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Photo of Bob PringleBringing New Intelligence to the University

by Graham Shelby

After three decades in the trenches of the Cold War, in a world of secrecy and need-to-know, Bob Pringle has come in from the cold. The former Russian analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency is now trading in information in a different milieu, telling UK students firsthand stories of secrets and lies, traitors and patriots, Andrei Sahkarov and Aldrich Ames.

Pringle retired from the CIA last year to become an adjunct professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy. In tribute to his 15 years of service, the agency awarded him the Career Intelligence Medal, a prestigious honor, though the CIA's public information office won't reveal how often the award is given, how many officers have received it or how long the award has been bestowed. Still, agency spokesman Tom Crispell says the award is a high honor few officers receive. "This medal is not the CIA's equivalent of a gold watch. This is a prestigious award given on the basis of an outstanding career."

Pringle's career in government spanned 29 years and 25 countries with stints in the military, State Department and CIA. When he lived in Moscow in the late 1970s, Pringle used to receive regular visits and information from Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov. After the Cold War, the Pittsburgh native spent a month at a missile base in Belarus, observing the destruction of Soviet nuclear warheads once aimed at the United States. He also served nine months as the boss of Aldrich Ames, a one-time CIA official convicted in 1994 of spying for the Russian security agency known as the KGB.

He recalls Ames as an intelligent and engaging man and didn't suspect him of being the mole whose activities the CIA had been aware of for some time, yet in retrospect, his colleague's arrest made some sense. "He was the most disillusioned person I knew at CIA. He was not happy about his position. He was angry about not being promoted." From his own work with Soviet defectors, Pringle knows that often, "The thing that turns people is anger."

In the latter days of the Cold War, another of Pringle's duties was debriefing Soviet defectors to the United States, a process involving extensive conversations (Pringle then spoke good Russian, an ability that he admits has lapsed some) and lengthy interviews. Many of the defectors feared the KGB would hunt them down and kill them. "You were dealing with very nervous men who had risked a great deal," Pringle says.

Pringle reasoned that the men, nearly all well-educated government officials, would feel comforted if he showed them some of what he had learned in the course of earning his Ph.D. in Russian history at the University of Virginia. "The most important thing that I could do is show that I knew Russian literature, Russian history—Russian culture—and that I respected it."

He once loaned a popular Russian children's book to a defector so the man could read it to his son. The CIA officer developed a deep respect for some of the men he interviewed, many of whom had held jobs similar to his own. "You think, 'This is what I would be like if I had been in that system.'"

Photo of Bob Pringle playing broomball in MoscowIn Moscow in 1978, the British and U.S. embassy staffs often played "broomball," Pringle says, to help dissipate pent-up energy. The game was played with a softball-size rubber ball and six men on a team.

Partly out of obligation to those men, he won't discuss details of the debriefing and relocation process. "One of the things that's hammered into you at CIA is need-to-know," he says. In Pringle's case, if he told his secrets, people could die. At the CIA, "The biggest issue is respect for secrecy."

Gathering, guarding and transporting Kremlin secrets to the Oval Office has been a primary function of the CIA since its creation as part of the National Security Act in 1947. But after the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, debates have arisen about the mission and even the need for the CIA.

Pringle believes the United States still needs what the CIA, more than any other government agency, is designed to provide: reliable, current and impartial information on people and events inside other countries. "The next president, Republican or Democrat," Pringle says, "is going to wake up at six o'clock in the morning and want a CIA morning report—the presidential daily brief—on his desk."

Preparing such reports occupied a lot of Pringle's time in the CIA, making his job a far cry from the laser-and-martini world of espionage depicted in spy movies. In fact, according to Pringle, films like Mission Impossible or the James Bond series portray spying about as accurately as a Donald Duck cartoon depicts the life of waterfowl. "Spying is done by bureaucracies," he says. "The idea of the lone wolf agent out in the field overthrowing the government of some hostile country is not accurate."

