NMH Magazine 2018 Spring

Page 42

the cultural filters. Some cultures, they have no problem lying, so polygraphs and other tests don’t make a difference to them.” (Over the course of his work, Matthews would pick up three more languages for a total of six.) Rendering his career even more interesting, Matthews’ wife, Suzanne, was also a CIA spy. They met during his first assignment in the Mediterranean in the late ’70s. In agency-speak, they operated as a “tandem couple.” “Sometimes we worked together, sometimes apart,” Matthews says. “In their ponderous chauvinism, the Eastern bloc Communists never assumed that women would be doing operational acts, so many was the time when I would go off and drag the surveillance with me, and Suzanne did her thing, met the agent, put down or retrieved the package.”


espite cultural depictions, Jason Matthews says the spy game is not as perilous as most believe. “People ask what’s the most dangerous thing you ever did and I say, ‘drive on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles.’” In fact, there are unspoken rules between opponents, and most of the time, getting caught means being thrown out of the country. “The Russians would never commit violence on a foreign operative, even in Moscow, because they knew reciprocity could happen in Washington. You never screw around with [an operative’s] family, you never screw around with violence. That’s something Hollywood doesn’t always get right.” But still, while Matthews was serving as a CIA station chief in


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southern Europe, the local police found his name on a terrorist hit list during a raid. “So they came to me and said, ‘Have your wife start your car in the mornings …’ That’s a joke,” Matthews says. The couple also had young kids at the time, 2 and 5 years old. “Jason had an armored car,” Suzanne recalls. “We didn’t go too many places with him. Before we got in the car, a guard would look underneath with a mirror on a stick, looking for small magnetic bombs. Our kids were so young and we didn’t want to scare them. There were a lot of cats in the street, so we told them that the guards were looking for strays under the car so we didn’t run over them.” After a rocky posting in a former Eastern bloc country riven by ethnic strife —which involved several evacuations and a looted home — they returned to the United States and shared the family secret with their daughters. “We took them to see the movie Spy Kids and then told them they were spy kids and they thought that was pretty cool,” Suzanne says. “They were a little young, second and fourth grade. Typically, you’d want to wait until high school when they are more mature. But we didn’t think we were going overseas again.”


n oft-recycled Hollywood trope has retired CIA spies re-recruited for dangerous missions. “In reality, that never happens,” Jason Matthews says. “Once you’re out, you’re out. But it’s a very experiential kind of career. You’re always on, 24/7. So when it’s over, there’s a real gap.” Not one to take up golfing or fishing, Matthews found himself

In the movie version of Red Sparrow, Jennifer Lawrence plays a Russian ballerina who is forced to become a brutally violent spy. Reviews have called it “gritty,” “shocking,” “admirably bold,” and “preposterously entertaining.”

in Southern California noodling on the page, the writer in him still very much kicking. “In the CIA, all we do is write,” he says. “The time on the street is like 10 percent and the rest is back in the office writing cables to HQ, contact reports, operational proposals. There was no absence of writing during my active-duty career. When it was over, I started on a whim, writing disparate chapters, fiction but based on people I knew, cities I knew, and operations we had done. Before I knew it, I had 130,000 words.” Those words painted a suspenseful world of spies, double agents, mole hunters, and internal turf battles, with much of the action unfolding in Vladimir