By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 28, 2008
BERLIN -- On a rainy day 52 years ago, the cover was blown on one of the biggest espionage plots of the Cold War. Soviet and East German forces announced that they had found a quarter-mile-long tunnel that the CIA had burrowed into East Berlin as part of a massive wiretapping operation.
Though the audacious project had come to a crashing end, news of the discovery generated unrestrained glee across the Atlantic at CIA headquarters. America's spymasters were thrilled by the world's response: admiration for the CIA's daring and technical prowess, and a general assumption that the agency had roundly snookered the Soviets.
"Worldwide reaction was outstandingly favorable in terms of enhancement of U.S. prestige," the CIA wrote in an internal history of the Berlin Tunnel project that was declassified last year and recently made public. Western allies in particular reacted with "unconcealed delight to this indication that the U.S., almost universally regarded as a stumbling neophyte in espionage matters, was capable of a coup against the Soviet Union, which had long been the acknowledged master in such matters."
In terms of telephonic engineering and sheer skulduggery, the CIA's tunnel was a marvelous accomplishment. Begun in August 1954 under a makeshift warehouse in the Rudow sector of West Berlin, near a field of hovels built amid wartime rubble by German refugees, the mole hole was secretly dug over a period of 18 months. It extended 300 yards into the Soviet sector.
Aided by British intelligence, the tunnelers tapped into three large cables that carried most of the telephone and telegraph traffic between East Berlin and points farther afield, including Moscow. For nearly a year, U.S. and British spies recorded the communists' communications, amassing more than 25 tons of magnetic tape that were culled for clues by hundreds of translators and processors in Washington and London.
More than a half-century later, however, scholars and spies are still arguing over which side really succeeded in pulling the wool over the other's eyes. The debate, revived in part by the recent release of the CIA's internal history of the operation, underscores how public perceptions are often more important in espionage than the value of stolen secrets.
"It was all part of the bigger game between the Americans and the Soviets during the Cold War," said Bernd Stoever, a historian at the University of Potsdam who studies the conflict. "Spying was something like a contest, in which they showed each other who was better at playing the game. They were happy to show the public that they were professionals in this secret spy war, in which normally they can't talk about anything."
After exposing the tunnel on April 22, 1956, the Soviets and East Germans immediately tried to squeeze out a propaganda victory. They held a news conference -- something the Soviet military almost never did -- and invited reporters from both sides of the border to attend. In the ensuing weeks, as Washington remained silent about its complicity, the communist authorities paraded 50,000 East Berliners through the tunnel to give them a firsthand glimpse of the enemy's "filthy trick," as one East German official put it.
At the CIA, however, the spooks were elated that the communists had gone public. Planners had assumed they would find the tunnel eventually but hush it up.
"It was felt that for the Soviets to admit that the U.S. had been reading their high level communications circuits would cause the Soviets to lose face," according to the CIA's internal account of the episode, which was written in 1967 and 1968. "Perhaps fortunately, fate intervened, and as a possible consequence, the Soviet course of action was exactly contrary to expectation."
The truth was much more complicated. Unbeknownst to the CIA, the Soviets had known about the tunnel all along.
Before breaking ground, the CIA had made the mistake of discussing its plans with George Blake, a high-ranking British intelligence official. In 1961, Blake was exposed as a mole for the KGB who had betrayed the identities of hundreds of British agents, as well as plans for the tunnel project.
According to a book co-written by Blake's KGB handler, Sergei A. Kondrashev, Soviet intelligence officials were highly concerned about the risk of exposing their source. They worried that suspicions might be aroused if they "discovered" the tunnel too quickly, so they let the operation proceed unmolested. Heavy rains that damaged one of the cables in the spring of 1956 gave them an excuse to inspect the communications lines and make it appear as if they had stumbled across the tunnel.
So it was the CIA that was snookered: According to an August 1956 internal memo, the CIA concluded that the Soviet detection of the tapping scheme had been "purely fortuitous and was not the result of a penetration of the U.S. or U.K. agencies concerned."
Blake's exposure as a double agent five years later led to a reappraisal of the wiretapping project: Had it generated any real secrets? Or had the Soviets fed disinformation through the cables?
In his book, Kondrashev said the cable traffic was genuine and that the Soviets hadn't dared transmit false material for fear of compromising Blake. But scholars remain uncertain.
"It's going to be hard to know for sure until we have more information on the Soviet side," said Christian F. Ostermann, director of the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "That story is still to be told."
Meanwhile, despite the passage of time, the tunnel keeps turning up.
In 2005, a German construction crew stumbled upon a buried section of the steel-reinforced passageway while building a highway to Berlin's Schoenefeld airport. It was excavated and taken to the Allied Museum in the former West Berlin, where a major exhibit was held a year later on the 50th anniversary of the tunnel's discovery.
Blake, who escaped from a British prison in 1966 and fled to Moscow, is still alive but has never divulged exactly what he told the KGB.
In November, in honor of his 85th birthday, he received the Order of Friendship, the highest award that can be given to a noncitizen, from Russian President Vladimir Putin.