The Tunnel Time Forgot
While attending a recent symposium at Georgetown University in Washington on the life and career of the late Richard Helms (CIA Director – 1966-1973), I observed a panel of Cold Warriors answering audience questions. Panelists included: Dr. Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, Albert (Bud) Wheelon, and a man by the name of William Hood.
Bill Hood is an interesting man who served our nation long and well, first in the old OSS and then in the CIA. When asked a question about what they considered the significant intelligence successes during the Cold War, the panel almost instinctively deferred to this elder-spy-statesman. His reply began with, “…well, certainly the Berlin Tunnel.”
Referred to at times as “the capital of the Cold War,” the Berlin of that era is most often remembered for an AIRLIFT and a WALL – the latter becoming the ultimate Cold War icon. But last year the CIA declassified a report, originally written forty years before, reminding us that when it came to Berlin and Cold War history, there was a third image – one that is often forgotten.
In between the AIRLIFT and the WALL there was – a TUNNEL.
The CIA report entitled “CLANDESTINE SERVICES HISTORY: THE BERLIN TUNNEL OPERATION 1952-1956” sheds little new light on this espionage endeavor itself, but it does give us a window into that era and the thinking behind such a daring venture.
Nicknamed “Harvey’s Hole” after legendary Bill Harvey, head of Berlin Operations Base for the CIA during that period, the digging of a tunnel twenty feet longer (1,476 feet) than the Empire State Building was tall, was the biggest wire-tap job in history. The idea was modeled after a successful British effort in Vienna, though the Austrian version was significantly smaller at merely 70 feet long. That effort was known as OPERATION SILVER. The Berlin dig would thus be dubbed OPERATION GOLD (also STOPWATCH) – and it would be a joint U.S.-British intelligence project.
One fact brought out in the declassified CIA report is the secret internal code name for the tunnel operation. Generally known as GOLD for decades, we now know that it was called PBJOINTLY to insiders.
This report, originally produced in August of 1967, is available on the internet at www.foia.cia.gov . It details the conception, construction, and completion of the tunnel – as well as analysis of the fallout from its eventual discovery. According to the document, more than 650 people were employed in London and Washington, D.C. to process information gleaned from the taps. On the American side – just to show the dimensions of what they had to analyze – 4,000 feet of teletype messages were handled daily. If printed in book form “these images would have filled a space 10 feet wide, 15 feet long and 8 feet high.”
The basic idea was to tunnel under a quite unappealing part of Southern Berlin and beneath the dividing line between the American and Soviet sectors. The mother lode of OPERATION GOLD was the KGB Headquarters compound located in the Karlshorst district of the city.
The Berlin phone system had been set up before World War II and remained intact with just a few modifications reflecting post-war realities. The city was “second only to Moscow in the Soviets’ communications network” – a fact that made tapping into the lines nearly irresistible from an intelligence standpoint.
Digging began in August 1954 and the tunnel was completed in February 1955. The work involved displacing 3,000 tons of dirt and the installation of the actual physical taps on 3 cables – considered the most sensitive aspect of the project. The key was to “draw off as small and as unnoticeable a signal as possible” – a task requiring skill and a sure hand. This accomplished, the tunnel was ready for information to start flowing on May 11, 1955.
However, this daring venture contained the seeds of failure almost from its very conception. The tunnel lived as an espionage conduit for 11 months and 11 days before being discovered by the East Germans on April 21, 1956. The story was that they had been looking for a problem with one of their cables, when they accidentally came upon evidence of the tunnel.
This was the widely (though not, universally) accepted version of the events at the time as evidenced in the now declassified history. An internal CIA memo prepared 2 months after the tunnel was blown concluded that “the loss of this source was purely the result of unfortunate circumstances” beyond their control.
But Bill Harvey was never satisfied that the Soviets had just happened on the tunnel. A skeptic by nature, it would take a few years before that skepticism was vindicated.
The story of The Berlin Tunnel is a classic blend of the technical and human aspects of intelligence work. Though the Americans and British succeeded in creating this delivery mechanism designed to bear so much informational fruit, they were in the end confounded the old fashioned way.
Someone betrayed them.
With painfully fresh memories of moles in the British intelligence community – traitors such as Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess (both defecting to Moscow in May of 1951) – some on the American side were understandably leery of such a massive and highly sensitive joint espionage venture. But whatever the concerns, they were dismissed in favor of the potential benefits.
But there really WAS a mole.
His name was George Blake. He would not be exposed as a KGB spy until 1961, but he had already been working for a few years for the Soviets by the time he was uniquely positioned to betray this project to his handlers. In fact, he attended vital meetings – always taking detailed notes – having ironically been tasked by MI-6 with preparing a written record of the discussions about the tunnel and its progress. He did so faithfully and gave copies to all involved. Of course, he kept a copy for himself – but it wouldn’t stay in his possession for very long.
In January of 1954 Blake met his KGB contact on the top deck of a London bus, handing over a copy of the minutes of the meetings between the CIA and SIS (Secret Intelligence Service – a.k.a. MI-6). The Soviets were in the loop all along.
George Blake was apparently drawn to the Soviet side while working for the SIS in Korea. He was captured by the North Koreans and eventually decided to turn traitor. His is a strange story with eery Manchurian Candidate undertones.
Though The Berlin Tunnel was discovered and rendered inoperative after being on line for less than a year, it was seen at the time as evidence of just what could be accomplished by determined effort and creative resolve. The American media applauded the tunnel once uncovered and saw it as a positive example of the ingenuity of our intelligence community. The material at the CIA site includes some newspaper clippings from 1956 bearing this out.
The ultimate post-script to this story lies in the question: “If the Soviets knew about the tunnel – why did it take so long to expose it?” And, in the same vein: “If they knew about it, were they using it primarily to send disinformation?”
While the recently released CIA document does not answer these questions definitely, the prevalent opinion has been that Soviet desire to protect their mole (Blake) seriously inhibited them from disseminating massive disinformation. It seems likely, though, that they surely must have used it at least a little for that purpose. And of course, why they chose to expose the tunnel when they did remains a mystery.
Author David Stafford, in his book on the tunnel entitled, “Spies Beneath Berlin,” supports this view suggesting “that the KGB had chosen to protect Blake at the expense of letting STOPWATCH/GOLD develop as a successful operation.” He also notes that Allen Dulles, the Director of the CIA at the time, concurred. To them the project was “an outstanding and brilliant intelligence success.”
The internal CIA history of The Berlin Tunnel sheds no new light on this aspect of the story. It remains an intriguing Cold War riddle. – DRS