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The Bloodless War

This daring plan had been dreamed up and pushed through principally by the legendary William King Harvey, the former FBI agent who joined the CIA in the 1940s, helped uncover Kim Philby, and later ran the notorious Operation MONGOOSE, which included the CIA’s multiple plots to assassinate Fidel Castro of Cuba. References to Harvey’s pungent character and aggressive operational style are salted throughout Battleground Berlin and it is clear that the book’s CIA authors, David Murphy and George Bailey, like and admire Harvey even when they cannot wholly approve of him.

Blake’s betrayal of the Berlin tunnel beautifully captured the baffling ambiguity which can attach to intelligence operations. The rewards for the KGB were many—the quiet satisfaction of knowing what an opponent is up to; the brownie points for keeping the Kremlin informed; the demonstration of professional discipline in allowing Harvey’s diggers to go forward in order to protect the secret of the asp in the enemy’s bosom; the guilty pleasure of knowing that the KGB’s bureaucratic archenemy, the GRU, was spilling its secrets over tapped lines; and perhaps—Kondrashev and his sources do not say—the operational advantages to be gained by manipulating cases through disinformation spoonfed to opponents giddy with their windfall of secrets. If Kondrashev had written this section of Battleground Berlin he might be forgiven for concluding that Blake blew the tunnel, Harvey and the CIA were snookered, and the army of translators and analysts back at CIA world headquarters were only spinning their wheels.

Murphy and Bailey think not. Maybe the KGB knew what was afoot even before the first CIA shovel touched earth, but so what? The tunnel went forward all the same; the KGB never warned Soviet military authorities, who chatted away without suspicion, and during the year the tape recorders were running the take was rich. According to Murphy and Bailey, “more than 350” officers in Soviet military intelligence were identified from conversations over twenty-five lines used by the GRU; “several hundred” Soviets were identified who worked for the supersecret “Ministry of Medium Machine Building,” cover name for the Soviet nuclear weapons establishment; the CIA learned of and closed down a similar KGB operation to tap a US cable near Potsdam, and so on. The inventory provided is a long one, prompted, doubtless, by long-fermenting irritation at claims that everything picked up by the tunnel was just gossip and trivia. But the heart of the take was not specific secrets; it was a feel for the size and the preoccupations of the Soviet military, its plans for building East German and Polish military forces, and a deep sense of the web of communications which forms the central nervous system of an army.

2.

Murphy and Bailey make their point nicely, but still—Blake knew. On the Allied side of the ledger are many small agents and defectors who betrayed the secrets of the East, but there is only one big one described in Battleground Berlin—Colonel Pyotr Popov, an intelligence officer for the GRU who volunteered to work for the Americans in Vienna on January 1, 1953. The first information sought from any defector was knowledge of plans for war, if any. Next on the list was knowledge of Soviet spies within Allied services, if any. But unlike the first question, the second rarely had a clear or definitive answer. Despite the sacred principles of compartmentalization and the “need to know,” intelligence officers are curious, gossiping types, eavesdroppers and desk-peekers; they all carry a wealth of information in their heads. Debriefing them thoroughly can take months or even years, and the tiniest of clues can sometimes lead to big discoveries. The Russians and the Americans agree in considering Popov a major conduit of secrets, but the enduring interest of the case centers on the question of his arrest in Moscow on February 18, 1959.

There are two versions of what happened. The first says George Blake, attached to the SIS office in Berlin, learned of Popov’s existence after Popov contacted the British there early in 1956, or later, in the spring of 1957, when one of his reports—“an intelligence bombshell”—described the contents of a frank speech by Marshal Georgy Zhukov. Soviet war plans, Zhukov said, called for reaching the English Channel on the second day of hostilities, a remark certain to attract excited attention in the West. Murphy and Bailey say the speech went to the SIS station in Berlin, where it must have been seen by Blake, and consequently must have been passed on to the Russians—thereby revealing a leak in Soviet military headquarters and providing the KGB spyhunters with their first clue that something was amiss.

The problem with this theory is that Blake, in his memoir No Other Choice, insisted he had nothing to do with Popov’s report, and Kondrashev backs him up. The former KGB officer says that the leak of the Zhukov speech did direct suspicion at Popov, who had been in the audience when Zhukov spoke, but he insists that the first clue (the fact the Americans and British knew about the Zhukov speech) came from a “friendly service.” Blake and Kondrashev might both be lying as part of some deep operational game, or they might not.

Anyone interested in just how complex a counterintelligence case can become should read the fourteen pages in which Battleground Berlin lays out the intricate web of what was known to whom, through which channels, as the KGB’s Valentin V. Zvezdenkov closed in on Popov, and the CIA later tried to figure out what had gone wrong. To say that the case was “watched closely” or “analyzed carefully” fails to convey the intensity with which each nuance of an unfolding case may be examined and weighed. The point at all times is to know what is really happening, who is really in control, what is true. As early as the spring of 1958 there were signs of a troubling KGB focus on Popov. A known Russian spyhunter was reassigned to Popov’s group. “More sinister,” Murphy and Bailey write, “was the sudden interest taken in Popov by Lt. Col. Dmitry Fyodorovich Sknarin, who was responsible for counter-intelligence….” Usually content to socialize with Popov’s group, he suddenly began to take part in their volleyball games. “It isn’t enough that they have informers among us,” said one of Popov’s buddies; “he even comes to observe us himself!”

