[Sometimes, no matter how well trained you are or how carefully you plan, things go haywire. The best-laid plans and all. (And sometimes people are just incompetent.) You know the term: SNAFU—“Situation Normal: All Fucked Up.” In my unit in the army, we had a phrase to describe the little mess-ups and unplanned distractions that occurred with sporadic regularity: The Five-To-Five Friday Flap—because they always seemed to occur at 4:55 on Friday afternoon, just as we were all leaving to go home for the weekend. While I was in Berlin, this happened a few times, at least once to major effect on the city and the Forces. I’ve related that big one, which resulted in the closing of the exits and entrances to the city, in “Berlin Station, Part 2,” on ROT on 22 July 2009. Here are the tales of three more SNAFU’s to which I was a party.]
One of my Berlin Station colleagues was running an investigation of an American civilian who was known to be buying popular items from the PX and selling them on the black market. This was illegal for numerous reasons, not the least was that PX merchandise is sold tax- and duty-free. Reselling them to Germans or others not entitled to shop at the government-subsidized stores was against both U.S. and German law, not to mention Army regs. Illegality, however, wouldn’t have made this case one of interest to Military Intelligence; there had to be some other aspect to it. The black-marketeer under investigation was also suspected of using the same contacts he made for his merchandise enterprise to sell sensitive and classified documents and information to anyone who’d pay for it. The investigation, in which I had had no part, had proceeded to the point where the Special Agent in Charge decided it was time to set up a stationary surveillance of the subject’s apartment in Kreuzberg. He had arranged to rent a vacant second-floor (that is, German first-floor) apartment in a walk-up across the street and a few doors down from the subject’s, and Tech Support set up a whole slew of electronic surveillance equipment: video camera, monitors, VCR’s, microphones—whatever was state of the art in the early 1970s. Then the Ops Officer recruited all available agents to man the surveillance 24/7, each pair of us taking eight-hour shifts. My partner and I had the red-eye shift, midnight to 8 a.m.
Kreuzberg, a rough district of West Berlin, comparable to the South Bronx in New York City back in the ’80s, isn’t close to the Dahlem district where our office and residences were located, so we drove to the surveillance location. However, since an American car (especially my candy-apple red 1970 Torino) or even a German car with green POV plates would be immediately recognizable and draw attention to our presence in the area, we drove to the HQ compound where we signed out one of the Station’s indigenous cars—German Fords or VW’s—and a set of German license plates. (A POV is a “privately-owned vehicle”—a civilian car owned by a GI, in other words; the alternative is a “government-owned vehicle,” such as a staff car or a jeep. The Station also had “spook” cars that looked like German civilian vehicles but equipped with a two-way radio. These cars all had dual registrations: one for a POV and one for a German vehicle; the plates were quickly exchangeable depending on our need.) We drove the German-plated GOV to a spot a few blocks and around the corner from the apartment and walked to our post. (Walking alone in this part of town at night was itself a little scary. We weren’t armed or even carrying walkie-talkies. Cell phones, of course, hadn’t been invented yet.)
Our POV’s were parked back at the HQ area, of course, and it was common to park in the auxiliary PX lot across Clayallee from the compound. There was insufficient space for POV parking on the compound grounds, and the POV lot was at the far rear of the compound, a distance from our offices at the front of the main HQ building. It happens that was the same lot where we kept our indigenous vehicles, so we’d have had to park back there, walk across the compound to the office, sign out the GOV and get the plates, and go back across the compound to rig the car for clandestine use (and then do the whole procedure again in reverse at the end of the shift). During the day, leaving our cars in the PX lot was no problem—we did it all the time—but in this instance there were complicating circumstances.
I parked my POV at about 11 p.m. or so. The ’X was closed at that hour, of course, and the lot was empty—except now for my big, red Torino. Now, because of a spate of bombings and sabotage attacks by the likes of the Red Army Faction (AKA: the Baader-Meinhof Gang), some of which had been fatal, the U.S. Forces had increased their security procedures and vigilance. Cars entering the HQ compound, for instance, were thoroughly inspected, including using a giant mirror on a dolly to inspect the undercarriage. A car left unattended in the PX parking lot well after hours attracted suspicious attention from the MPs, and they attempted to identify the registered owner and find out why it was sitting there close to midnight. Now, for security reasons, Berlin Station’s POV’s were all registered in Munich, MI headquarters in Europe, not in Berlin, so the MPs were unable to identify my car from the local records. There were no computerized records available in the early ’70s, so determining after hours that the car apparently abandoned across from the U.S. HQ in Berlin was registered in Munich and then finding out to whom it was registered—remembering, too, that we were a high-security unit—was a slow process, and it was taking too long for the MPs’ sense of urgency. They decided they had to blow up the car on site rather than take a chance it might be loaded with explosives. (This was no joke and it’s not an exaggeration. The MPs were actually going to blow up my car.)
