22 July 2009

Berlin Station, Part 2

[In Part 1, I laid out the background for the story I want to tell you and now, here’s the exciting conclusion . . . . “Secret agent man, secret agent man. They've given you a number and taken away your name.”]

The events of this story, which only took a few hours, were actually set in motion months earlier. Sometime in late 1971 or early 1972, an ex-GI named “Red” Kappel (I think his actual given name was Martin, but everyone called him Red anyway), now working in Berlin at the PX warehouse, got caught on the East German Autobahn between Berlin and West Germany with a car full of “refugees.” To complicate matters, he was driving his boss’s Caddy, and it turned out Kappel had paid him $500 dollars for the use of the car, implicating this high-ranking Civil Servant--he was a GS-12 or something, the equivalent of a major--in the mess. The Vopos turned Kappel over to the Soviets--the U.S. hadn’t yet recognized East Germany, so Americans, especially if they had some kind of official status, were not supposed to deal with officials of the GDR. The East Germans loved to ignore this just to tweak the Americans and force us to deal with them. In fact, after the Soviets took Kappel to Potsdam, their military headquarters in Germany, for a few days, they returned him to East German custody and he ended up in jail in East Berlin.

Military Intelligence interest began in this case because when Kappel had been a GI he had had a security clearance and when he first came to Berlin after he got out of the Army, he delivered pizza for a local restaurant, and one of his regular delivery stops was Field Station Berlin, a super-secret, mountain-top ASA electronic surveillance site. We eventually determined that he didn’t really have any info that the Soviets didn’t already have, but at the beginning we didn’t know that. Security questions set aside, the case became part of the tangle of diplomatic-military-political issues that made up the Cold War. An American had committed a crime on Soviet-controlled ground, and they were going to make as big a deal out of it as they could. My job was to find out who else was involved and how far the participation of any official Americans, GI and civilian, went. Remember, the people running this business were about as nasty as anyone could be and the generals didn’t want any of their people in bed with them. And smuggling people across the East-West border by people associated with the U.S. government was clearly a provocation to the Russians at a time when that was a dangerous button to push.

We already knew about Kappel’s boss, the warehouse manager. To find out if anyone else was involved we monitored the mail at Kappel’s home and had his phone tapped. (The rules for this were a lot easier in Germany, and within the military community--and in occupied Berlin, that included civilian employees like Kappel anyway--it was at the discretion of the USCOB. In Berlin, the three Western generals had supreme authority, though they seldom exercised it over Germans or Americans with no official connection.) Now, Kappel, like many GI’s, had married a German woman. Beside the fact that she wasn’t a U.S. citizen, a circumstance always considered a potential security risk, nearly every West German had family in East Germany. Family in the East was a pressure point the East Germans and Soviets were never reluctant to use. Helene Kappel was very vulnerable now, with no income and her connection to the American community and its safety net severed; there was no telling what she might do. In addition, before her marriage to Red, Helene Kappel had been a prostitute. I can tell you, I learned some interesting German from her mail and the phone tap because when she ran out of money, she went back to her old profession. She also made contact with the people who had hired her husband to drive the refugees to West Germany (actually they contacted her) and she began to recruit more drivers and car-owners for the organization. As a result of our operation, we pulled the lid so tight on the exfiltrators that the use of a car went up from $500 to several thousand, and drivers were getting $10,000 and more; Helene Kappel herself was promised a Mercedes for just recruiting people.

While all this was going on, though, Kappel was just sitting in an East Berlin jail. I was on 24-hour call and couldn’t leave my BOQ without telling the duty agent in the office where to reach me and calling in every hour or so. (Remember: no cell phones in the 1970s.) My parents came to Berlin for a visit during this time, and they were very impressed at how important I seemed to be because while we were out wandering around the city, I kept ducking into Stubes and bars to use the phone. Of course, I couldn’t tell them what was going on, but they were very impressed nevertheless.

All this time, of course, I was writing reports on everything we were learning about the exfiltrators and their operations, as well as the contacts Helene Kappel was making and everything else related even remotely to the investigation. I attended high-level briefings with colonels and generals and ministers (the foreign service rank just below ambassador). I was generally the only junior officer in the room. I’d have been impressed myself, if I hadn’t been so scared of making a mistake. I’d previously had a run-in with the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, a bird colonel, over another incident I hadn’t handled the way he wanted me to. (I wasn’t in his chain of command, fortunately, and even more fortunately, I had been right, and my CO backed me up. Still, the DCSI didn’t like me, and we both knew it.) I learned at these briefings that my reports were going to the State Department and being read by Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State at the time. I even had intimations that some of my stuff was going to the White House. This was a really big deal, and I was the point man.

