My Dad Was a CIA Spy in Greece — But Not a Thug



by Leslie Absher

When I was just a baby, my father was sent to Greece for his first field assignment with the CIA. It was the summer of 1966 when we arrived, nine months before the military coup in Greece. The day the colonels took over the government, I was playing in the garden and singing Greek nursery songs. I had no idea that ordinary people were about to be arrested and detained in secret prisons all over Greece.

It wasn’t until years later, when I was in my twenties and we no longer lived in Greece, that I learned about the close relationship between the CIA and the military dictatorship. By then, I knew Dad was working for the CIA.

Questions about his role in the Greek coup plagued me. Had he known about it beforehand? Had he helped set it up? My questions, along with the fact that he had lied to me as a child, telling me a series of cover stories — that he worked for the State Department or the Pentagon, and not the CIA — made me feel I couldn’t trust him.

When I turned forty, I realized I could go on not trusting him or I could try and learn the truth once and for all. If we were ever going to have a relationship — a real one — I had to find out once and for all. Was he a nerdy civil servant just collecting information, or an arrogant, vicious secret agent bribing government officials and beating prisoners?

Leslie Absher as a toddler, with her father in Athens. Photo supplied by the author.

It was late October when I found a parking spot and headed toward UC Berkeley’s main library. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” I thought. Daughters aren’t supposed to investigate their own fathers. We’re supposed to talk and visit and be in each other’s lives. None of that applied to me and Dad. Our monthly phone calls were usually about the weather or our cats. He never asked about my wife, Susan.

Inside the library, my shoulders tensed as I made my way toward the Greek History section. As I scanned the long shelf before me, a thin blue book jumped out: “The Rise and Fall of the Greek Colonels.” I slid the volume out and dropped into a chair to read. According to the author, there were many rumors regarding the coup. One was that a group of generals had plotted to take over, and another blamed the CIA. The author said that neither of those rumors was true. If the CIA had played no role, then neither had my father. A balloon of hope rose inside me.

When I was a child, I trusted my father. He was good. Upright. He was the one who held my hand as we waded into the sea. When it got too deep for me to stand, I climbed onto his back. His neck smelled like coconut oil. As a girl of five, I clutched him like a starfish, letting him take the brunt of each wave with his pale and hairless chest. I felt only the gentle rise and fall of each swell. But when a big wave rose up, I ducked quickly behind his shoulders. I trusted him to protect me.

I returned to the stacks, found another book, and flipped to the index. Dad’s name wasn’t there, and I exhaled. Then I suddenly saw the name of one of his Greek-American CIA buddies. I remembered John from growing up. He was funny. I liked him. I flipped to where John was mentioned, and what I read made my stomach drop.

According to the author, it was John who gave the dictators the green light to invade Cyprus in 1974. After the Greek army landed on the island, Turkish troops followed right behind. People died, and families were torn apart. It’s still a divided country — and Dad’s good friend John had played a key role in that debacle.

I dragged myself around for the rest of the afternoon, going to student appointments and helping high schoolers with essays.

The next morning, I opened my laptop and Googled Dad’s name. An interview from ten years earlier popped up. “Intelligence is my favorite subject,” Dad had told the interviewer. The words stung, because I wanted him to say that I was his favorite subject. Or my sister was, or something personal. But he didn’t talk about us.

The interview covered Dad’s work in Vietnam. The journalist said Dad had “zipped around his province in a helicopter, and when necessary called in B-52 strikes against suspected NVA [North Vietnamese Army] troop concentrations.” Dad had ordered bombs to be dropped? I felt queasy. But the next sentence stopped me cold.

“I ran an interrogation center in Vietnam,” Dad said.

I stared at the page. An interrogation center? Wasn’t that spy code for “torture chamber”? My skin felt like ice. Grim scenes ran through my mind — of dank cells, prisoners who refused to talk, who got slapped around by men who lied and played mind games. Or worse.

“I never saw any brutality,” Dad had told the journalist. I didn’t believe him.

I sat numbly staring out the kitchen window until I heard Susan padding up the stairs.

“My dad ran an interrogation center in Vietnam,” I said as she entered the room. “I just read it in an interview.”

We locked eyes.

“He said he didn’t see any brutality.”

Maybe Susan would say that what Dad had said was possible, that not all CIA interrogations involved torture. As a trial lawyer, she came home each day after spending hours scrutinizing the real world. When her clients were at fault, she advised them to settle. I trusted her read of world events, her analytical mind, and her sense of ethics.

“No brutality at an interrogation center in Vietnam?” she asked. “That’s hard to believe.”

I knew she was right.