Though working for the CIA is a far cry from a James Bond kind of existence, Pringle says that his assignments did sometimes involve fear and danger. "In the Moscow office one day, a young man came in claiming to be an American citizen," Pringle says. "After talking with him for three minutes, I knew he wasn't. It turned out that he was a merchant marine sailor, a Russian, who wanted to defect; and he decided that if he could get into the embassy someone could help him do that." When Pringle said that he couldn't help him defect, that the man would have to leave, he threw open his peacoat.

"The man said then: 'No, I don't have to leave—I have a bomb strapped to my stomach.' Well, it sure looked like a bomb, so I called the ambassador and we evacuated the embassy." The KGB was brought in and talked with him for about four hours. The man had a lot of grievances and seemed mentally unstable. "Finally, one of the Soviets told me, 'We are going to "take steps."' I knew this meant they were going to shoot the guy. Which they did. He exploded the bomb then. I was about eight feet away, and the full force of the explosion hit me from the top of my forehead on; but luckily I just had some cuts and bruises, nothing major. The man died within a few minutes. This was a terrible tragedy and I felt deeply sorry about it," Pringle says.

Pringle recounts another scary incident when he was assigned to the Mozambique embassy. "One day I was bringing in our new communicator, a young woman (whose name I've forgotten) who had never been out of the United States. We got to the Mozambique-Swaziland border, and the border guards decided that the woman was a spy. They demanded to see our luggage, and when people with AK47s—angry people—make a demand like that, you just say yes," Pringle says.

"They opened up the woman's purse and found tampons, which they thought were plastic explosives. So they told her to go across the road and stamp on the tampons and blow herself up. We were both scared spitless. She stamped on the tampons and of course they didn't blow up, so the guards let us go on. This woman left the foreign service two months later."

Pringle says that in his work in Washington and through his stints at various foreign embassies, he was extremely lucky to have the steady support of his wife and family.

"I made it a point early on that I would always have dinner with my wife and family," says Pringle, "and I went to my kids' Little League games and my daughter's swim meets. And I've been very blessed with having a wife who has supported what I've chosen to do and is a professional woman, a very successful counselor who shares my interests in community service and in national service."

Pringle's family went with him, he says, on all three foreign-service postings—twice to Africa and once to Moscow. "Our daughter Kate was born in Swaziland, and when she was born she received a Swazi name, Gugu, which means 'precious' in Zulu."

Offering UK students insight into the life and work of a CIA officer has been a priority for Pringle ever since he arrived on campus in 1996 as a CIA officer-in-residence. For two years he taught classes at the Patterson School while still doing work for the CIA until he retired from the agency last November. Pringle came to UK partly because he knew Patterson School director John Stempel, a former U.S. diplomat.

Prior to Pringle's arrival, Stempel had been teaching courses on intelligence, but was glad to assign them to his newest faculty member. "He brings exactly the kind of practioner expertise that we need," Stempel says. "He gives us tremendous insight into Russia, based not only on scholarship, but on personal experience."

Pringle is incorporating that experience and perspective in his current research, which examines Yuri Andropov's effect on the Soviet Union during his reign as head of the KGB. Gathering and presenting research in both written and oral form has been a part of Pringle's job description long before he came to UK. CIA senior analyst Ann Jablonski worked under Pringle for four years at the agency and says her former boss is a natural as a college professor. "He's just very passionate about the subject, very engaged. Just being around him, people got more enthused, more passionate about the work."

Instilling that same passion in students at the Patterson School is an assignment Pringle takes as seriously as he did his work at the CIA. "What I really want to do is teach other people to be even better than I was as an analyst, as a public servant," he says. "One of our jobs as we get older is to prepare the next generation. I don't think you have any option; I think that's one of your responsibilities."

Julie Anglin, a second-year graduate student at the Patterson School, is excited to have a teacher like Pringle. "It's great to have someone with such pertinent life experience," she says. "He's just an invaluable resource, and his door is always open."