Popov’s last meeting with his handlers in Berlin took place on November 10, 1958. He was heading back to Moscow but seemed unworried; the biggest question on his mind was what to take home in the way of presents. The following February he was arrested, but for more than eight months Popov continued to operate under Soviet control, communicating more or less normally with his CIA handlers as it became increasingly clear things were definitely not right.2 In October 1959 the game was ended with the noisy arrest of Popov and his CIA handler on a Moscow bus. There were many possible reasons for this long delay but the obvious one, chewed over at length by the CIA, would have been the KGB’s desire to muddy the waters to obscure precisely how and when they discovered Popov was a traitor. The implication, of course, was that the means was one they might use again—Blake, for example, or even the ghastly possibility that the KGB had a mole at the heart of the CIA. Battleground Berlin wisely declines to enter this corner of the swamp, but only a few years after Popov’s loss, counterintelligence analysts in the CIA shop run by James Jesus Angleton argued that the mole hypothesis was the right one.3

3.

But if the Soviets in Berlin proved themselves masters of the intelligence game, frequently confounding the deepest ploys of the Allied intelligence services and seeding spies on an industrial scale throughout Germany, they ultimately failed in a deeper sense. This failure was rarely articulated and never grasped entire at the time, but it has become obvious since the end of the cold war that the Soviets fundamentally erred in depending so heavily on clandestine means of control and manipulation. “The most frightening aspect of the Cold War in Berlin,” write the authors of Battleground Berlin, “was how poorly informed the Soviet leaders were….”

The fault lay in Moscow. Despite its record of success in the field the KGB was often ignored by the Politburo in the Kremlin. All intelligence agencies sometimes deliver unwelcome advice and find themselves frozen out of policy debates in response, but Moscow’s dismissal of the KGB went deeper. On at least three occasions—when Stalin blocked Western access to Berlin by road and rail in 1948, when Stalin gave Kim Il Sung permission to invade South Korea in 1950, and when Khrushchev allowed East Germany to split Berlin with a wall in 1961—the Soviet Union acted in a provocative and impetuous fashion without ever asking the KGB for its best guess about how the Western Allies would respond.

All three of these bold strokes ended badly for the USSR—the Berlin blockade with Stalin’s surrender, the Korean War with the rearmament of Germany, and the Berlin Wall with an implicit confession to the world that the only way to keep the citizens of the socialist East at home was to lock them in. The first two might plausibly be dismissed as tactical errors resulting in tactical defeats, but the last—the lengthening shadow of the Wall—gradually stripped away every shred of legitimacy for the puppet regime propped up by the Soviets in East Berlin.

The Berlin Wall was fifteen years in coming, but the reason for it was implicit from the first moment German citizens were required to present papers as they crossed from the East to the West. The problem was a simple one: life was better in the West, at first a little better, then a lot better, finally so much better that some found it worth the risk of death. Both sides had been more or less equally devastated by Allied bombing and the last-ditch fighting demanded by Hitler as foreign armies closed in, but with peace, reconstruction in the West soon commenced, investment poured in, the economy began to recover and eventually to boom, while in the East industrial machines were looted by the Soviets, war damage was left untouched once the streets had been cleared of rubble, the necessities of life were in short supply, opposition parties were outlawed, anti-Communist leaders were arrested, jobs were hard to find and poorly paid, and protest was repressed by the vast police apparatus referred to as “the Stasi.”

According to Murphy and Bailey, the Gestapo of Nazi Germany at its peak had one police official for every 10,000 citizens. By the late 1980s the ratio in East Germany was one police official for 200. Little wonder that from day one the unhappy people of the East began to vote with their feet, decamping west in relentlessly increasing numbers—nearly 200,000 in 1960, more than 150,000 in the first seven months of 1961. The border between the two Germanies was relatively easy to close, but Berlin was a sprawling capital city entered from the east by a delta of local streets, rail lines, and thoroughfares. Subway and commuter trains passed freely back and forth between zones. There was no way to keep East Germans out of Berlin, no way to prevent their passing into the Western half of the city, and, once they were there, no way to retrieve them. The city was open by solemn agreement but continued Soviet control of the East required an end to the hemorrhage.

  1. 2

    It is worth noting here that the months during which Popov was strung along correspond to a similar period in the career of Oleg Penkovsky, another GRU spy for the CIA who was photographed by the KGB meeting a handler in Moscow in January 1962 but not arrested until September. In the Penkovsky case conventional wisdom says the KGB was watching him during those months, but not running him. If the conventional wisdom is wrong, and Penkovsky—like Popov—was under Soviet control during those months, we may need to look for a different explanation why Penkovsky failed to warn the CIA of Khrushchev’s plan to put missiles into Cuba that fall. See Jerrold Schechter and Peter Deriabin, The Spy Who Saved the World (Scribners, 1993), my comment on the book in The New York Review, May 13, 1993, and an exchange of letters in The New York Review, June 24, 1993.

  2. 3

    The Great Mole Hunt has inspired a five-foot shelf of books ideal for rainy afternoons. Readers curious about the episode might consult my review of one of the best of these books, Edward Jay Epstein’s Deception: The Invisible War Between the KGB and the CIA (Simon and Schuster, 1989), in The New York Review, August 17, 1989.

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