By Megan Lisagor
Photograph by Dan Dry
After 30 years with the Central Intelligence
Agency, Richard Schroeder, AM’65, PhD’75, bids his secret
He doesn’t stand out in the International
Spy Museum crowd. Dressed in typical Washington, DC, business casual—herringbone
sport coat, brown slacks—the 61-year-old gentleman sits quietly
through an introductory film in the auditorium’s back row.
Moving into the gallery space, he views one exhibit after another,
maintaining a low profile among the tourists and local visitors.
But listen as he inspects James Bond’s
Aston Martin DB5 on display. The license plates are about to rotate,
he predicts. Within seconds the plates flip on cue, changing their
numbers. His own work car, he admits, lacked the spinning feature.
As far as fictional spies go, he says, “I like Bond, but no
blond has ever tried to seduce me.” Now heads are turning.
Who is this guy? His commentary’s better than the museum captions.
He’s a guy who describes Psychology
of Intelligence Analysis as a “wonderful little read,”
whose regular vocabulary includes phrases like “settle on
a rendezvous,” whose résumé boasts top-secret
clearance, and who long kept his profession from his friends.
Meet Richard Schroeder, AM’65, PhD’75,
an intelligence officer with the Central Intelligence Agency for
30 years, including several assignments abroad during the Cold War.
“Intelligence officers have to steal secrets, record secrets,
and get secrets...back to headquarters,” Schroeder explains.
“A lot of what you’re doing is kind of like magic.”
Since his September 2003 retirement, he has applied his espionage
expertise as a CIA consultant, a professor, and a member of the
new Spy Museum’s board of advisers.
“For my entire career I was undercover,
so I couldn’t really talk,” he notes. Lips now unsealed,
he can share some stories, deleting details such as his specific
location. So in late October we rendezvous in DC. Schroeder picks
me up outside Dupont Circle’s Tabard Inn. I climb into his
shiny black Miata. With his salt-and-pepper hair, mustache, and
beard, he’s more Sean Connery than Pierce Brosnan.
The University of Chicago has
a few alleged double agents among its alumni, including:
Code Name: Youngster
Charge: Physics prodigy who worked on the Manhattan
Project; first passed atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets
at 19. Never imprisoned; died in 1999.
Code Name: Kolokol (the bell)
Charge: CIA case officer who specialized in Russian
intelligence services; passed names of agency and FBI
sources to the Soviets. Sentenced in 1994 to life in
prison without parole.
Code Name: Parlor Maid
Charge: California businesswoman who worked undercover
for the Federal Bureau of Investigation; copied national-defense
documents with intention of passing them to the Chinese.
Freed on $2 million bail in 2003; trial expected in
Maneuvering us out of the city and toward the
CIA’s Langley, Virginia, campus, he bemoans the barricades
blocking Pennsylvania Avenue. “You got all the cop cars and
the darn security,” he complains, sounding like any disgruntled
driver. That’s part of Schroeder’s magic—he seems
an everyman, just another husband, father, civil servant working
for some indistinguishable government agency. Even his son was shocked
to learn the truth as a teenager. His reaction, Schroeder recalls,
was “hysterical laughter. Who imagines daddy’s a big-time
Schroeder himself didn’t imagine such a
high-risk future. In fact, he planned to enter academe. Growing
up in Massachusetts and Ohio, scholarly surroundings were the norm
with a German-professor father and a librarian mother. Languages
were big, and Schroeder spent a college summer on an immersion program
in Germany. After graduating with degrees in French and history
from Kent State University, he headed to Chicago on a Woodrow Wilson
fellowship, an honor that earned the Army ROTC member a four-year
Schroeder put his military respite to good use,
both in and out of the classroom. By his third year in Hyde Park
he had completed his master’s in European history and married
Leah Elizabeth Webb, another Woodrow Wilson fellow. Leah, AM’68,
got her master’s in political science, and he began researching
his doctoral dissertation. Before he could finish, time was up.
Commissioned as a second lieutenant in Army intelligence,
Schroeder first had to attend infantry school. Thanks to his history
background, he next landed a DC post, predicting what various countries
would look like in 2000. Life was good. Leah was working on Capitol
Hill; they enjoyed the city. But it was 1969. By the following January,
he had shipped off to Vietnam. Picked to do secret analysis of Vietnamese
activity in Laos and Cambodia, in collaboration with the CIA, he
made it through his tour physically unscathed. When Schroeder got
home in fall 1970, however, he and the country had changed.
The Kent State riots had taken place, with four
war protesters killed at his alma mater. Society seemed polarized.
Furthermore, “the bottom had fallen out of the academic market,
and there were no jobs,” he recalls. He returned to his dissertation
and applied to the CIA, figuring he’d produce analyst reports
similar to his Army ones for “the premier organization”
in the intelligence community. In 1972 he entered the agency—a
change in career path he could tell only his immediate family about.
It proved a good fit. “I felt it was much more concrete and
constructive,” he says. “Research was too theoretical
anyway. Instead of a desk person I’m a street person.”
Formed in 1947 from the Office of Strategic Services,
the CIA was designed as an independent federal agency tasked with
supplying national security intelligence to senior policy makers.