Back at the UC library the next week, I picked up a book I had ordered and settled into an overstuffed chair to read. The moment I opened the book, the library with all its college comforts fell away, and the Greek colonels and their dirty practices came alive.

During the junta, prisoners were held on small, barren islands. In the first year alone, almost 3,000 people were detained. Many were hung upside down while guards struck their feet with wooden sticks or metal pipes. As I read, each scenario fed into the next and the next, like one long and continuous nightmare.

I searched for information about who actually did the torturing. It was the Greek security and military police, not the CIA. The father I had hoped to find re-surfaced inside my heart.

But as I drove back to Oakland, my “good father” faded away. The torture wasn’t abstract. It had happened in Greece, my first home, the place I felt I most belonged. The CIA may not have tortured individuals, but did they know about it or authorize it?

I parked the car and went into the kitchen and started to clean. I moved from counter to sink, furiously slamming dishes around. In the process, I knocked over a bottle of cooking oil. A huge puddle flowed onto the floor.

Susan came into the kitchen. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Torture,” I said, as I knelt down and started swiping at the oil with a wad of paper towels.

Susan made a move to comfort me. I shook my head. I couldn’t soften to receive her embrace. I lifted the sopping towels, heavy and dripping with yellow oil, stormed over to the trash, and heaved them inside.

Later, I looked out the window at the pine trees which reached high into the sky above our house, trees that had kept me company since I first moved to California to live with Susan. Today, they were silent, distant witnesses, offering nothing.

While prisoners were getting beaten, I had been playing inside my garden, singing Greek nursery songs. For years, I had idealized my childhood, holding fast to a romanticized notion of the country and my life. Now, a truer picture surfaced. And it wasn’t pretty. I needed to dig deeper.

On a university website, I found an interview with a government official who had worked at the US embassy during the dictatorship. He said the US had known a coup was imminent. What’s more, he said that there was proof of it.

I thought back to what Dad had always told me — “We didn’t know what the colonels were planning. We were focused on other things.” But this State Department official said that that wasn’t true; it was a lie. He said that there were Greek-American CIA officers who were sympathetic to the colonels and that some of them might have known the coup was about to happen, but decided not to report it. I thought of John.

Fingers of heat fanned out on the back of my neck.

I went to the State Department’s website and scrolled through a cache of declassified documents. Most were dry accountings. I was about to give up when I came across a memo dated before the coup which said that a group of colonels had been meeting for years, and that in one of these meetings Greece’s soon-to-be dictator warned that, if the political situation continued to deteriorate, “drastic action, a dictatorship, will be needed.”

I stopped reading. My hope that the CIA, and by extension, my father, was innocent, was now over. Whoever wrote this memo knew what the colonels were up to and did nothing. Feelings of blame and anger stormed inside me. At Dad. At his colleagues. The CIA. The State Department. They all blended into one culprit.

“You have to ask him,” I thought. My arm felt heavy when I picked up the phone.

“I found declassified documents about Greece,” I said when Dad answered. My hands shook. “There’s a State Department field report that says the colonels were plotting a coup. You said we didn’t know about that, but we did.”

Dad’s deep baritone voice stayed even. “That’s not what I said. What I said was that we didn’t have any specific information about a specific group of colonels. We had a lot of suspicion in those days. There were always military plots.”

No, I thought. This was about a specific meeting of the specific colonels who launched the coup.

“There’s something else,” I said, moving on. “An embassy official has a theory about Greek-American intelligence officers.” John’s name hung in the air, unspoken. “He says a group of Greek-American officers might have known about the coup but decided not to tell anyone.” I wasn’t supposed to be doing this—disturbing the pile of Cold War rubble that had been sitting quietly inside both of us for years.

“This guy can say what he wants,” Dad said. “You’re asking a lot of questions about the colonels. Why are you so interested in them?”

I thought back to Athens, to our yard of white pebbles, to the fish pond with its fat golden fish, and to the pine trees of our quiet back yard.

“Because it’s part of my life,” I said. “Because we were there.”

I told Susan about the call later. “He lied to me,” I said.

“He isn’t allowed to say what he did,” she said. “He’s trained to deny it, to offer plausible cover stories.”

Over the next few days, I tried to sort through our conversation. It was a State Department document that said the colonels had been plotting a coup. It wasn’t from the CIA — so perhaps Dad really didn’t didn’t know about it.

The two agencies are notorious for not sharing information with each other. And maybe he didn’t keep up with the latest declassified documents about Greece. But then, why change his story? Did he change it — or just clarify it?

Not long afterward, I was sitting in my car after a student appointment when Dad called. It was raining hard. We spent a few minutes talking about nothing, and then Dad said, “Say, can I ask you something?”

