20 January 2017

Berlin Memoir, Part 3

[As I promised in my closing note to “Berlin Memoir, Part 2” (see 31 December 2016), this installment will detail the most significant investigation in which I was engaged during the 2½ years I was stationed in Berlin.  It’s probably no surprise to ROTters who’ve been following this reminiscence that the case involved exfiltration, that peculiar phenomenon in which I’d become the Station expert.  (For an explanation of what exfiltration is and how I got involved in its investigation, I recommend going back and reading parts 1 and 2 of this memoir before embarking on the latest chapter.  That’s also where readers’ll find definitions of the intel terms and army jargon I bandy about.  “Berlin Memoir, Part 1” was posted on 16 December 2016.)]

As I said, most exfiltration cases were minor incidents, especially from the counterintel perspective.  The case involving the Deputy Provost Matchall of Berlin Brigade was an exception.  One other time, however, I hooked a really big one.  The events of this episode, which only took a few hours, were actually set in motion months earlier.  Some time in mid-1971, 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 Autobahn between Berlin and West Germany driving a car with five would-be refugees concealed in it.  To complicate matters, he was driving his boss’s Caddy, a favorite of the exfiltrators because of its big trunk, implicating this high-ranking Civil Servant—he was a GS-12 or something, the equivalent of a lieutenant colonel—in the tangle.  The East German Vopos turned Kappel over to the Soviets and after they took Kappel to Potsdam for a few days, the Soviets 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, the super-secret, mountain-top ASA SIGINT and ELINT facility—our version of what I described at Helmstedt earlier—and no one knew what he might be able to tell someone about that place.  FSB, located on the highest point in Berlin, Teufelsberg, a little mountain in Wilmersdorf created from the rubble of the city’s wartime destruction (which you see being shoveled into wheelbarrows in The Big Lift), bristled with antennas, domes, spheres, and silos—it looked like a set from the space opera Star Trek—and was a major target of Soviet espionage both because of its extreme sensitivity and because it was aimed at them.

We eventually determined that Kappel didn’t really have any info that the Soviets wouldn’t already possess, though at the beginning we didn’t know that.  Security questions set aside, the case became part of the muddle of diplomatic-military-political issues that made up the Cold War.  An American had committed a crime on Soviet-controlled soil, and the Soviets 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.  The people running exfiltrations were the same ones who controlled the worst of Berlin’s crime; as I’ll describe later, they 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 someone associated with the U.S. Forces was clearly a provocation to the Soviets at a time when that was a dangerous button to push. 

We already knew about the warehouse manager, but as the investigation developed and other U.S. Forces personnel were identified, I also ended up coordinating with the OSI, the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations, which combines the responsibilities of both MI and CID.  I even did a good cop-bad cop interrogation of one AF NCO who turned out to be the lynchpin for exposing the whole team involved in the Kappel operation—he copped out under pressure and named names.  (I was the bad cop.  As we’ll see, I’m very good as playing a hard-ass.  There was also one exercise at Holabird that sort of stunned everyone.  But that’s another story.)  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 than in the U.S., 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 the USCOB 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 exploit.  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 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.   

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 where to reach me and calling in every hour or so.  (The Duty Agent, or DA—usually an EM, though for a period when we were understaffed junior officers pulled this duty, too—stayed in the Station all night to answer the phones and respond to an alert by calling the section SAIC’s—Special Agents in Charge.)  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 Stuben and bars to use the phone.  Of course, I couldn’t tell them exactly 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 was making and everything else related even remotely to the investigation.  I attended high-level briefings with colonels and generals and ministers—sometimes in that secure room—where I was generally the only junior officer present.  I’d have been impressed myself, if I hadn’t been so afraid of making a mistake.  (I can tell you, I was replaying that previous run-in with the DCSI over the incident concerning the DPM.  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.  (Somewhere, in some State Department or DOD archive is a big file with all my reports on this case, plus whatever other people were sending.  That staff study’s probably moldering somewhere, too.) 