I don’t know how it happened, but the Duty Agent (the guy who sits up all night) at the Station got wind of this impending action. Because the 66th MI offices were right at the front of the building and compound, and the DA’s office was potentially vulnerable if the explosion was a large one—no one knew what was in the car—perhaps, he was warned by the MPs what was about to happen. In any case, the DA knew the car in question was mine and got the MPs to abort their plans. Of course, due to the security measures in place for the surveillance operation, there was no way the DA could get in touch with me to tell me what had almost happened, so I never learned that I almost lost my car big time until after I returned to the Station after 8 in the morning to sign the GOV and the German plates back in. I was mightily relieved that things had turned out the way they did instead of the way they might have. (The car had been a college-graduation present from my parents—and Road and Track declared it their 1970 Car of the Year. I really loved that car.)
That was a close one—but the next slip-up went over the line into disaster. I was still on the red-eye shift at the surveillance, and we’d been at it for a week or so. As I said, I was just a recruit on this gig, so I didn’t know anything about any of the tactical arrangements that had been made—or hadn’t been made. I just reported for duty at midnight and went home at 8 the next morning to get some sleep. One night, after parking the GOV around the corner from the apartment, I had no sooner entered the room when someone out on the sidewalk below started shouting and screaming. The previous shift hadn’t even left yet, so there were four agents in the apartment still. (That, actually, turned out to be part of the problem, as we were about to learn.) Now, the tech set-up in the surveillance apartment included video cameras aimed at the subject’s apartment across the street so we could watch on monitors without posing in the window. But this yelling was coming from right below our apartment on the sidewalk out front so we rushed to the window to see what the commotion at such an hour was all about. It was the landlady of the building, screaming and pointing up at the surveillance apartment, gathering a crowd and, pretty quickly, the Berlin police. We immediately radioed into the Station and got our police liaison officer to come out and help us handle whatever the matter was. Whatever was going on, it was obvious we were in some kind of bind—the attention on our apartment alone was certainly a bad development, aside from whatever else might be happening.
It turned out that the landlady began to suspect something nefarious and probably illegal was going on in her apartment. Her clue was that though the apartment had been rented by one young man—the SAIC for this operation—she had been watching as a parade of different men kept coming and going at all hours of the day and night. She never saw the guy who had rented the place, but she noticed that there were half a dozen other men, and no women, who entered and left the apartment and no one seemed to be living there. (Berlin Station only had one female agent when I arrived, but I don’t remember if she was even still there by this time.) The Hauswirtin concluded that there was a brothel operating in the apartment, or maybe a smuggling ring, and she wanted it—us—out of her building.
Well, we managed to keep the cops at bay for a while until the liaison officer arrived, and then we pretty much had to let them in. As soon as they looked inside, they all knew what had been going on: all that high-tech equipment and the lack of any other furniture or other amenities—no fridge, no stove, no food except for thermoses and bags of food brought from home—told these savvy cops that they’d spoiled an intel op of some kind. (Berlin’s being Cold War spy central, the local cops were pretty cognizant of what was happening around them. Besides, these guys were pretty competent anyway.) Everyone pretty much laughed—there wasn’t much else we could do. We knew we had gotten caught—the Army expression is very vulgar, but very apt: we stepped on our dicks. It hadn’t helped that the SAIC had neglected to inform the police liaison what he was setting up so the cops could be briefed if it became necessary. As I said, I was just a hired hand on this one, so, after the SNAFU, I just went on home after returning the GOV and the local plates. End of operation. (I don’t remember if we ever caught the guy, or even if we even proved he was passing info. He certainly would have discovered he was under surveillance after this public exposure of our little spook operation on his block. As I said, it wasn’t my gig.)
[Not all the SNAFU’s were military or even intelligence. Civilians and dependents sometimes got into messes because they didn’t think, or, more likely, thought like civilians back in the land of the round door knobs. (European doors mostly had handles, so . . . .) But when you’re stationed in Berlin and the Cold War’s on, everything takes on a more portentous edge, even an ostensibly innocent, thoughtless act. Not infrequently, when something like that happened in Berlin, an MI agent gets involved whereas back home, or even anywhere else in the military, nothing would happen at all.]
Helmstedt, West Germany, was a peculiar place in those Cold War days. It was just a small town—a large village, really—but it happened to be situated right at the spot on the Autobahn designated as the official crossing point, Checkpoint Alpha, from West Germany into East Germany. (Ordinary civilians could cross over at any number of border crossings, but Allied personnel, both civilian and military, had to use this route. Checkpoint Bravo was the other end of the highway where it crossed from East Germany into West Berlin, 110 miles from Helmstedt. Charlie, of course, was the infamous crossing point at Friedrichstrasse between the Berlins.) As a result of its location, Helmstedt was the site not only of a large MP unit, a satellite of the Berlin Provost Marshall’s Office (military talk for police headquarters), but of a huge “listening post” run by the ASA. (The Army Security Agency was the division of the Army that was responsible for signals intelligence, or SIGINT, and electronic intelligence, or ELINT—otherwise known as electronic eavesdropping. I was engaged in what was known as HUMINT, or human intelligence.) Several of the enlisted GI’s from my Russian class in Monterey were stationed there. They spent 24/7 eavesdropping in eight-hour shifts through immense antennas and other electronic listening gear on Russian and East German transmissions and telephone communications. There were enough microwave transmitters and receivers on top of the compound to cook a large herd of cattle into roast beef! But except for the ASA and the MP’s, the town was just this sleepy little village. (I visited one of my former Russian-language classmates who’d become a friend.) That’s probably all it is now. It’s not even a border town anymore!