Identifying potential threats and then digging for information,
employees work in three directorates: intelligence, science and
technology, and operations.
Schroeder chose to pursue operations, which focuses
on information gathering, often abroad. As an officer in its clandestine
service his main responsibility was recruiting agents—foreigners
who provide secrets about their countries. He was trained in “spotting
sources, eliciting information, persuading people to cooperate,
writing reports.” He compares the position’s duties
with those of an investigative reporter. “Only, the thing
is, if your source gets caught, he gets thrown into a shredder or
He learned the espionage craft on his first overseas
tour in Western Europe in 1975, the same year he earned his doctorate
in modern military history. Leah, leaving behind a representative’s
chief-of-staff position, and their new son, Michael, came along.
Schroeder explains, “I told friends I was a member of the
local diplomatic establishment in the town, dealing with the host
country.” He had to wear two hats, working late into the night.
During the day, he says, “you stamp visas, do diplomat things,
go to cocktail parties.” After hours he’d do spy things.
“Your real job is meeting with agents.”
Against the backdrop of the Cold War, “the
hard targets were the Russians, Eastern Europeans, Chinese, and
North Koreans,” Schroeder says. “You were really out
there on the front lines.” The agency, he adds, expected spouses
to join the fight, sometimes putting their careers on hold. “When
we got to a new post,” Leah recalls in a recent e-mail, “I
had to ‘reinvent myself,’ as Rick is fond of saying.”
She helped maintain his cover story, volunteering and entertaining.
He laughs, “I can remember showing a Russian KGB officer All
the President’s Men.”
in 1923, the Enigma cipher machine both coded and cracked secret
After three years his family headed home in 1978.
Leah took up lobbying; he supported officers abroad from CIA’s
Langley headquarters. He told neighbors, “I’m working
for the U.S. government, and I do foreign affairs.” A two-and-a-half-year
European tour followed in 1982, with Leah and Michael in tow. Next
Schroeder managed the headquarters branch of overseas programs;
Leah became a trade association’s vice president for governmental
affairs. When an opportunity arose for him in 1990, they packed
their bags again.
One year later the Soviet Union collapsed. Michael’s
high school closed. The local movie theater and Burger King shut
down. The American community left town. While Michael finished up
at a Maryland boarding school, Schroeder and Leah remained so he
could oversee a field office. Three years later they moved back
“I decided I’d like to do something
different,” he says, and in 1995 he accepted a colleague’s
offer to work at the agency’s Office of Congressional Affairs.
“I’d always been interested in Congress,” he explains,
“because my wife had been on the Hill.” He signed on
as one of two operations officers serving as liaisons to the Senate
and House committees that monitor the agency. Not long into the
job the CIA came under investigation for its ties to a Guatemalan
colonel implicated in a U.S. citizen’s death. Schroeder had
to coordinate hearings probing agency activity in Central America
and write the CIA’s official record of such inquiries. Over
the next three years he handled briefings on the Middle East and
Europe, POW/MIA cases, and counterterrorism.
In 1998 Schroeder became deputy director of the
CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence, making him one
of about 100 top mangers in the agency. The center’s scope
includes publishing journals and books, declassifying historical
documents, sponsoring conferences and seminars, and placing officers
at universities. “That got me back, for the first time in
20 years, in the academic atmosphere.” The job also put him
at the helm of the agency’s museum, which houses its permanent
collection of artifacts and photographs.
From there Schroeder rounded out his career,
becoming CIA chair and political-science professor at the National
Defense University’s Industrial College of the Armed Forces.
He loved academia and in 1999 picked up an adjunct position at Georgetown
University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, teaching
courses on strategic intelligence and technology. Having come full
circle, he decided to stay at Georgetown after reluctantly handing
over his staff CIA badge—a transaction the agency requires
when officers turn 60. He confesses, “I was sad to retire.”
Intelligence officers have to
steal secrets, record secrets, and get secrets back to headquarters.
For Schroeder, life as an ordinary guy is hardly
humdrum. He had long promised his mother he’d write for her
series Missouri Heritage Readers, cultural books geared to adult-literacy
education. Drawing on his military-history background, his contribution,
Missouri at Sea (University of Missouri Press, 2004), recounts warships
named after the Show-Me State. Then there’s the International
Spy Museum, which he helped get off the ground by providing developers
and staff with strategic advice on exhibition concepts, themes,
and programs. He continues to advise the museum on new exhibits.
He regularly regales his Georgetown students with spy stories and
espionage tips. And he travels with Leah, now a private school’s
development director, and Michael, formerly an Army military policeman
and now studying architecture at Northern Virginia Community College.
Still, when the outside world seems a little
lacking in excitement, Schroeder can zip over to the CIA. That’s
the plan today, and we’re minutes from the agency museum.
Closed to the public, he describes it as “the best museum
you’ve never seen.” Flashing his green badge (and relaying
my Social Security number), he rolls his two-seater through the
As a consultant, Schroeder returns regularly
to the leafy campus. “In the ’90s we thought we could
afford a much smaller intelligence community,” he explains.
