that day: It rained heavily that night, erasing any trace of our presence near the manhole. According to various books, the KGB used special chemicals to allow them to track suspected CIA officers about the city. The rain would have washed away any such chemicals as well. All in all, it was a great day of espionage – and basketball.
After my return to CIA Headquarters in 1986, I was awarded the CIA’s Intelligence Medal of Merit. Did that operation change the course of the Cold War? No, but it allowed the U.S. side to know what the Soviets were working on in regards to possible future, highly advanced weapons systems and to prepare defenses. The value of a country’s intelligence service is the cumulative contribution of many such operations. Rarely is it a single agent or a single operation.
POSTSCRIPT: No operation lasts forever and according to many newspaper accounts, GTTAW ended as the result of a CIA traitor. I was the last officer to visit and make an exchange at the GTTAW site because a fired CIA officer, Ed Howard, became ever more disgruntled and – according to those press accounts – began passing secrets to the KGB. He had been trained for the GTTAW operation and knew the general location of the site. While under FBI surveillance in September 1985 he fled from New Mexico, eventually reaching the Soviet Union, where he was granted political asylum and later even Soviet citizenship. He died in July 2002 from a fall down the stairs at his home near Moscow while drunk. In a newspaper interview with the former head of the KGB of that era, Vladimir Kruchkov, speaking of the CIA “black box” eventually found by the KGB in one of the “southern regions of the city,” he stated that the project cost 220 million dollars. He declined to answer how they had learned of the operation, but said of the black box: “For us at that time, we couldn’t even dream of such electronics!” The actual cost of the GTTAW project is still classified. I don’t believe it was really that much, but for the large amount it did cost, I’d say the American taxpayers more than got their money’s worth over the several years that it was functioning. And to this day, when watching the “Hurrying Hoosiers” execute a great fast break or see a sweet jump shot that rips nothing but net, my mind will drift back to a fine spring day in Moscow when I was young and fleet and basketball provided me cover for espionage.
Gene Coyle teaches SPEA courses on intelligence communities and on the role of intelligence in wartime.