Matthew Wood, January 5, 2018
The greatest skill of an international spy is the ability to become anyone: The quiet neighbor down the street, the friendly co-worker, your college professor.
If you think that last one is impossible, you didn't take a class at Indiana University with Gene Coyle, who served in the CIA for 30 years before hanging up his international man of mystery hat to teach at his alma mater. Coyle recently retired from IU as an adjunct professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He still lives in Bloomington with his wife, who also served in the CIA.
The man has some stories. Working deep undercover in Moscow during the hottest time of the Cold War as you try to recruit Soviet defectors will certainly give you some material. He once played a U.S. vs. Russia pickup basketball game with former Senator and NBA star Bill Bradley — against a member of the Red Army basketball team ("they brought in a ringer, we still beat them"). He once had a potential foreign defector offer his 12-year-old daughter up to Coyle for marriage.
Coyle dealt with the shadiest of characters, lived to tell about it, and then taught a class on it. He was gracious enough to give us some time to relive some of his career and life highlights.
BTN LiveBIG: What is the most exciting thing about being a spy?
Gene Coyle: The most exciting thing for me, it was an intellectual chess game. I would spend six to eight months getting in the head of the other person. When you finally came down and started pitching them and they said yes, you had to sit there and be very calm. You want to jump up and down and yell, 'Yeah, I got the [expletive]!' I would have to jump up and down later. When you knew you outwitted the KGB, the adrenaline was huge.
BTN LiveBIG: Your work took you to many places in the world. What interested you most?
Coyle: I would have to say Moscow, mid-80s at the heart of the Cold War. We were very egotistical. If you were chosen to serve in Moscow, if you can outwit the KGB, you can outwit anybody. It wasn't the most pleasant of places to live.
BTN LiveBIG: How did an IU education prepare you for international espionage?
Coyle: The courses I took were a big help. I took area studies courses about Eastern Europe, Russia. To recruit someone from Bulgaria, it certainly helps if you knew Bulgarian history. After I finished my masters and still didn't have a job, IU arranged for a fellowship to Hamburg, Germany, for 10 months.
I've always argued that half the education you get at college is not the classwork. You hear other views, you talk to people from around the country and around the world. When you get outside your comfort zone, that's when you start learning.
BTN LiveBIG: What type of "normal" job would you compare spy work to? It seems kind of like a sales sort of thing, convincing people to agree with you.
Coyle: Yeah, some of my former colleagues at CIA would be appalled at this answer, but selling automobiles. You talk to a guy who says he wants a dependable car with great gas mileage. If you're a good car salesman, you come to see what he really wants is a shiny Corvette. And he doesn't give a [expletive] about gas mileage.
BTN LiveBIG: How do you persuade someone to spy for another country?
Coyle: You had to pitch a guy for a good couple months. The guys we were going to recruit wouldn't tell you anything but the company line. You build a rapport and talk about the things they know. You gotta find out, is there something lacking in that guy's life? If somebody is perfectly happy, they're not going to become a spy.
BTN LiveBIG: What was it like having your wife in the CIA as well?
Coyle: I ended up dragging her around the world, so it was best she joined the agency as well. It didn't really affect my cover, but it made our marriage last. It helps that she's patient and understanding and knows that I am like a 12-year-old. That's the joke around the agency, is that we don't want to grow up. Being a spy is fun.
BTN LiveBIG: Now that you're retired, what are you going to do with yourself?
Coyle: I've been in 40 to 50 countries. More than states in the union. Now we're on a "See America" plan. So we're off to see as many states as we can.
BTN LiveBIG: What was the transition from being a spy to being a professor?
Coyle: It's certainly a much slower pace in an academic setting. Some of the things that academics quibble over and worry about seem pretty trivial if you've been over spying in the Soviet Union, stealing secrets about their particle beam weaponry. And they're quibbling over whether someone should be an associate professor or adjunct professor. I try to politely tell them I don't care.
BTN LiveBIG: Not all your students can become spies. What else do you think your teaching helped them become?
Coyle: I actually would address that on the first or second day of class. 'I know some of you are in here because you think it's the route to becoming Jason Bourne or James Bond. But most of you will go out in the business world and you'll become taxpayers. Maybe you can get some idea about what the government is spending so you know if you're getting your money's worth.'
BTN LiveBIG: You had the Gene Coyle Legacy Scholarship recently named in your honor. How did that come about?
Coyle: That was a real surprise and very touching. I retired this past May. In April, five or six of my former students had flown back to Indiana. They had a surprise dinner for me and announced that they had set up this scholarship. I think any teacher, if students take the effort to stay in touch after you've moved on, that's great.
My wife and I never had children. Some of these students we've had, it really feels like our kids.