“Okay,” I answered.

“What made you so mad at me years ago?”

It took me a second to figure out what he might have meant. “You mean growing up?”

“Right. What was that about?”

My heart hammered inside my chest. I wasn’t prepared for this. How did I say, You were absent, preoccupied. Your work always seemed more important than me?

“It was kind of an accumulation of things,” I stammered.

“Can you tell me more about that?”

My list of lifelong disappointments — grievances I’d told therapists, and friends, and Susan, but never Dad — stretched wide inside me. The constant relocations. Burying himself in work after Mom died. Never bothering to meet my girlfriends except that brief lunch with Susan that started with a stiff handshake. The fact that he hadn’t come to my wedding. But that felt too scary. Dad was waiting. I had to say something.

“There was that time a few years after I graduated from college when you and I made arrangements to meet at a café. Do you remember that?”

“Okay,” Dad said, sounding unsure.

“On my way, I stopped at a pay phone and checked my answering machine. There was a message from you. You weren’t coming. You just drove on through. No visit. No interest in my life.”

My eyes stung with tears.

“I’m sorry,” Dad said. He paused. “I should have made the time.”

I stared out the windshield at the watery image of Oakland — cars going by, people rushing around. I’d lived here for the past ten years, but it suddenly wasn’t the same city anymore. It was new. Everything was.

A few months after that conversation, Susan and I made plans to attend a cousin’s wedding in San Antonio. I called Dad to see if he wanted us to visit, because his house was only a few hours away and we had rented a car.

“Sure,” he said, surprising me. “That would be great!”

On the day of our visit, Susan and I drove to the Marriott, where Dad had arranged a room for us. A moment later, Dad pulled into a spot next to ours. I got out and walked toward him. He was still tall and imposing, the way he was during my childhood, but now he used a cane. It had been almost five years since we’d seen each other.

We smiled at each other warmly and came together for a hug. After we hugged, tears welled up, and I looked away, which made me catch only the tail end of the hug he gave to Susan.

The three of us made our way into the hotel. Dad shuffled up to the front desk, made the arrangements, and the concierge handed us our room card.

“I’ll wait for you guys in the car,” Dad said, and headed back outside.

Susan and I wheeled our bags down the hallway.

“I can’t believe how well things are going,” I whispered.

“I know.”

We opened the door to our room and stepped into a spacious, light-filled suite.

Susan stopped abruptly. “Wow,” she said.

I followed her eyes to the middle of the room and saw a single king-size bed. Not two beds. One. I stared at the bed and what it meant.

The rest of our visit went smoothly. For the very first time in so long, things felt good between us.

A few years later, Dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He called to say he had only weeks to live. I had spent years researching the coup — reading books and websites, interviewing people. I had even gone to Greece. But things were better then between me and Dad.

And now he had cancer. I flew to Texas to say goodbye. I held his hand and whispered that I loved him.

After he died, I stopped researching the junta. I told myself that whatever he had done in Vietnam or Greece or elsewhere was his business. But I still couldn’t let it go. I wrote an essay that said everything I wanted to say — about my love for Greece and Dad, but also about my unresolved questions about the CIA and torture. I sent it to an online Greek news site, and they accepted it.

After it posted, I got an e-mail from someone named Steve.

“I just read your essay. I knew your dad well,” it said.

My pulse raced.

“I met your dad when I joined the CIA. We spent hours talking in Greek and reviewing the state of play in Greece. He was a class act, and one of the officers who truly loved the country.”

Then Steve said something that stunned me.

“I want to assure you that your dad and the other officers serving there were not directly involved in any form of torture. We collected intelligence in response to requirements, but torture or coercion is not in our genes. The agency has changed. Pre–9/11, there were rules. Post–9/11, the gloves came off.”

Doubt flared inside me. Steve was in the CIA. Of course, he would defend the agency. I kept reading.

“Did the right-wing dictatorship practice torture? Undeniably, yes. Did we know about it? I am sure that we did. Could we have stopped it? Our mission was to report on the situation in Greece. US policymakers at the time elected to support the regime.”

Steve and I talked via Skype later that day. I watched his face, and scrutinized his words. I believed him. In a follow up email, he added, “Your dad was a thoughtful, sincere individual. We all trusted his judgment.”

I stared at the screen. This was the father I had searched for. The one I knew to be true, but for so long had doubted. I would never know everything. Instead, I would have to find a way to live with not knowing. But maybe this was enough.

I read the lines again. “Your Dad was a thoughtful, sincere individual. We all trusted his judgment.” The words went straight to my heart. And this time, I let them.

Leslie Absher is an American writer and journalist.

P.S. All names used in the piece are fictitious