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The Spy Next Door: Oxford Woman Worked for CIA in Vienna During Cold War

By Sandra Knispel | Published 14 Nov 2010 01:30pm | comments
Shirley Perry, at age 23, ready to board the ship that would take her to Europe for her CIA assignment in Vienna, Austria in 1952. Book cover design by Rob Perry.

During the Cold War, American spies in the heart of Europe were collecting valuable information about the Soviet Union. MPB’s Sandra Knispel tells the remarkable story of a former CIA spy, who as a young woman was posted to Vienna, and now lives around the corner from her in Oxford.

If you’ve watched "The Third Man," the 1949 British film noir, you know what post-war Vienna looked like. Tattered, slowly recovering from the wounds of World War II and divided – just like Berlin – into four zones, each governed by one of the Allies, the Austrian capital was crawling with spies.

“It was a complete madhouse of espionage and counter espionage. We were so desperate to get agents that we would recruit even a pimply-faced Soviet private if he could give us some information,” Shirley Parry said with a laugh.

In the fall of 1952, the American arrived in Vienna as a typist. Prim and proper, the 23-year old fit to a T the cover the CIA had chosen for her. The Eastern-most outpost of the West, further east than Prague and nestled inside the Soviet zone of Austria, Cold War Vienna was a natural gateway to the Communist empire. Here, spying had become a cottage industry.

“So many of the people were out of work, but when the Allies came in – especially the Americans – who were looking for any entrees to any of the opposition’s establishments….. So any cook or bottle washer, or taxi driver, or anyone who could possibly be a lead into the Soviet installations was eligible to be recruited," Perry said. "Almost everybody was working for one of the Allied organizations.”

Perry’s role as a case officer at the Vienna CIA station was to identify and help recruit Soviet agents. A lengthy process that involved surreptitious meetings, a lot of vetting, and then checking if CIA headquarters in D.C. found the intelligence worth paying for. But at this point the hiring process was far from over.

“Then you would try to find out what this person’s vulnerabilities were so that you could, if you wanted him, you could really reel him in with a little bit of judicious blackmail," Perry explained. "You had to have a handle on this person. Unless they were defectors who walked in and were so well motivated that they wanted to come over to you."

According to Carl Jensen, director of the University of Mississippi’s Center for Intelligence and Security Studies, spying was paramount at the onset of the Cold War.

“You had the Russians, the Soviets who had nuclear weapons; we had nuclear weapons. You couldn’t fight a direct war. It became a battle of proxy wars," Jensen said. "But most of all it was a war of spies. It was intelligence agencies versus intelligence agencies. And there was nowhere more exciting or more challenging in those early days than Vienna.”

“It was a jumping off place for people we sent in black, you know crossing the borders," Perry added. "And a wonderful listening post. It was also occupied by all of the Allies. So it meant that the Russians were close at hand. And of course they had sent in their intelligence operatives so there were targets right there on the ground. So it was a very fertile ground for espionage.”

Once, when Perry, two girlfriends and a male CIA colleague were travelling by car through snowy Austria on their way to Salzburg for a Thanksgiving dinner things went awry.

“The car was some ancient craxen and it broke down in the middle of the Soviet zone in a little town called Amstetten, which happened to have a very active Soviet military installation, a Kommandatura,” Perry recalled the frightening scene.

Soon they were discovered by Soviet military police and hauled to their station. Held behind bars, they worried the Soviets would discover that they had accidentally stumbled across four CIA officers on vacation.

“We sat under guard and the little Soviet private aimed his AK47 at us as we sat there on hard wooden benches looking at him, and waiting and wondering what would happen.”

It was well past midnight when they heard a commotion. U.S. military police had finally arrived to pick them up. All the while their captors believed they were releasing just a hapless gaggle of young secretaries plus driver.

Perry spent a total of 13 years working for the CIA. Now, at age 81, the Oxonian has just penned her memoir "After Many Days: My Life as a Spy and other Grand Adventures." And still, she longs for another assignment.

“They would be smart to do it. Absolutely. Because you would be so unexpected and unlikely.”

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The spy next door knows.

Sandra Knispel, MPB News, Oxford.


Shirley Perry, at age 23, ready to board the ship that would take her to Europe for her CIA assignment in Vienna, Austria in 1952. Book cover design by Rob Perry.



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