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My Father the Spymaster

My name is Eva Dillon, My father, Paul Dillon, was a spy for the Central Intelligence Agency in Germany, Mexico, and India at the height of the Cold War before his cover was blown by a disgruntled former officer in 1975. I was born in Berlin in 1957, one of six children. My father was posted there to deal with the threat of the Soviets surrounding this little enclave of the Allies. His cover was as U.S. Army but what he was actually doing for the C.I.A. was gathering information from Soviets on the Eastern side of the city to determine the USSR’s intentions

My parents were devout Catholics. They had seven children in ten years. I am the third oldest. We lived in Berlin for about five years in a wonderful house with a big yard and fruit trees out front in Dahlem. My parents tried to shield us from the stresses of living in the city. However, I have a vivid memory from when I was four years old of my father taking me and my two older sisters to see the Berlin Wall. It had just started going up a few weeks earlier.  He knew that we would be hearing conversations about it around other adults and at school so he wanted to show us first-hand.  I vividly remember holding my father’s hand and feeling quite frightened by the barbed wire and these scary looking guards with guns and German shepherds. My father said, “Don’t worry. Nothing will harm you. This is just a wall.”

Eva Dillon and Paul Dillon

Anne and Paul Leo Dillon in Kempten, Germany, November 1951.

The qualities that made my father a really good father were the same qualities that made him a good case officer. The most important thing between both a child and their parent and an asset and their handler is trust. My father engendered trust in everyone he knew because he saw the dignity in all people. People felt that from him, including us children. My dad attended a Jesuit high school and Boston College, which is also Jesuit. He was heavily influenced by the Jesuit vow of poverty, which can be interpreted as vow of oneself that you were not better than any one person. At work, when he was out of earshot, his colleague respectfully and affectionately referred to  him as Father Paul.

One way his devoutness was manifest is that he trusted you and you, in turn, trusted him. Professionally, that meant his assets trusted him. Personally, it meant we trusted him and he trusted us. This gave us a lot of freedom and a base of confidence that stayed with us throughout our lifetime.  For instance, when we moved to India, all us children were  in our teens. My parents encouraged us to go see New Delhi on our own. So we took rickshaws, exploring  all these new interesting neighborhoods. We would come home for dinner and the would would ask us, “OK what did you experience today.”

Because he trusted us, and we loved him, we did not want to betray his trust. We honored what he gave us. He was also a lot of fun. With seven children, my mother needed a break sometimes. So it was my dad’s duty to give her one. In Mexico, he took us to the Teotihuacan pyramids or to the bullfights. In Rome, he would take us to the catacombs, the Pantheon or the Roman Forum. We were amazed that the rain fell right through the roof onto these beautiful marble floors. At the Bocca della Verità, the Mouth of Truth, a first-century Roman sculpture of a God’s face, Dad explained that if you put your hand in the sculpture’s mouth, it would bite it off if you told a lie.

A young Eva Dillon being held by her father Paul.

My father was certainly under a lot of stress in the early days. During my research, I discovered from interviews with my father’s colleagues and documents I got from the FOIA requests that my father was under a lot of mental pressure at various points in his life. For instance, in his first posting outside of Munich before I was born, he was responsible for recruiting refugees streaming from Eastern Europe in the face of Soviet occupation to parachute back into their own countries to spy for the Americans. Though he didn’t know it at the time, the infamous British spy Kim Philby, who had been working for the Russians for 15 years, was then telegraphing the landing coordinates to Moscow. They were shot as soon as they landed. In a self-evaluation that I had obtained, my father admitted he was under considerable stress and strain.

When I was born, that strain continued but my brothers and I were adept at entertaining him. For example, during the 19 70s, the agency was weighted down with infighting, paranoia, leaks, and suspicious driven by the then-CIA director of counterintelligence James Jesus Angleton, who believed in a vast master-plot. My father was not one of Angleton’s disciples and he would come home stressed from work. My brothers had fallen in love with Monty Python and would recreate scenes from Life of Brian wherein the various Judean fronts spent their energy fighting themselves instead of against the common enemy, the Romans. My father would roar with laughter at these skits. In a way, that my father totally got, that my brothers did not, this is what was going at the CIA.

In the summer of 1975, when I was 17 and living in New Delhi, a newspaper article in the Times of India identified my father as a CIA officer. For us, it was, naturally, a shock. My mother knew what he did — in fact, he tried to recruit her once for a dead drop in Berlin but after that she refused to do more — but my brothers and sisters had no idea. The book from which the article was drawn, Inside the Company, was written by Philip Agee, a disgruntled former CIA officer and revealed the identities of 250 covert officers, including my father. It was the Wikileaks of the 1970s.

But even after my dad’s cover was publicly revealed, we still did not confront or ask him about it. We just knew that he wasn’t going to, want to or be able to tell us what he really was doing at work every day. We respected him and honored so much that we didn’t want to put him an uncomfortable spot by asking him.  It wasn’t dangerous for my father in India since he had diplomatic immunity but his career as a foreign operative was over. Soon  he was posted back in the United States to work at Camp Peary, the CIA training complex in Virginia known as “The Farm.”

Dillon and his wife pose with their family of seven.

Shortly after our arrival in the States, Dad told us we needed to go to a meeting at the administrative base.  When we arrived, my Dad said, “Hey everybody. The administrator wants us to meet him in the conference room.” So we all filed in there, all the kids plus my father.  It turns out there’s a policy of telling the family of CIA officers that their parent is in the agency. So this guy, the administrator, tells us our father was a CIA agent and we are all a little embarrassed because, even though Dad has never told us, of course we already knew. It was an awkward moment. We kept our eyes down and my father remained silent. In that moment, we were forced to confront a lifetime of unspoken, broken deceptions, of never being told the truth on my father’s side and a willful ignorance on our side. The warm and loving father who would deal directly and honestly with us was himself embarrassed to have an official tell us the truth about the CIA, not him. Suddenly, he was forced to decompartmentalize between those two institutions, work and family, to which he had committed himself.

Another thing from which my father shielded us was that he was dying. While we were in India, he had developed a rare hereditary lung disease called primary pulmonary hypertension. Today it is easily treated with Viagra of all things but back in the 1970s it was fatal. Basically, the capillaries of the lungs start tightening slowly but surely. Eventually, you can’t breathe. We knew Dad was sick but not how serious it was. Certainly, not that it was fatal. But he didn’t wallow in it and he didn’t want to drag his kids into his sickness.  So we honored what we knew he wanted and we did this in two ways. First, by respecting him. Secondly, by not even accepting it in our minds and hearts that he was leaving us until he was gone. After all, he was our father and we didn’t want to blow his cover.

— As told to Joshua David Stein

For 25 years, Eva Dillon worked in magazine publishing. In May, she released her first book, Spies in the Family: An American Spymaster, His Russian Crown Jewel, and the Friendship That Helped End the Cold War (Harper Collins)about her father, Paul Dillon, and his relationship to General Dimitri Polyakov, one of the CIA’s highest-ranking Russian assets.