Gordon Mason: US counterintelligence operative who captured an expert Italian spy and went on to serve in the CIA


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The Independent Online

Gordon Mason's quarry, a wily teenage spy named Carla Costa, was said to have been the best female agent working for the Germans in Italy. She was not yet 17 when she ran away from home in Rome and joined a cadre of Italian spies organised to aid German military intelligence. She proved so skilled at carrying messages to and from enemy territory that she received an audience with Mussolini at his northern headquarters near Lake Garda. "Young woman," Il Duce told her, "if all Italian women were like you, we'd win this damnable war."

Mason was in the US Army Counterintelligence Corps. The son of Italian immigrants, and a future CIA career officer, he spoke Italian fluently and was ordered to arrest Costa. With information gathered from an agent in custody, his unit closed in on Costa in October 1944 near Pistoia in Tuscany. Mason was following her presumed route and spotted her on a bicycle.

He detained Costa and brought her back to his station for questioning, according to an account by James Holland in his book Italy's Sorrow: A Year of War, 1944-1945. The Americans quickly discerned that they had met a formidable opponent. A Counterintelligence Corps report cited by Holland reported: "Despite her youth and sex, Costa has proven herself the most stubborn and tenacious enemy agent or suspect whom CIC ... has encountered in the course of its work in Italy."

Mason observed that Costa was "utterly unafraid of death," Holland wrote. She had braced herself to be taken before a firing squad. But in time, the interrogators persuaded her to confess by presenting the extensive evidence collected in her case and by reminding her of the legal advantages of cooperation. Costa was eventually released, her youthful spunk having earned a sort of admiration from her captors.

In the Counterintelligence Corps, Mason attained the rank of captain and participated in the invasions of North Africa in 1942 and of Italy the following year. He joined the fledgling CIA in 1947 and served in positions that included chief of external operations for the Soviet bloc and station chief in Romania, Ghana, the Netherlands and Ethiopia. He later held high-ranking positions in the CIA and was awarded the Distinguished Intelligence Medal.

His wife of nearly 50 years, Louise Knapp Mason, sometimes joined his CIA missions. At least once she helped him bury money and other supplies for anti-communist organisers in Romania. Though he rarely spoke about his exploits, Mason liked to recall his arrest of Carla Costa. He knew he had found her, he said, when he spotted her on the getaway bicycle with her tell-tale blue shoes.

Gordon Mason, CIA officer: born Cherry Valley, Pennsylvania 20 January 1916; twice married (two children); died 3 April 2014.

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