David E. Murphy, a senior CIA officer in Berlin during some of the tensest days of the Cold War who later served as the agency’s chief of Soviet operations and wrote an authoritative account of espionage in that era, died Aug. 28 at a retirement home in Alexandria. He was 93.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said a son, Steven J. Murphy.
Mr. Murphy served as chief of the CIA’s Berlin Operations Base during the years of crisis precipitated by Soviet demands that the Western powers abandon the city, a standoff that would ultimately lead to the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.
At CIA headquarters in Langley in the mid-1960s, Mr. Murphy oversaw the Soviet section at a time when it was consumed by hunts for “moles” feared to have penetrated the agency — and he would himself become the target of investigation.
His career as a spy was launched by happenstance, after he enlisted in the Army during World War II and was sent to school in California to learn French but was forced by a clerical error to instead learn Russian.
“I never would have heard of intelligence if it hadn’t been for a mistake by the Army,” Mr. Murphy told a CIA forum in 1996.
His Russian language skills proved a valuable commodity during the Cold War. While working for Army intelligence in post-World War II Korea, Mr. Murphy was recruited in 1947 to serve in the newly created CIA.
He was sent to Berlin as deputy chief of the CIA base in 1954, a time when there was great anxiety in the West over the possibility that Soviet troops massed in East Germany would launch a surprise invasion of Western Europe.
Soon after Mr. Murphy arrived, base chief William Harvey briefed him on a bold intelligence operation underway to learn more about Soviet intentions — the construction of a quarter-mile tunnel into the Russian sector that would allow the CIA and British intelligence to tap Soviet communication lines. Mr. Murphy helped review some of the mountains of material collected over the course of 11 months beginning in May 1955.
In 1961, it was revealed that plans for the tunnel had been betrayed to the KGB even before it was built by British double-agent George Blake, leading many to question the value of the intelligence.
But in a 1997 book that Mr. Murphy co-wrote with Sergei A. Kondrashev, a former KGB officer who handled Blake, and journalist George Bailey, the authors contended that the KGB’s determination to protect Blake’s cover meant the Soviets could do virtually nothing to shield their communications.
“It was an incredible window on the Soviets’ East German operations,” Mr. Murphy said in an interview this year.
After a stint as deputy chief of the Eastern European division, Mr. Murphy in 1963 became chief of the Soviet division. It was a time when the agency was becoming increasingly paralyzed by investigations led by James J. Angleton, the longtime CIA chief of counterintelligence who feared Soviet moles had penetrated the agency.
Mr. Murphy was among those who doubted the bona fides of Yuri Nosenko, a KGB defector whom Angleton believed was a Soviet plant. The case bitterly divided the agency. Nosenko was held in solitary confinement and treated harshly at a CIA facility in Virginia before being released in the late 1960s.
By that time, Mr. Murphy himself became a target of Angleton, who suspected Mr. Murphy might be a KGB agent responsible for the loss of CIA agents during the Korean War, according to “Molehunt,” journalist and historian David Wise’s 1992 book about the search for Soviet spies.
Mr. Murphy did not resent the investigation, telling his son it was to be expected given his line of work. “He told me, ‘You have to be very careful about these things,’ ” said Steven Murphy. “He knew he’d be exonerated.”
“He was a big enough man to realize this was Angleton swinging wildly,” said retired U.S. Ambassador Hugh Montgomery, a former CIA officer who served with Mr. Murphy in Berlin.
The allegations led to Mr. Murphy being forced out as head of the Soviet division, Wise wrote. Mr. Murphy was assigned to Paris as chief of station in 1968 and returned to headquarters in 1973.
William E. Colby, who as CIA director would force Angleton out in 1974, reviewed the case and concluded there should be “no suspicion” that Mr. Murphy was a double agent, according to Wise’s book.
Upon his retirement from the agency in 1975, Mr. Murphy received the CIA’s Distinguished Intelligence Medal. He later wrote books that made extensive use of his knowledge of Soviet affairs.
“Battleground Berlin: CIA vs. KGB in the Cold War,” written with Kondrashev and Bailey, contained a wealth of information and documents about the intelligence war from both sides of the Iron Curtain.
“Rarely if ever before has such a complete and authoritative insiders’ account of the game of espionage ever been put into a single volume,” book critic Richard Bernstein wrote in the New York Times.
Mr. Murphy also was the author of “What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa” (2005), a well-received analysis of how the Soviet Union collected but did not act on news of the impending Nazi invasion of 1941, known as Operation Barbarossa.
David Edmund Murphy was born in Utica, N.Y., on June 23, 1921. After graduating in 1942 from Cortland State Teachers College in New York (now the State University of New York at Cortland), he enlisted in the Army and was sent for language training to the University of California at Berkeley.
His first wife, Marian Escovy, was part of the White Russian émigré community of San Francisco. She died in 1978.
Mr. Murphy then married Star Hellman, who died in 2008. Survivors include four children from his first marriage, Steven Murphy of Orlando, Vincent Mor of Dartmouth, Mass., Gerald Murphy of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Barbara Merritt of McLean; and 13 grandchildren.
In Berlin, Mr. Murphy radiated a sense of omniscience to his family. When his son Steven told playmates at a summer camp that his father was “like a general in the U.S. Army,” Mr. Murphy repeated the remark to his son that night at the dinner table. It had been picked up by intelligence sources.
“I knew then I couldn’t get anything past my father,” Steven Murphy said.
Vogel, a military historian, is a former Washington Post staff writer.