The CIA and National Archives are releasing declassified documents Thursday that provide new insights into the Berlin crisis of 1961, when the Soviet Union and United States faced off over access to West Berlin and the building of the Cold War’s most infamous symbol.
The CIA is making public a number of once-secret documents detailing the thinking of intelligence analysts and spies regarding the period around Aug. 13, 1961. On that date, the Soviets and East Germans began building the Berlin Wall around the western sector of the city to isolate the Western democracies’ enclave within communist-ruled East Germany.
A document from Sept. 14, 1961, outlines “the intelligence scene in Berlin” - considered the front line of the Cold War - and notes that the border between East and West Berlin had been transformed into “a Communist-style international border across which traffic in either direction is rigidly controlled.”
The document went on to describe the still-unique crossing point of Berlin and its value for sending spies into Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe.
“Once in East Berlin, a suitably outfitted agent can presumably cache his West documents and, on East German documentation and suitable cover story, travel into East Germany,” the report says. “We have been waiting for just such pattern to emerge.”
The crisis prompted the CIA’s Berlin station to boost its staff to 75 people, to begin “reactivating” sleeper agents in the East through couriers to “dead drop” communications gear and to step up efforts to recruit new agents inside East Berlin among business travelers and students.
Covert action programs against the communists included “operations to harass the East German regime,” efforts to deter East German border guards from shooting fleeing refugees, encouraging the defection of border guards, and bringing factual news to the East German public.
Another document, a Special National Intelligence Estimate, gauged possible Soviet reactions to U.S. diplomatic and military moves, including a discussion of the U.S. using tactical nuclear weapons in a display of strength against Soviet forces.
CIA historian Donald P. Steury told The Washington Times that, at the time of the crisis, the U.S. was getting data fromOleg Penkovsky, a Soviet “defector in place” whose intelligence appears to be noted in one document that mentions a reliable source who had access to Soviet leaders’ thinking.
Asked whether a nuclear war was close during the crisis, Mr. Steury said: “I wouldn’t say we were close, but all the options were on the table.”
Fortunately the West held firm and no conflict, conventional or nuclear, occurred over access to Berlin. Had it come to that, “We wouldn’t be here today,” Mr. Steury noted.
“Berlin was certainly the focal point of the Cold War,” Mr. Steury said, noting that construction of the wall to prevent East Germans from fleeing to freedom was “an admission of defeat for the Soviets.”
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Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.
He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.
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