“After 9/11 the demand exploded, and there weren’t any
experienced people. Suddenly you had a small, overstretched agency,”
and retirees were called in.
Of course, consulting isn’t the same as
being a big-time CIA guy. While parking Schroeder’s mood turns
nostalgic. “I stayed to the last possible second,” he
says, then perks up to share an inside joke. His vanity license
plates may not flip, but they do offer a clue to his agency ties,
reading OXCART, the code name for the original supersonic, high-altitude
reconnaissance aircraft. The CIA developed the spy plane before
the Air Force rechristened it the SR-71 Blackbird.
KGB fashioned this spying device during the Cold War, embedding
a transmitter, microphone, and batteries in the shoe’s
We pass through the historical entrance and more
security. Inside the museum, surrounded by tools of the trade, Schroeder
launches into his lesson. “We tend to have small teams of
people working in shops around the world,” he explains. “We’re
the guys out there trying to get the information that you can’t
get any other way.” They rely on high- and low-tech gadgets.
In display cases he points to items straight from the trenches:
a compass masked as a button, a camera hidden in a matchbook, playing
cards with a concealed map.
“Another way you can steal secrets is by
listening in,” he says from experience. For example, there’s
a woodblock—“the kind of thing I’ve used in the
field”—that officers stick under a desk or a chair.
Blending in with the furniture, the battery-operated device has
a receiver and a transmitter. “You send a signal to turn it
on.” Next on his useful-equipment list is a briefcase scanner
that copies secret documents on the go.
Scores of artifacts later, we find ourselves
out in the hall. It’s lunchtime, and Schroeder spots familiar
faces as we stroll around the CIA, slowly making our way to the
exit. He waves or stops to shake hands with students and former
colleagues. One tall man, a senior analyst, briskly walks the other
direction after learning I’m a journalist. Perhaps joking,
he states, “You don’t know me.”
These days Schroeder’s past is out in the
open, his cover pushed back to when he joined the CIA, meaning his
secret identity is no longer secret. Telling friends the truth,
he recalls, “most of them said, ‘Oh, I always knew that.’
Of course most of them didn’t.” Leah still finds divulging
the secret difficult: It “became so second nature to me that
when he became ‘overt’ and could say where he worked,
I still had great difficulty doing it, and I absolutely could not
write it in this e-mail!”
The contrast between then and now is illustrated
in the difference between the agency’s museum and the public
one downtown, where we head next. For starters, the International
Spy Museum houses Zola, an upscale restaurant that, unlike the CIA
cafeteria, is a place to see and be seen. We slide into one of the
booths, whose red leather back extends to the ceiling. “This
looks like an agent meeting,” museum executive director and
former operations officer Peter Earnest says, stopping by to visit.
The comment prompts the retirees to reminisce. They had met with
agents in restaurants. One kept his notebook in his lap, the other
on the table.
M-209 cipher machine was good for a spy on the fly. Easily carried,
it transmitted and received communications in the field.
The discussion turns to the current state of
affairs: what’s good to eat here. Both on the South Beach
Diet, they recommend the chicken salad and the burger sans bun.
Earnest then leaves us to our meal, but not before underscoring
Schroeder’s contribution to the museum. “He has a wonderful
command of intelligence history—not only history, but how
it works,” he says. Of the board members he’s best “able
to put [artifacts] in context.”
The skill came in handy as the museum’s
investors looked for experts to ensure they presented espionage
in a thoughtful manner, separating fact from fiction. Following
a briefing at the CIA, they invited Schroeder to serve as an adviser.
“I started working with them when this place was rubble.”
Opened in 2002, the 68,000 square-foot museum
revitalized F Street, in DC’s historic Penn Quarter. Its permanent
collection contains many items similar to those in the CIA’s
modest galleries, but interactive exhibits and special effects create
a theme-park feel. As we check out the displays after lunch, flashing
lights reflect off Schroeder’s glasses. With plenty of pop-culture
references from Get Smart to James Bond, the place seems
geared to the MTV generation (founder Milton Maltz also helped create
the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum). But here real-life spies
intrigue, and a crowd fills one of the last exhibit rooms, listening
to true stories of double agents.
Bad seeds aside, Schroeder defends the CIA against
criticism and denounces those who reveal officers’ identities
for political reasons, as happened to Valerie Plame. He believes
President Bush’s call for creating a director of national
intelligence—part of a post-9/11 revamping effort—is
unnecessary. “We already have one,” he says of the agency’s
director of central intelligence who also has limited control over
the larger information-collecting community.
Still, he knows the CIA and espionage have their
faults: “It’s never perfect because it all deals with
humans.” He’s not above wearing such a message on his
sleeve at the agency’s gym—“My friends went to
Iraq to look for WMD and all they found was this lousy T-shirt.”
It’s a fashion statement, he concedes, not all his fellow
To minimize mistakes and to make room for new
recruits, intelligence officers eventually retire. For Schroeder,
it’s just as well. “I don’t want to go out now
and stand on the corner in the rain at midnight, meeting an agent,”
he admits, then zooms off in his sports car to rendezvous with Leah
in the Virginia suburbs.
Espionage equipment photographs courtesy
International Spy Museum.