Many of these meetings, by the way took place in a secret room at USCOB. Do you remember Get Smart, the spy-spoof sit-com starring Don Adams? (The TV show, not the later movie spin-off.) Do you remember the Cone of Silence? Well, this room was the real-life Cone of Silence. It was a room suspended inside another room, designed to thwart bugging. After I finished being impressed, I couldn’t stop thinking of Maxwell Smart, Agent 99, and Control under that big plastic cone, shouting at each other. It was sometimes all I could do not to giggle. Trust me, a lieutenant doesn’t giggle in a briefing with colonels and generals. It’s a breach of military etiquette.

Obviously, at one point there ceased to be much more we could do. Kappel had been caught red-handed (pardon the expression), so there was no denying his guilt. Except for trying to roll up the exfiltration operations, which we eventually pretty much did, there wasn’t anything left to investigate. Getting Kappel released became a diplomatic function, so the case went cold except for monitoring sources for word of his whereabouts and potential release. Everything pretty much went back to normal (which at Berlin Station was frequently hectic and crazy anyway). I went back to my regular duties and was no longer on 24-hour call except when I was my section’s duty officer in the regular rotation. And that’s when it happened.

I was on call one evening, and I was just hanging out at my BOQ. Sometime around 7 in the evening, the Duty Agent, who spends the night in the Station to take calls and answer the alert phone, phoned me at home to come in and take a call. My unit was not covert; we were low-profile and wore civilian clothes so others couldn’t distinguish the officers from the NCO’s, since as Special Agents we all were supposed to have the same authority in the field, but we didn’t disguise who and what we were. For this reason, we were the first contact anyone gets when they come looking to get in touch with American intelligence. (The older, World War II generation often asked for the OSS or the CIC; the younger guys wanted the CIA. They all got us.) As a result, we often got nuts calling or walking in with all manner of strange reports to make. (One guy told me in all seriousness that the Soviets had agents on the moon and that he was in “eye television”--Augenfernseh--contact with them, so he could tell us what they were up to. Another said that the Soviets were leaving poisoned cigarette butts on the streets so that GI’s would pick them up, smoke them, and get sick. To prove this, he had brought little bottles of his own blood, which he carried around with him in a tote bag.) This call was one of these--a guy who thought that a recent photo of a wanted Baader-Meinhof member in the newspaper looked like his wife’s brother-in-law (or something). I talked the guy down, thanked him, and got rid of him. But as I was preparing to go back home, the phone rang again and the Duty Agent passed it on to me. The man on the other end said he was Red Kappel, that he had been released in West Berlin, and he wanted to meet someone. Well, this didn’t sound kosher. Our latest information was that Kappel was still in the East Berlin lock-up, and while it was possible that the East Germans might release him suddenly and without notice, it was highly unlikely. They were all making too much hay out of holding him. (Kappel’s eventual release was almost certainly a direct result of Nixon’s trip to Moscow. If they were working at that level, letting him go unannounced, with no bargaining or propaganda, would be pretty silly on their part.) And even if he had been released that way, why would he call Military Intelligence? Not his wife, not his boss, not the guys who hired him (and probably hadn’t paid him yet), not some friends. Still, I couldn’t just ignore the call. I arranged to meet “Kappel” at the PX snack bar across the street. It was about 8 p.m. now, and the place closed at 9, so it would be neutral, safe, but somewhat private. We made a date for a short time later.

Now, because this case fell between all the floorboards of military investigations--it wasn’t a security matter, it wasn’t a military crime, and since none of the people involved were GI’s, it wasn’t even a breach of military regs--we shared the case with the military detectives, the CID. I had a CID counterpart, Karl-Heinz Wiedermeyer, a German-born, naturalized American. A warrant officer (not quite an officer, no longer a non-com), Wiedermeyer didn’t want to be on this case any more than I did. He also shared with his CID and MP colleagues a tendency to overreact whenever something got a little spooky. One whiff of spy stuff, and military cops sometimes went off half-cocked. Not that I was so cool, with my vast experience in counterespionage. (I once got into some trouble with my CO because I lost my cool when I got stuck with an inoperable radio when I was doing security for Gen. Westmoreland. I started cursing over what I thought was a dead radio, but it was only broken at my end. They could hear me perfectly well back at base, and cursing on the air is a major RTO no-no. So much for cool under pressure.) I was, however, at least trained for this stuff. Wiedermeyer wasn’t. He was a cop, not a spook--intelligence agents are spooks; I was a spook. Anyway, I called Wiedermeyer and, because his office was on a compound in another borough of the city, we decided that I’d go meet “Kappel” and my partner would join us later. So I went on across Clayallee to the PX complex, and went into the snack bar.