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, as you may have learned).  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 for the Counterespionage Section one evening, and I was just hanging out at my BOQ.  (One agent from each section was on call every night and on the weekends.  We had to be available and contactable at all times.  Remember, there were no cell phones, or even beepers, in those days.)  Sometime around 7 in the evening, the DA phoned me at home to come in and take a call.  A guy 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 in May 1972.  If they were working at that level, letting him go unannounced, with no bargaining or propaganda, would be pretty silly on their part.  The Soviets could be petty, but they were seldom silly.)  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 Clayallee.  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 (Criminal Investigation Division of the MP’s).  I had a CID counterpart, a German-born, naturalized-American warrant officer who didn’t want to be on this case any more than I did.  Karl-Heinz Wiedermeyer 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 malfunctioning radio when I was doing security for General Westmoreland at an Armed Forces Day parade.  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—Radio-Telephone Operator—no-no.  So much for cool under pressure.)  I was, however, at least trained for this stuff.  Karl-Heinz wasn’t.  He was a cop, not a spook.  Anyway, I called Karl-Heinz and, because his office was at Andrews Barracks in Lichtenfelde and the ’X and I were in Zehlendorf, we decided that I’d go meet “Kappel” and he’d join us later.  So I went on across the street to the PX complex, and went into the snack bar.

The PX snack bar is a cafeteria.  This one was nearly all glass, with windows all around the two exterior walls, and the entrance 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 was 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 broad-brimmed 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 it’s 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 pictures 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 actually 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 DBChrist, 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.

You got any ID?” I asked.  He handed me his DOD ID card (though I’ve forgotten now what his name really was).

“I hear the Reds got one of our guys,” he said a little heatedly.

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 words out.” 

“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 Karl-Heinz 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 Karl-Heinz 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 Karl-Heinz across the room, “Kappel” might lose it or something.  It wasn’t worth the chance under the circumstances.  I let Karl-Heinz 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 access.  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 Clayallee.  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.”  We shook hands and he walked away toward Saargemünderstrasse, around the corner of which was the small compound 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 the Station.  When I entered the Station, there were three people in the DA’s little office and the phones—there were ten or a dozen lines—were all ringing.  The DA was there, Karl-Heinz, and another agent from the Station who, it turned out, just happened along and got shanghaied. 

“Karl-Heinz, 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 are you doing 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 Karl-Heinz.  Most of this dialogue is recreated from my memory—though it’s very close to what we all said.  But this particular line was precisely what Karl-Heinz said.  That phrase is etched in my brain. 

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

“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 PM—“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, Karl-Heinz, 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, Colonel Collins arrived.  He was already on his way when the DA called to head him off.  Besides, with the DCSI and two generals informed that I’d been kidnapped, 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. 

Colonel 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 Karl-Heinz had jumped to conclusions and overreacted? 

“Well, the shit’s gonna hit,” said my CO.  “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.  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.”

“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 Colonel Collins back me again, as he had done before? 

Well, the DCSI did light into me.  At least he started to.  And Colonel 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, Colonel Collins told me, “When I heard that you were kidnapped, my first fear was that you had your creds with you.  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 PMO, and USCOB really knew what had happened.  Probably some travelers were 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 had a city shut down for him.  Kinda makes me proud to be an American.  This case had gone on for months—over a year I think.  Then, suddenly, the case was over.  Kappel was released.  The scuttlebutt was that his release had been negotiated during Nixon’s trip to Moscow a few weeks earlier.  (I was never able to confirm that, of course, but that’s what everyone assumed.)

The most this case did was ID some more exfiltration personalities, and drive up the fees they paid for cars and drivers.  Because of the more detailed info my study provided, the Allied forces were able to clamp down pretty tightly on the operations and essentially deny the leaders access to Allied personnel as drivers—they could get through checkpoints with less scrutiny than Germans or other nationals—and cars with Allied plates, especially big American cars in which whole families could hide.  The more difficult it got to get these assets, the higher the payment they offered.  The PX warehouse manager had gotten $500 for the use of his Caddy (which he ended up losing, along with his job with the EES; we figured some Soviet general was tooling around Moscow in the Caddy); as a result of our operation, we pulled the lid so tight the exfiltration organizers were offering several thousand for cars, drivers were getting $10,000 and more, and Helene herself was promised a Mercedes for just recruiting people.  For the rest of the time I was in Berlin, GI’s were out of the exfiltration biz—it was too risky, even for that kind of money.  (As the costs went up, so, of course, did the price paid by the refugees.  It was a cash deal, and I imagine fewer and fewer would-be escapees could afford it anymore.)

[So, how many people do you know who’ve had a city closed on their account?  Not many, I’ll wager.  (My Dad was actually thrown out of a city by the mayor . . . but that’s a different story.)  If this episode whets your appetite for more reminiscences about Cold War Berlin, please come back in a couple of weeks for part 4 of “Berlin Memoir.”  Since I’m posting the installments somewhat haphazardly, I can’t say exactly when the next chapter—which covers some of the other intel activities in which I was involved (just the highlights, of course!)—will appear, but they’ve been coming about once every two to three weeks.]

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