That route between the Zone, as we called West Germany (because it used to be “the Allied Zone of Occupied Germany”), and West Berlin was actually a series of three Autobahns, and it was very possible to go astray at the two interchanges and wander off into East Germany. That, of course, was a major no-no. Every week or so there’d be some problem with a GI getting lost on the road or having some other trouble with the East Germans or the Soviets on that highway and one of us would have to interview the guy, find out if there was any real security breach—there almost never was—and scare the hell out of him so he didn’t do it again. The same was true for GI’s who went over to East Berlin and got into one kind of difficulty or another. The Soviets loved to approach GI’s in the S-Bahn stations and try to get ID cards or some other low-level document. (The S-Bahn, for Strassenbahn, was a sort of commuter rail system. The U-Bahn, for Untergrundbahn, was the ordinary subway system. Both systems predated the war and, therefore, the Wall, and traversed the entire city. The Occupation Agreement gave the Soviets control over the S-Bahn and the western allies control of the U-Bahn, hence the Cold War dichotomy.)
Travel to East Berlin was not only permitted but encouraged—“showing the flag,” the brass called it—but since any contact with an East German or Soviet agent had to be reported, we were constantly interviewing GI’s who’d been approached. Most soldiers in Berlin knew better and walked away, then reported the incident when they got back to the West—but every now and then, when some unit in the Zone would send a busload of GI’s for a Berlin Orientation Tour, there’d be some screw-up because they were never properly briefed before they were let loose in the city. No one told them, for instance, that the S-Bahn was East German and that the big station, Friedrichstrasse, was under East Berlin and loaded with East German and Soviet agents just waiting to compromise them. Their purpose wasn’t really to gain anything valuable—just to cause trouble. The poor GI’s were usually scared shitless, often even before we talked to them. (It was our job, aside from determining that there wasn’t any serious security problem, to scare them some more. These talks were called SAEDA briefings—Subversion and Espionage Directed Against the Army; they were pretty much pro forma.)
I remember one occasion very specifically because it involved a teenager, a high school boy whose dad was a GI in Berlin. The boy had driven into the Zone with a teacher—I forget why now, some perfectly innocent field trip—but on the way back into Berlin on the Autobahn, when they stopped at one of the checkpoints along the route, the kid decided to practice the Russian he’d been learning. While the teacher was getting the papers attended to, the boy started a conversation with a guard and gave him a pack of American cigarettes. (Russian cigarettes—papyrosi, to be precise—are disgusting things; American ones were a prized acquisition.) Well, someone in another car at the checkpoint saw this exchange and reported it at the MP station at Checkpoint Bravo (where you cross from East Germany into West Berlin). The MPs immediately reported this to us, and we got the crossing lists—the document kept at each checkpoint on which the cars of all GI’s and civilian or military staff were registered as they passed through. We ID’d the car in the report, found out who owned it, tracked down the teacher and ID’d the student, and called him in for a SAEDA talk. I was the agent assigned to talk to the kid, and because there’s no criminal issue involved, the kid didn’t have to be accompanied by his dad. Man, he’d have liked to piss his pants, he was so scared. No matter how much I assured him that nothing was going to happen, he was sure his father was going to get shipped home at the very least. It was quickly obvious, of course, that nothing serious had happened—though contact with a Soviet guard was against regs for obvious reasons. (It’s one of the excuses the Soviets would use to shut down the road and cause a diplomatic incident if they were in that mood at the time. This isn’t paranoia—it’s realism.) I did the Dutch Uncle routine—me being not much older than the kid was, you understand—and sent him home. I sure wouldn’t have wanted that kid’s dreams that night! (Me, I felt like a big shot!)
[I’ve written a few times about my military service in Berlin in the 1970s. Aside from the two-part “Berlin Station” (19 and 22 July 2009), I revisited that period of my life in “The Berlin Wall” (29 November 2009). The experience also got passing mention in my discussion of a German TV miniseries, “Der Illegale” (5 July 2009) and of a series of Washington Post articles on the intelligence complex in “Top Secret America” (17 September 2010). A few other anecdotes, not quite SNAFU’s, are also related in three “Short Takes” posts (6 December 2010, 11 November 2011, and 8 February 2012). Readers might find it interesting to go back and look at the ancillary material, as it were.]