CIA Looks Back on a Secret Postwar Berlin Tunnel U.S. soldiers toiled like moles underground, but the massive intelligence feat was undone by another kind of mole.
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CIA Looks Back on a Secret Postwar Berlin Tunnel

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CIA Looks Back on a Secret Postwar Berlin Tunnel

CIA Looks Back on a Secret Postwar Berlin Tunnel

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This week marks the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, that airlift ferried supplies to West Berlin after the Soviets cut off surface access from June '48 to May '49. Still considered one of the biggest humanitarian operations in history. That episode, plus a recently declassified CIA document, because we were scanning the recently declassified documents list, got us thinking about a fascinating episode involving Berlin during the cold war. In 1955, the CIA and British intelligence built a huge secret tunnel under the center of Soviet-controlled East Berlin. It was no small project, it was 1,476 feet in length. 3,100 tons of soil were removed. How did they do that in secret? We will find out. 125 tons of steel liner plate and lots of grout. All in secret of so they hoped. Tim Wiener is an New York Times, reporter and author of the Pulitzer prize National Book award winning History of the CIA: Legacy of Ashes. Hi, Tim.

Mr. TIM WIENER (Reporter/Author, New York Times): Morning.

PESCA: Why did the CIA even think this tunnel was possible?

Mr. WIENER: Well you know when World War II ended, Berlin was occupied and divided between victorious allies. So there we were belly-to-belly with the Soviets. The Soviets had ambitions to move westward. The Americans didn't want that to happen. So the World War II allies quickly become Cold War enemies. And Berlin was the great battleground of the Cold War. We didn't know anything about the Soviets, frankly. It was the mission of the CIA, when it was formed in 1947 to know your enemy, short sentence, really tall order. And they didn't. We didn't have any spies on the other side of the iron curtain. We didn't know what Stalin was thinking. We didn't know what is going on in the Kremlin. And we were desperate to find out. How desperate? Well the Berlin tunnel tells you.

PESCA: And I think the Brits said, oh we had some success in a similar operation, though not nearly as big, in Vienna, so they thought maybe we can pull this one off.

Mr. WIENER: That was the idea. So from a rubble-strewn abandoned field on the American side of the divide of occupied Berlin they started digging in. And over the course of over a year, headed east into the Soviet sector. The mission was to tap into Soviet and East German telecommunication lines. To eavesdrop, to hear what they were saying to each other on the telephone. And it looked like it worked for 11 months but ...

PESCA: Yes, before you get to the 'but,' It's really fascinating, in Legacy of Ashes, you write, here were the problems: Could the agency dig a 1,476-foot tunnel and hit a target two inches in diameter? Could they get rid of all the sandy soil in secret? And could they come up with a cover story? Well, before we get to the 'but,' for at least a while. Did it seem like they could do those things?

Mr. WIENER: Two out of three.

PESCA: Two out of three. Which was the one that tripped them off?

Mr. WIENER: The successful cover.

PESCA: Yeah, so they were building it out of - just these, you know, a place where there were some huts and ramshackle dwellings and so they erected a huge tower. That was there cover story. And the tower was supposed to be, oh, we're going to listen over the air but in fact, they were digging underground.

Mr. WIENER: Yeah, classic diversion. Look over here, look over here, when you are actually, like any good magician, whose slight of hand doing things with the other hand.

PESCA: But how were they tripped up?

Mr. WIENER: From the beginning, from the planning stages. The Soviets have a mole inside British intelligence. His name was George Blake. Blake knew all about the tunnel and he told Moscow Central and East German spy service that it was happening from the start. The great mystery, be it in intelligence and espionage. You got secrets and you got mysteries. Secrets you can figure out, mysteries, not so much. The great mystery of the Berlin tunnel is why did the Soviets let it run for 11 months, knowing full well that the Americans were tapping into their telecommunications.

PESCA: So one might think, oh, to give us misinformation, but you write in the book, they actually told us things or U.S. gleaned some things that proved to be very valuable from that tunnel.

Mr. WIENER: Yeah, they learned, they kind of got a blueprint of the correlation of forces on the other side of the Iron Curtain. They knew who talked to whom, who reported to what. A wiring diagram, if you will, of how the other side worked. But it is one of the great unanswered questions. And we will never know until the Soviet archives open fully, if they ever do.

PESCA: Tell me a little bit about George Blake. The shorthand is this guy was the original Manchurian candidate.

Mr. WIENER: He had been taken as a prisoner of war in North Korea during the Korean War. And then to China, and at some point to Saigon - you know what, Communism is really great! - and became a spy for the other side, an agent in place after he was released when the war is over as a prisoner of war. And he worked for the other side throughout the '50s. He was eventually discovered, imprisoned, never regret that he betrayed his country and the United States to boot.

PESCA: Did he escaped from prison?

Mr. WIENER: Blake?

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. WIENER: In the end he did.

PESCA: Oh, my Lord. And what happened to him?

Mr. WIENER: He died in obscurity in Moscow.

PESCA: Well, to us an obscurity, maybe he was celebrated there.

Mr. WIENER: You know, old spies after they're used up, not a lot of fun. You know, moments of glory, but a lifetime of obscurity and often regret.

PESCA: So in reading the memo, which is, this memo was declassified, and it got an even a less severe classification status recently. Ron Rosenbaum, who is an author and a general polymath, he's a smart guy. His take on this memo, he as struck by the congratulatory tone of the declassified memo, because it celebrated the accomplishment in digging the tunnel. Rosenbaum said it was trying to recast one of the biggest, most embarrassing and damaging failures as some kind of heroic achievement. Does Rosenbaum take it too far calling the CIA tunnel that embarrassing and damaging?

Mr. WIENER: Well, I think you can read it two ways. Was it really, really that they could dig 500 yards in occupied territory and tap in to the telephone cable? Yes. Were they thrilled at that time, you know, at the accomplishment? Absolutely. Did it make a difference in the end? Not really.

PESCA: And guy writing the memo was more of the guy in charge of digging, so he did a good job. He wasn't the guy in charge of keeping it secret from everyone.

Mr. WIENER: A+ for being a mole against, the Soviets but not to many points in the end. This is the problem with espionage. You can score tactical victories in a short run, strategically very hard. Did it make a difference in the end of the Cold War? No. The Soviet Union collapsed because communism is a rotten economic system. There were very few great triumphs in espionage. It is dirty, difficult, dangerous work. And we Americans as newcomers to it, this is the story of Legacy of Ashes: we're just not real good at it.

PESCA: Yeah, but you know what, as dirty and dangerous as it is, it makes for great reading. Thanks. Tim Wiener is a New York Times reporter and author of the Pulitzer-prize-winning, History of the CIA: Legacy of Ashes. Thank you, Tim.

Mr. WIENER: You betcha.

MARTIN: Stay with us. Coming up, we'll talk to a photographer who gained access to some of the most closed groups in world. The KKK, the Khmer Rouge, skinheads, to name a few. We'll talk to him about how he got in and what he learned. This is the BPP from NPR News.

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