The 1 a.m., eyes-only cable shot into the heat and tension that enveloped the Berlin Wall in August 1962.
Three West Berlin groups had finished tunneling from a lumberyard next to a railroad freight station in the U.S. sector, under the wall and into communist East Berlin. They hoped to bring out up to 90 people. About 6 feet of digging remained to break through the ground next to a large parking lot.
CBS News correspondent Daniel Schorr and a German cameraman had taken three rolls of film inside the tunnel after agreeing to pay the groups 5,000 deutsch marks for the television rights. The money would help fund the escape. Mr. Schorr planned to film the main event for a television documentary to air later that month.
But word of the undertaking had spread to State Department officials in Berlin and touched off a series of alarmed cables trying to head off an escape they believed to be doomed.
“Urgent consideration should be given to steps to alert East Germans involved to high probability that secrecy broken and they [are] walking into trap,” Secretary of State Dean Rusk wrote in the early hours of Aug. 7, 1962.
The cable is among more than 11,000 pages of declassified documents released by the CIA and the National Declassification Center last week. The trove from 19 U.S. government agencies explores life in divided Berlin from 1961 to 1989, spanning the Western allies’ contingency plan code-named Live Oak preparing for a crisis in the city to the everyday drama over the next three decades where the smallest detail could trigger unexpected consequences.
“What really struck me the most was the day-to-day nature of the confrontation in Berlin,” said Donald P. Steury, a historian at the CIA. “Every day there was something happening. Minor incidents that could’ve escalated into something significant.”
The cables offer a kaleidoscopic picture of life in the divided city: negotiations over East German workers smuggling a bouquet of flowers across the border to present to President Kennedy, pending Secret Service inspection, during his 1963 visit. The “tense, hushed” crowd that “sobbed openly” as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached in an East Berlin church a year later. East German displeasure after young rioters damaged five S-Bahn trains following the 1965 Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin (one State Department cable described the group as “jazz” and “English beat-singers”). The behind-the-scenes Soviet protest to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger after a Nikon camera containing aerial photos of Soviet army units tumbled out of a foreign plane over East Germany.
Documents also include a big-picture strategy that could involve a nuclear confrontation, escape attempts using a homemade submarine of dubious quality uncovered in West Berlin, low-level conflicts such as consternation over communist flags on East German locomotives pulling U.S. military trains and U.S. negotiations with the Soviets on the propriety of curtains in military liaison vehicles.
“This started to come together as a human-interest story, which is a little different than what you usually find,” said Neil C. Carmichael, former director of the NDC’s Indexing and Declassification Review Division, who worked on the project that started in early 2012.
The intelligence reports, cables, maps and narratives of incidents familiar and forgotten help build a picture of the city at the heart of the Cold War. Mr. Schorr’s role in the tunnel is one such sidelight.
State Department officials grew increasingly concerned that CBS participation in the planned escape would become public, according to several cables that detail the episode, and embarked on a campaign to persuade the network to cease involvement with the project.
“Everybody in Berlin knew this tunnel was being built and was compromised,” Mr. Carmichael said.
Action around the 215-foot tunnel appeared imminent. A secret memorandum by an Army intelligence officer warned of an influx of as many as 90 refugees into West Berlin.
After State Department officials in Berlin gave Mr. Schorr second thoughts, Mr. Rusk summoned CBS executive Blair Clark to a late-night meeting in Washington. The executive agreed to “scrub CBS participation in the tunnel project.”
The choice proved wise: The escape was called off around 8 p.m. on Aug. 7 when an operative in East Berlin noticed an unusual number of uniformed personnel around the large parking lot near the tunnel entrance. One account said 37 East Berliners were arrested while waiting to escape; another 52 were rounded up later.
“Worst aspects of what could have been politically very embarrassing development seem to have been avoided,” said an Aug. 8 follow-up cable to Mr. Rusk.
But U.S. officials worried that those arrested might implicate the American news network in the escape effort at a potential trial in East Germany, or that the West Germans would blame Mr. Schorr’s involvement for the operation’s failure. One State Department cable sought permission to “modify” the newsman’s attitude about the department’s prompt action to kill the story.
“Schorr involved himself in a matter which was far beyond his private or journalistic responsibilities and proceeded amateurishly in a matter filled with greatest danger for all concerned,” Mr. Rusk wrote in a cable Aug. 10. “As we anticipated, [the] other side turned out to be fully aware of the matter and laid a trap which could have resulted in [a] massacre [of] those involved.”
In Bonn, State Department officials told Mr. Schorr that the tunnel had been compromised and the would-be escapees arrested. They swore him to secrecy.
“Schorr appeared chastened by fact that a plan which was to be his greatest achievement had failed,” an Aug. 10 cable to Mr. Rusk and others recapping the meeting read. “He did not give slightest appearance of being contrite.”
According to the cable, Mr. Schorr was disappointed the State Department didn’t plan to commemorate the Aug. 13 anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s construction and wanted to do something to “dramatize [the] situation.”
CBS News officials didn’t return a request for comment. Mr. Schorr, who would have a 60-year journalistic career at CBS and NPR, died in 2010.
The documentary never ran on CBS. NBC, however, filmed a tunnel escape by 59 East Germans in September 1962. The Cuban missile crisis delayed broadcast of “The Tunnel” until that December. The 90-minute black-and-white documentary won three Emmy Awards.
“They got a prize for doing exactly the thing that I wanted to do,” Mr. Schorr said in an interview with the Newseum before he died in 2010.
Yet the story, along with many others, lives on.