An interest in learning Russian language and history during his days at Wittenberg led Thomas Hyra, class of 1975, to a lengthy and prestigious career of federal service as a Russian intelligence analyst focused on what used to be the Soviet Union.
Now retired after 38 years of federal service with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the Library of Congress, and the Department of Defense (DOD), Hyra received the Defense Intelligence Meritorious Civilian Service Award, the Defense Intelligence Exceptional Civilian Service Award, the National Intelligence Council Certificate of Appreciation, and the Secretary of Defense Medal for Meritorious Civilian Service.
Originally from Newark, New Jersey, Hyra currently resides in Springfield, Virginia, with his wife, Linda, and youngest son, Alek. He majored in Russian and political science with a concentration in Russian studies, and was a member of Delta Sigma Phi, involved in Greek events, and in intramural activities during his time at Wittenberg. Upon graduation, he attended Columbia University on a full scholarship and earned a master’s in international affairs with a certificate from the Russian Institute from the School of International Affairs. He participated in Columbia's International Fellows program as a fellow in the first year and as a student assistant the second year. Between his two academic years at Columbia, he was accepted into the CIA’s summer internship program and worked as an analyst producing reports on Soviet foreign policy in the Middle East. It was this experience that solidified his desire to work as an intelligence analyst covering Russia.
He now takes us inside his personal and professional journey through a special Q&A.
Wittenberg: You’ve been quite busy since leaving Wittenberg. How did Wittenberg impact your future and your career?
Hyra: When I arrived at Wittenberg in the fall of 1971, I had a vague interest in pursuing a major in education and psychology, but Psych 101 pretty much ended my interest in that topic. I was also taking the Honors Program colloquia and along with Political Science 101, my interest in studying Russia began to crystalize. I had a relatively unfocused interest in Russia/USSR, while in high school, partly because my father's side of the family came from Eastern Europe and had been subjects of the Russian Empire. Then I saw that Wittenberg offered some Russian classes, including through the Dayton-Miami Valley Consortium, and I put together my Honors Program major/minor. The Honors Program Wittenberg offered was critical to developing an academic program that was tailored to my interests and gave me the depth in coursework that would establish a firm foundation for graduate school and eventual government employment. Wittenberg had quite a large impact on my future. The opportunities provided by Wittenberg were exceptional, and I was able to take advantage of many of them.
Wittenberg: What made you decide to pursue a career in government?
Hyra: After graduating from Columbia, I did try to get a regular job with the CIA, but at that point (in 1977) they were cutting back, so I moved to the D.C. area to look for another job and went to work as a research assistant at the Imperial Embassy of Iran in 1977-78, when the Shah was still Iran's leader, and Iran was still a U.S. ally. My job was to read American newspapers and summarize any reporting on Iran, attend state department briefings on Iran, and generally answer questions on U.S. culture, institutions, etc. When the Shah was overthrown, and the revolutionaries took over the embassy, I left and was able to land a job as a background investigator for OPM. While I looked at the OPM job as temporary, it had two advantages: I was frequently visiting government personnel offices and could easily look for openings in the Russian analysis field at other agencies, and I met my future wife, Linda, who was also working as an OPM investigator. After two years with OPM, I landed a position in the Library of Congress as a Russian research analyst. I was in the Library's Federal Research Division, which does contract research and analysis for agencies in the executive branch, mainly at that time the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which is part of the Defense Department.
Wittenberg: What were your duties as a Russian intelligence analyst?
Hyra: I was a full-time permanent civilian federal employee, producing finished intelligence analysis and reporting, both for my agency and as a contributor to national documents such as National Intelligence Estimates. I began writing a variety of different reports on Soviet activities and programs, most of them military in nature. During my second year at the Library, I received an assignment to write about the Soviet space program and the subsequent report, the Soviet Military Space Doctrine, was passed by the DIA director to the Secretary of Defense, who directed me to produce an unclassified version because it refuted Soviet claims that their space program was entirely peaceful. This was in 1983, when President Ronald Reagan began the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), also known as "Star Wars." SDI called for establishing space-based systems, like lasers, to defend against missile attacks, and while it never really came to fruition, it did force the Soviets to spend massive resources attempting to duplicate U.S. activity and was thus one element leading to the demise of the USSR in 1991. Later in 1984, DIA offered me a job in the Soviet Space Section, which I readily accepted as I had always had an interest in space activity. This was the best of both worlds: working on the Soviet space program and contributing to national defense. From then until I retired in late 2016, I worked on space activity for the DIA. I became the DIA's senior Soviet space analyst in 1987 and then, around 1994, became the senior DIA space analyst for worldwide space activity covering all countries, not just Russia. I continued in that position until retirement. I can honestly say that I enjoyed my work for over 35 years, which is not to say that there weren't administrative and bureaucratic duties that had to be tolerated. I wrote hundreds of reports during that time, though 99 percent of them were classified and thus could not be taken home or shared with friends and family. I also gave numerous briefings on space activity to senior staff.
Wittenberg: What were your favorite parts of your job?
Hyra: As I got more experience, I also began to do more work with other agencies in the intelligence community, not just the CIA, but the National Security Agency, the Missile and Space Intelligence Center, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the U.S. Space Command and the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, among others. I was present in 2008 when the increasing complexity of space intelligence led to the establishment of the Defense Intelligence Space Threats and Operations Committee as a coordinating mechanism for all defense-related space analysis and remained a member for the rest of my time at DIA. During my career, I was also able to participate in several military exercises and war games, to brief or visit the Army War College and the Naval War College, to work with our allies in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, and to visit the U.S. space launch facilities where I was able to touch one of the space shuttles while it was being repaired. I also had the opportunity to meet with a number of astronauts. When it became time to retire, I actually felt quite sad to be leaving the world of work.
Wittenberg: Thirty-eight years is a long career. Are you officially retired now, and, if so, what are you up to these days?
Hyra: Yes, completely retired. I was asked to come back as a contractor on several occasions, but refused. I dearly miss the work and the camaraderie we had on the team, but I knew I was burning out and even if I worked part-time, I'd still end up unable to tear myself away. I had to make a complete break. The other key issue was family-related. Our four grandchildren (three girls and one boy) and their parents now live near Richmond, Virginia, and we are moving to be close to all the kids. I'm also trying to catch up on reading and movies for which I haven't had time until I retired. Then there is my youngest son, 26 years old, who is autistic and unable to live independently. Most days we go for walks and watch TV together. My wife and I have been married for 39 years. Our older sons are leading successful lives. Brad is a member of a rock band and has traveled all over, but now mostly works for Cliff, our second son, who is a patent lawyer.