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Company Man 

A Career in the CIA, as Told by Vern Lyon

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In this dim, musty, empty storefront in Wicker Park, about 30 people have gathered to hear Vern Lyon, 46, of Des Moines. His talk is being sponsored by Venceremos (a group that supports improved relations with Cuba), and in it Lyon tells how he went from an apolitical engineering major at Iowa State University to a CIA agent overseeing sabotage and destabilization efforts in Cuba to a prisoner at Leavenworth. This 20-year odyssey also forms the basis for his book, "Plausible Denial." Though two publishers have expressed an interest in it, because of censorship problems with the CIA, it's impossible it will be published in anything less than a year.

Lyon sits on a metal folding chair behind a folding table with pink burlap for a tablecloth. The backdrop is a red, pleated curtain hung across a clothesline. Once he sets his half-empty plastic cup of beer in the center of the table, he never touches it again throughout his talk. His throat is slightly raspy from the effects of a stubborn cold, and his demeanor is sullen, somewhat hesitant; he's like a crime witness relating an unpleasant story.

It was 1965 on the campus of Iowa State University, and Vern Lyon was exactly where he wanted to be, studying to be an aerospace engineer: "It was my dream. I became a pilot at an early age. I built rockets in my backyard and scared my neighbors half to death.

"I faced the same decision all my colleagues did at the time: 'What are you going to do about the draft?' I spent all my life working for a career I didn't want to cut short. I was looking for a way out. I saw a lot of my friends who were into engineering get drafted before graduation or just after. I waited for the shoe to drop."

Recruiters from aerospace companies came to campus with promises of draft deferments. In his senior year, Lyon was wooed by an Alabama company whose offer included not only a deferment but a package so fantastic that he couldn't be told about it until he'd signed a paper stating he wouldn't share this conversation with any of his fellow students. They might become insanely jealous. "I started thinking, 'My God, they're going to make me president of the company.'" So he signed, and the recruiter stamped it with a notary seal and whipped it into his pocket. Then he said he was really with the CIA.

The CIA needed campus spies to infiltrate student groups for information on the origins of escalating campus protests. They had a list of students who might be good candidates. "Somehow, somebody screwed up and gave my name," says Lyon.

The offer included not only the priceless deferment but a $300 "stipend" per month for the campus spying, and a job after college with the CIA. "For a college student still driving my old Ford from high school, that was a lot of money. So I bit." For nine months he attended protests and the meetings of every organization from the SDS to the Young Republicans. He made copies of membership and mailing lists whenever he could find an unattended photocopier.

He turned down the CIA's job offer after college. But when Lyon was laid off from a job in Saint Louis, his original CIA recruiter approached him and said they had an offer for him in Washington. He accepted a position in covert operations at the Cuban desk. "I had nothing better to do," he says.

The Cuban government was planning a massive irrigation project to extend the growing season and was making an international search for engineers. Lyon applied, saying he wanted to do something more socially significant and peaceable than building weapons systems in the United States. After a year of background checks by the Cubans, he was hired by the Cuban Academy of Sciences. He had the perfect cover.

He soon became chief of base, overseeing all the CIA's covert operations in Cuba. "I recruited agents, oversaw and directed some direct sabotage. We sabotaged the sugar industry, X-ray machines, airlines, communication systems. The agency informed us that the only way to bring down the Castro government was from within. The general directive was to raise the frustration level of the Cuban citizen by whatever means."

As Lyon made close friends in Cuba, his remorse began to grow. At a time of strict prohibition in Cuba, he and a Soviet engineer used to get very drunk on grain alcohol at a radar station outside Havana. Once they decided to have some fun, and flashed innocuous Morse code messages to an alarmed American naval ship patrolling outside Cuban waters. And then Lyon committed the mortal sin of marrying a Cuban woman without CIA clearance. He refused a directive to get a divorce. When the CIA checked out her background, they found that her uncle was in the central committee of Cuba's Communist Party. In their eyes, "This would be a fantastic opportunity to open a new door," says Lyon.

But Lyon refused to involve his family in his secret life. He resigned from the CIA in February 1974, and in April 1975 Cuban intelligence agents arrested and deported him. "I was put on a one-way flight to Kingston, Jamaica--no passport, no money, no clothes." The CIA wanted him to return to the U.S. immediately--they wanted to see whether he'd sold them out to the Cubans. But he says he knew this would mean months of mandatory seclusion and interrogation in a safe house. And his top priority--getting his wife and son out of Cuba--would be lost. So he took refuge in Canada. After about a year there he was told by an aide to Pierre Trudeau that he was too much of a "hot potato" to stay. He ended up in Peru. After another year or so, he saw a former CIA colleague on the streets of Lima. He knew after that it was just a matter of time before the CIA would track him down.

Six months later, a car screeched up to the curb. "These men who looked like they played for the Chicago Bears got out," says Lyon. "I thought, 'That does it. I'll just be another foreigner mugged and killed.' But instead of shooting, they threw me in the back and I was taken to a Braniff nonstop to Miami. They hustled me aboard, kicked all the passengers out of first class."

On the plane he was told that he was under arrest for his involvement in a student-protest property bombing 12 years earlier. He was sentenced to 17 years at Leavenworth, and served 68 months. "They wanted to make an example of me," he says, to other agents who might think of jumping ship.

Shortly after his release, he was offered a job with Des Moines Hispanic Ministry, an immigrant resettlement agency he heads today. He never did get to be an aerospace engineer.

His family has never been allowed to leave Cuba, but he was allowed to return there for a visit in 1985. It was a personally redeeming reunion, but his wife had to work through a lot of bitterness. "I was there for 30 days, and we probably fought for 29. She was very angry. I don't blame her. I could never be honest with her when we were married."

With a Cuban wife, Lyon is pretty much allowed to come and go there. He went back again in 1986 and 1987, and hopes to go again this year. "My peace has been made with the Cuban government," he says. "I feel a lot better about that. Of course they're interested in names, dates, things I was responsible for. I won't go that far."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Walt Herrs.

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