The PX snack bar was a cafeteria. This one was nearly all glass, with windows all around the two exterior walls, and the entrance from the corridor in a completely glass wall. (The fourth side was the food counter and the kitchen.) At 8 o’clock in the evening, an hour before closing, there’s virtually no one there except the workers closing up. As I entered, I saw one lone guy sitting at the opposite end of the room. He was at a table, with his hat pulled down sort of ’40s style, and he was buried in the brigade Daily Bulletin. Every military post puts this out, with all the announcements, official and unofficial, and its a couple of pages long, printed--mimeographed in those days--on legal-sized paper. A guy in a slouch hat, poring over the DB looks pretty silly, believe me. The only other people in the snack bar were the cooks and servers cleaning up behind the counter and one teenager turning the chairs up onto the tables in the main part of the room. Obviously, the guy with the DB was my guy--but he wasn’t Red Kappel. I’d seen enough pix of him over the months of investigation to know what he looked like, and this guy was ten years too old, ten pounds too heavy, and a good six inches too sort. And even with the hat, I could see that his hair was not red (Kappel didn’t get his nickname for nothing). I had to talk to the guy in any case. Even with all the deception, he might actual know something we should know. I doubted that, but I had to make a report anyway, so I had to find out what he wanted.

I crossed the room and went up to the guy’s table. I stood across from him, but he didn’t look up from the DB. Christ, I thought, the guy’s gonna play Sam Spade or something.

“Are you looking to talk to someone?” I said.

“You CIA?”


“You got ID?” He still hadn’t looked up.

“No. Do you want to talk, or not?”

“OK.” I sat across from him. “I hear the Reds got one of our guys.”

Oh, God. He’s a John Bircher or something. Where’s this gonna go? “Where’d you hear that?”

“Around. I work in the EES beverage shop. The word's out.” He meant the European Exchange System, the parent organization for the BX’s, PX’s, and other retail outlets in Europe. The warehouse where Kappel worked was part of this same system.

“OK. Why’d you want to see us?”

“I got a brother-in-law--well, my wife’s brother-in-law--in the East. He’s a party member, but he don’t like it there. I can go over and get him to find out where they’re holding Red.”

“Ah, no, that wouldn’t be a good idea. We really know where Red is, anyway. But thanks for offering.”

Somewhere about here, I saw Wiedermeyer, the CID investigator, look in through the glass doors across the room. It was near closing now, and all the activity in the snack bar had pretty much ceased. There was only our James Bond wannabe and me in the room, and that teen mopping the floor. But Wiedermeyer looked around, didn’t come in, and left. What the hell, I figured, this isn’t important and I’ll just fill him in later, after I talk this guy down and send him home. I was a little afraid, considering how ditzy the guy was, that he might be armed and if I signaled Wiedermeyer across the room, the guy might lose it or something. It wasn’t worth the chance under the circumstances. I let Wiedermeyer go without making a move or saying anything.

“Well, what if I go over and get my wife’s brother-in-law to help me break Red out. We could go over and get him before anybody knew. My wife’s brother-in-law”--he never used the man’s name, it was always “my wife’s brother-in-law”--”has clearances. He knows stuff, and he can find out things.”

“Fine. But don’t do anything until we get back to you. I have to report to my superiors, you know, and they’ll let you know. Promise me you’ll wait until you hear from me.”

“Sure. But I want to help. We can’t just let them get one of our guys like that.”

Jesus, this guy’s gonna do something dumb, I know it. He’s seen too many spy flicks. “Of course not. We’re doing things right now, don’t you worry. Believe me, we’re not just sitting on our hands here. Just don’t do anything without hearing from us. You might get in the way of another operation, you know. Don’t even talk to your wife’s brother-in-law yet. Just wait.”

“Sure. I understand. But you’ll get back to me. I’m ready to do something. I know I can trust my wife’s brother-in-law.”

