Remembering Gene Poteat, a friend and public servant
By Charles W. Waring III
Gene Poteat. Image from the Charleston Mercury archives.
We regret to inform readers that our chief intelligence correspondent, Samuel Eugene “Gene” Poteat, 92, died this May 22 after a long illness. Gene was a retired senior Central Intelligence Agency scientific intelligence officer, inventor, teacher and executive with the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO), which graciously provided us with his official obituary from which we have borrowed significantly.
Gene was born in Bessemer City, North Carolina, in 1930 to Eugene Justice and Sarah Darnell Poteat. The family settled here in Charleston. Before entering college, Gene served in the military in Europe at the end of World War II. Gene later graduated from The Citadel with a B.S. in electrical engineering, one of many Americans who obtained college degrees under the G.I. Bill. He earned a master’s degree in statecraft and national security affairs with a specialization in intelligence studies from the Institute of World Politics and was awarded an honorary LL.D. for his service to intelligence education and the profession.
Prior to the CIA, Gene worked at Bell Labs and Cape Canaveral, where he designed missile guidance systems during the Cold War. Gene was recruited to join the CIA while serving at Cape Canaveral. Once at the CIA, Gene worked on the U-2 spy plane and designed the cloaking system for the Lockheed Martin SR-71 aircraft. He provided scientific expertise on space and naval reconnaissance systems in the Directorate of Science and Technology and served at the National Reconnaissance Office. Gene also served overseas tours in London, Oslo, the Middle East and Asia, often relocating his family with him. He also managed the CIA’s worldwide network of monitoring sites. He received multiple awards from the CIA for excellence in service to country.
Throughout his long career, Gene found himself playing a role in major events in American history, including the Cuban Missile Crisis when accurate monitoring and keen analytical skills in communications prevented nuclear war. Later, in the summer of 1964, Gene was asked to give a scientific determination about whether a radar operator’s report proved the U.S.S. Maddox was under attack by enemy P.T. boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. Trusting facts and science, Gene replied that no conclusion could be reached absent other data regarding weather and surface conditions. Instead, the White House pressed Gene to decide without regard to additional information. Gene stated that no, the Maddox was not under attack. Gene’s conclusions were ignored, and President Lyndon B. Johnson went on to escalate the Vietnam War. More than three decades later, when documentarians for the BBC revived interest in the Tonkin incident, Gene had the opportunity to speak face to face with the captain of Maddox, who confirmed he saw no P.T. boats that night from his position on the bridge.
Official retirement from the CIA did not keep Gene from being engaged in matters of espionage, and he took a special interest in what our newspaper was doing in the Republic of Georgia in 2008. As the Mercury prepared to send Elliott Merck and Will Cathcart off on a journey to warn the world about Putin’s plan to invade Georgia, we held a supper with Gene and some other team members such as Baron Fain. Will recalled how he came to know Gene at this gathering: “Gene Poteat had an intelligence that was contagious. I like to think just a bit rubbed off on me. Without him, the evils and injustices of this world seem overwhelming.” He continued: “Gene never gave away any secrets; back then there were few to give on Putin’s plans for Georgia, but Gene had a way of grinning — beaming — that led us to believe we were on the right track.”
During the early years of the Obama-Clinton “reset” with the Russians, we learned in April 2010 about the Smolensk plane crash, where the top leaders of the Polish government died in their plane, except it was no accident, as Gene Poteat first bravely told the world in this newspaper. Those unfamiliar with this story might wish to visit https://www.smolenskcrashnews.com/russian-image-management.html
Throughout his life, Gene continued to believe that good intelligence, underpinned by hard science, could prevent armed conflict and promote global stability. He welcomed women into the intelligence community ranks as a positive influence and promoted the admission of women to The Citadel. He also taught classes on women spies and gained expertise in the history of women in espionage. After leaving the CIA, Gene held many other positions, including director of the Strategic Research Group of the Electronic Warfare Association and president of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) from 1999 to 2015, and served on the board of advisors of the International Spy Museum.
Gene was professor emeritus at the Institute of World Politics, where he taught technology, intelligence, security and statecraft. As readers know, he was a longtime and beloved columnist for the Charleston Mercury; he was also a regular contributor to the AFIO’s Intelligencer journal.
Martha Cox Poteat, Gene’s beloved wife of 50 years, passed away in 2002. After spending decades as a traveling CIA wife, she became a local photojournalist and airplane pilot. His siblings, Donald W. Poteat, Wayne M. Poteat, and Aloma Faye Ostendorff, are deceased.
Gene is survived by his daughters, Sarah Elisabeth Poteat (Bradley J. Garrett), a counterterrorism attorney in the National Security Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, and Mary Ann Poteat Schaffer (Gary Wayne Schaffer), the managing director-systems chief pilot for United Airlines and an attorney, and his grandson, Max Poteat-Garrett, a middle school student.
Will Cathcart speaks for our entire team when he says of Gene: I feel as though I’ve lost a guardian angel. And the burden of knowing this means that it is time to pay it forward. Gene will be dearly missed. But a great deal of good will be done in his memory. A world without Gene Poteat is a less secure, less elegant and less informed world. And yet I suppose that Gene would say that this is precisely why it is up to us now to address those evils and injustices head-on and without hesitation. Let’s get started. Amen.