As a teenager in the 1960s, I was a devoted reader of spy thrillers by Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, Donald Hamilton, John le Carre and others. The spy thrillers led me to read about the Cold War and true espionage stories.
Later, while serving in the U.S. Navy in Scotland in the mid-1970s, I went on leave and visited Berlin. As a student of espionage, I was drawn to Berlin, as the German city was the spy capital of the world at the time. I visited the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, and the bars where criminals and spies gathered to drink, eat and swap secrets.
Steve Vogel’s “Betrayal in Berlin: The True Story of the Cold War’s Most Audacious Espionage Operation” took me back to Berlin, although the historical events of this story take place in 1955-56.
Mr. Vogel opens his book with what was known in intelligence lore as “Black Friday,” when the Soviets changed their cryptographic systems in 1948.
Since 1943, Mr. Vogel explains, the U.S. had been intercepting and decrypting secret Soviet radio communications, which gave American officials a comprehensive understanding of the Soviet military and intelligence agencies.
The U.S. Army Security Agency was producing valuable intelligence in a program called VENONA. VENONA exposed Soviet spies such as Klaus Fuchs, who gave up atomic secrets to the Soviets, and Donald Maclean, the first of the British Cambridge spy ring to be suspected. But then the Soviets stopped using UHF radio and began to communicate with Moscow via landlines.
American investigators believed it was a routine systems upgrade, but they later learned that VENONA had been betrayed by two Soviet spies. One was William Weisland, a Russian linguist working for the Army Security Agency. The second spy was Harold “Kim” Philby, a British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) officer who was the liaison to the CIA and FBI in Washington.
“By some estimates, Black Friday was the worst intelligence loss in U.S. history, leaving the West almost entirely in the dark about Moscow’s capabilities and intentions,” Mr. Vogel writes.
“The United States paid the most immediate consequences in Korea. The North Korean invasion of the south in June 1950 had been an intelligence disaster, with the failure to pick up even a hint of a war launched with the approval of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin setting off alarms in Washington and London. And not only had the Central Intelligence Agency missed the start of the war, but it had been wrong about the possibility of Chinese intervention, and wrong about North Korean capabilities.”
The United States was concerned about possible Soviet pre-emptive attacks in Europe and missile launched against the United States, so the Berlin Tunnel was born in desperation.
Tunnels had been built in Vienna by British intelligence that tapped Soviet cables, so the Americans, who later brought in the British, decided to build a tunnel in Berlin and tap the landlines used by the Soviet army and the KGB, as well as the East German Stasi. Heading up this ambitious and potentially dangerous operation was Bill Harvey.
Harvey was a former FBI special agent who ran afoul of J. Edgar Hoover and joined the CIA, where his counterespionage work against the Soviets was appreciated. Hailing from Indiana, Harvey was different from the Ivy League CIA officers he worked with. Just under six feet, with a bullet-shaped head and a bulbous, pear-shaped body, and eyes that bulged from a toxic thyroid nodule, Harvey had a perpetually manic look.
The martini-swilling, gun-toting Harvey was gruff and had a voice like an acetylene torch, and some CIA officers were appalled by him. But it was Harvey who first exposed Kim Philby as a Soviet agent.
Mr. Vogel provides an interesting account of the many challenges that the U.S.-U.K. team faced while building the tunnel under the Soviets. But the tunnel was blown from the start. The Soviets were informed of the plan by George Blake, an SIS officer who volunteered to work as a double for the Soviets after he was taken prisoner during the Korean War. Not wanting to expose their valuable SIS asset, the Soviets allowed the tunnel to be built and told few Soviet officials about it.
Steve Vogel, a veteran reporter, was born in Berlin when his father was stationed there as a CIA officer. He later reported on the fall of the Berlin Wall. He researched declassified CIA and NSA documents, and interviewed people directly involved with the building of the Berlin tunnel. He also interviewed George Blake in Moscow.
“Betrayal in Berlin” is a well-researched and fascinating look back at the Cold War.
• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.
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BETRAYAL IN BERLIN: THE TRUE STORY OF THE COLD WAR’S MOST AUDACIOUS ESPIONAGE OPERATION
By Steve Vogel
Custom House, $29.99, 544 pages