I stood up then, and pointed out that the snack bar was closing up. I walked him out and across the street. We stopped in front of the entrance gate to the compound. “Now, remember, you promised not to do anything until you hear from us. Right? Don’t even go to the East until then.”

“Right. I gotcha. I’ll wait to hear from you.” He walked away toward the small compound nearby where the EES beverage store was, and where I imagined his car was parked. I watched him go until he turned the corner, then went into the headquarters compound and into Berlin Station. When I entered the Station, there were three people in the Duty Agent’s little office and the phones were all ringing. The DA was there, Wiedermeyer, and another agent from the Station who, it turned out, just happened along and got drafted. “Wiedermeyer, where the hell did you go? Why didn’t you come into the snack-bar? I saw you look in, but you left right away.”

“I, uhh . . . . What the hell are you doing here?”

“I work here! What’s going on?”

“Where were you?” asked the DA.

“Right where I said I was going to be. What’s this all about?”

“Wait a minute, let me call off the dogs,” said Wiedermeyer. (This dialogue is reconstructed from my fading memory, and a lot of it is paraphrased. But not this line. Those words I remember as clear as day.)

After a second’s hesitation, the three started dialing and talking again, very frantically.

"What do you mean, ‘Call off the dogs’?”

“I didn’t see you in the snack-bar. I thought you got grabbed. We’ve called your CO, my CO”--that’s the Provost Marshal, the chief of police on a military base--“the USCOB, the Brigade Commander, and the DCSI. We’ve put out APB’s on you, Kappel, your car, and the Caddy Kappel was driving. They’re shutting the whole city down.”

“Jesus, Wiedermeyer, did you overreact! I was right where I said I’d be. The only thing was, when I got there, I found out it wasn’t Kappel at all, of course. It was just some nut from the EES. He heard through the grapevine that Kappel got picked up in East Germany, and he wanted to go over and bust him out. He was a little hinky, so when I saw you peek in, I didn’t want to signal. Since it wasn’t Kappel or anyone important to the case, I figured I’d tell you later.”

“Well, I wasn’t looking for you, actually; I was looking for Kappel. When I didn’t see him, I just naturally assumed . . . .”

At this moment, Col. Collins arrived. He had already been on his way when the DA called to head him off. Besides, with the DCSI and two generals informed that I’d been kidnaped, he figured he’d better be in the Station to settle the flap. Unfortunately for me, the DCSI was also on his way in. The generals, at least, had been caught in time.

Col. Collins picked up a phone and made several calls. I was still watching this whole scene in amusement and disbelief. After all, I hadn’t done anything. Was it my fault that Wiedermeyer had jumped to conclusions and overreacted?

“Well, the shit’s gonna hit,” said Collins. “The DCSI wants to see us in his office at USCOB. The PM’s closed the checkpoints and stopped the military train. The military part of Tempelhof’s been closed, too.” That was the Berlin airport (since closed), part of which was a U.S. Air Force Base. “They got the French and the Brits to lock down their sectors also, and the PM’s been on to the German agencies to shut down the civilian crossing points and exits as well. It took about half an hour to shut the city down. It’ll take hours to open it all up again. The DCSI’s gonna be pissed.” (Did I mention, the DCSI didn’t like me?)

“But why at me, Sir? I was right where I said I’d be, doing just what I was supposed to do.” I knew the DCSI was just looking for a reason to chew my tail again. Would Col. Collins back me again this time?

Well, the DCSI did light into me. At least he started to. And Col. Collins pointed out right away that the flap had not been caused by anything I had done. The DCSI backed off, but he was clearly not happy about that.

As we left the DCSI’s office, Col. Collins told me, “When I first heard that you were kidnaped, my first fear was that you had your creds with you.” Those were our MI badges and ID cards. “Then I wondered if you had a weapon.” I looked at him a moment. He was really more worried about my boxtops and my .38 than about my safety. How comforting.

As far as I know, the city untangled itself and was back to normal by morning. I doubt anyone outside the Station, the Provost Marshall’s Office (the military cop shop), and USCOB really knew what had happened. Probably some travelers had been inconvenienced--mostly military ones, since the civilian stuff probably never got closed before the all-clear came down--but they probably never learned why. Anyway, I’m the only person I know who’s had a city shut down for him. Kinda makes me proud to be an American.

On the other hand, did you ever hear how the mayor of Philadelphia threw my father out of town? Well, that’s another story for another time.

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