Interview with Ex CIA agent William Matthews

October 21, 2010
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Why did you join the CIA?

I graduated from the University of Michigan and was in the ROTC program there for 4 years. I was a 2nd Lieutenant at the time and was put into the infantry division. I was in Fort Lee, Virginia, when they started drafting people to go to war. They found I had a medical condition that needed surgery. A man from the CIA was interviewing as well at the Fort. They gave me a choice; I could either get surgery and fly off to Korea, or join the CIA and stay in the States. This decision took about twenty seconds to make.

What was it like being in the CIA on a daily basis?

I worked in the CIA overseas for most of my career. Our division had eight foreign nationals working for us. Every day at work we would listen to the Soviet bloc radios from Warsaw to France. They were listening for anything from those parts of the world. Such things included coal production, corn production, what was on sale and anything else to do with economics or breaking news. They would hand their reports to me, and I would spend time to do the main editing and then teletype it back to Washington D.C. I worked over there in Vienna from 1956 to 1960.

Where were you during the Cuban Missile Crisis in November of 1962?

At the time, I was running the paper for the Shelby Sentinel in Shelbyville, Kentucky, after moving there from Washington with my family. I just watched President Kennedy give the speech on T.V about the alert for the crisis when I got a call. It was about 10 o’clock when my former boss at the CIA called. He said I was needed back in Washington. I told him I was done with my service but he said I was really needed for help on the crisis. That night I told my wife I was going to Washington and left. My job for about 2 weeks was to do a roundup of worldwide radio. Most of us and the other men in my group were thinking that another World War was just around the corner. I collected radio transmissions from across the globe and put it all together in a couple of pages. I then typed it up on a teletype machine and sent it off to my boss. I never knew what my boss did with it, except that one of my reports was sent to the White House, which was very impressive.

What were the men in your group like?

My group contained three men. My first boss made the famous James Bond character seem like a sissy. He was an ambulance driver in World War I, and in World War II he was in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). In other words, he was a super spy, spending most of his time behind the enemy lines during the war. He was a tall, smart, swashbuckler type of man. The other fellow was a veteran of World War II and was very young when he served. He was Number 2 and I was Number 3. After a year of service, I was moved up to Number 2 and took care of the pay roll. In 1953, I went to Washington as a GS5 and earned a 2,840 dollar pay check for the year. By the time I left the service, I was a GS13 and earned about 13,000 for the year.

Have you ever met a Russian spy before?

Yes. It is a funny story too. Every year in Vienna, Austria, where we were stationed, the armed forces and some CIA agents would get together to have a big party. It was at a nearby hotel, and everyone was dressed up in their uniforms. At one point during the party, my wife was in line for some food when I noticed that she was talking to a tall handsome man. I got jealous since she was looking very pretty, so I went over and barged in on the conversation. After a bit of time, I pulled her to the side to talk. I asked her who she thought the man was and she said he was a man from Brooklyn because of his accent. I then told her that the man was the top Soviet spy in Russia. She was amazed by this, since he did not have the look of a spy.

What was the spy like and how did you know him?

His name was Alexi Kondroshev. I did not know him personally, but my boss did. Vienna was an interesting country at the time. It was neutral so spies ended up spying on other spies. We had our own spies and so did the Soviets. Most people get the wrong idea of spies since they rarely operate behind enemy lines.

What was your role during the Hungarian Revolution?

In 1956, our job was to monitor the Soviet Bloc countries. We had a three man group monitoring the radios and other transmitters in the area. Our job was to see what they were saying and to translate it so we could understand it. This was a slow, difficult process but was required. We then teletyped the information back to Washington. There was also a newspaper unit who would read the newspaper, translate it, and also send the info back to Washington.

What do you mean by teletyping?

A teletype is more like a typewriter. It used cables and electricity to convey messages from one station to another. The teletype itself looks a lot like a typewriter but is actually more difficult to use, making my job long and arduous.

What was the best part about being in the CIA?

The best part was the ability to live in Vienna, Austria. We were able to travel all across the world, since there were many operations. Also, every person in our group had a story. Meeting interesting people and going to new areas was an amazing experience.

Why did you quit?

Raising a family and living overseas was very stressful on me and my family. So, when my brother Ben called one day and asked if I wanted to come home, I said yes. At that time, my boss explained that our next stop was Hokkaido which was on the very northern tip of Japan, near Siberia. The thought of moving there for 2 to 4 years was a scary thought and quitting just felt right at the time. I’ve had no regrets.

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