Former Iowa State student recounts his experiences as a CIA spy


Courtesy of Iowa State University Lecture Series

Former Iowa State student Verne Lyon gave a lecture Monday night about his experiences as a spy for the Central Intelligence Agency.

Ella Hawkins

The Iowa State Lecture Series hosted Verne Lyon in a lecture titled “From ISU Student to CIA Spy: The Dangers of Clandestine Government Operations” Monday at the Memorial Union.

Lyon is an aerospace engineer and private pilot who spent time Monday telling stories about his childhood, recruitment by the CIA and adventures in Cuba.

Growing up in Boone, just 20 minutes west of the Iowa State campus, Lyon spent his high school years taking all of the advanced science and math courses available to him. He established the Boone Rocket Society and spent his free time building rockets and playing with different fuel mixtures. 

Lyon and his friends built their own makeshift bunker in a field and would run wires from their car battery in order to launch rockets. People would come out to watch them test their rockets.

“There was shrapnel everywhere, smoke and people screaming. It was a hell of a ride,” Lyon said as he reflected on this memory. 

He enrolled at Iowa State in 1961 to study aerospace engineering. At the height of the Vietnam War and nearing the end of his senior year, Lyon was looking for a job that would keep him out of the draft. He ended up in a false flag recruitment interview with the CIA. 

After agreeing to work with the CIA, they flew him to Washington D.C. and put him through a series of tests over three days. Lyon was physically and psychologically challenged, having to take a lie detector test and was asked a series of personal questions.

Lyon’s work at Iowa State consisted of creating monthly reports about a variety of groups on campus. He studied professors, teachers assistants, foreign students and students affiliated with different political groups. 

The operation Lyon was a part of was called Operation CHAOS, a domestic espionage project. This operation was carried out from 1967 to 1974 and compiled illegal investigations of 13,000 individuals.

Lyon moved on to work for McDonald Aircraft in St. Louis and then to Havana, Cuba, to subvert Fidel Castro’s regime. He learned skills such as map reading, coding, different languages and how to use a variety of weapons.

One audience member questioned Lyon on whether or not he though there was a distinction between the covert operations he was involved in and the covert operations during the War on Terror.

“It is a necessary evil. We have to take care of ourselves,” Lyon responded.

The rest of Lyon’s story consists of collecting intelligence in Cuba, being assigned criminal missions, running from the U.S. Government and being sentenced 15 years in a maximum security prison.

To follow Lyon in his escapades around the world, check out his book, “Eyes on Havana: Memoir of an American Spy Betrayed by the CIA.” 

For more information about lectures at Iowa State, visit the Lecture Series website.