[This is the fourth of eight installments of my recollections of serving in West Berlin, Germany, as a Military Intelligence officer during the early 1970s, a high point in the Cold War. “Berlin Memoir, Part 4” covers some of the small events of my work and the oddities that were part and parcel of that world. If you haven’t read parts 1 through 3, I recommend going back and catching up on them before starting on part 4, not only for the background, but because some things are explained and defined in the earlier sections and it might be hard to follow what I’m talking about from here forward without that information. (Part 1 was posted on 16 December 2016, part 2 on 31 December, and part 3 on 20 January 2017.)]
Working in Berlin was different from working anywhere else. We did things in Berlin that our sister units in the Zone or elsewhere in USAREUR never heard of. I said that Berlin got the best of everything—it also got the best personnel. MI was one of the branches that took only the most qualified applicants, and the best of the best were assigned to Berlin. I had colleagues, NCO’s, with multiple graduate degrees. One of my own NCO’s, a buck sergeant, had been Phi Bet in college. The average education level in my unit was five years of college. That was the average. Me, with my measly four-year BA, was below average. Our unit clerk was one of the most articulate guys I ever met—and he was a corporal or something. (We had mostly hard-stripers in our unit—only a few specialists.)
Because of this, and the fact that our unit was so small and we were so segregated because of our jobs, we did quite a bit of fraternizing. We were a little isolated, though. First of all, we weren’t part of Berlin Brigade, so our chain of command was different. Second, we wore civilian clothes and that separated us from the other GI’s in Berlin. Third, and most significantly, we couldn’t talk to outsiders about our work—and Army people almost always talk shop when they’re smokin’ and jokin’. There’s a certain level of paranoia that goes with doing intel work in Berlin. (All those spies I mentioned before weren’t there for their health!) Anything to do with Berlin was automatically classified higher than the same thing would be anywhere else in the Army. I had clearances so far above TS, I didn’t know what many of them meant. That’s not a joke. My clearances had so many acronyms and initials, I couldn’t remember them all (and I can’t remember most of them at all now). You ever hear of OFCO-RODCA clearance? I had that. (Sounds like some dire disease, don’t it? The acronyms stand for Offensive Counterintelligence Operation and Reporting of Defense Collection Activities.) In some cases, the acronym itself was classified!
You work around that stuff, it’s hard to socialize with people outside your field. And if you do make a friend from outside, especially outside the forces, you have to run a file check on him or her. (Like that guy in The Big Lift!) Now that’s the basis for a lasting friendship, much less a romance. “Listen, honey, before we get too serious, I have to do a background check on you. Would you mind filling out this personal history form?” That’s a buzz-kill for sure. While even wives were kept out of the loop when it came to work, they were at the parties like anywhere else. But it was so awkward to bring a date that no one ever did. If the Wall made the city claustrophobic, our own security practices made the unit claustrophobic, too. (This didn’t mean we couldn’t socialize outside the unit. Dating or friendships were perfectly fine—they just had to stay outside unit functions, even unofficial ones. And, of course, you couldn’t say much about what you did OTJ. And you did have to do that file check. I did one on a woman I met, a Brit—and she turned out to have a very unsavory record. Nothing criminal or spooky—just very, very flaky—enough to be in the files. Had to stop seeing her, but I couldn’t tell her why. “Sorry, Babe. I had you checked out, and there are some things in your record that won’t do. See ya.” That was awkward.)
Anyway, working MI in Berlin wasn’t just nutsy from our own perspective. There were nuts beyond our control, too. (I mean the ones who weren’t wearing green suits!) Berlin Station wasn’t a covert unit, just low-profile, as I said earlier. We had offices with our name on them—right at the front of the HQ compound, just inside the gate. In contrast, our sister unit (the 9668’s), the positive intel outfit of 66th MI in Berlin, was covert and lived in unmarked offices near ours. The “non-existent” CIA unit in Berlin—they weren’t supposed to be there—were in “mismarked” offices hidden away in “Building 7” at the rear of the compound. Unless you knew what they were, you’d assume they were some esoteric tech-support unit. (Something to do with maps, I recall.)
My friend Rich Gilbert, now a lawyer in D.C., who had been an infantry officer in BB and then was in the Public Information Office, told me that there was one thing about my job that used to aggravate him. Not that I couldn’t talk about what I did or that occasionally I’d have to run off suddenly because of a phone call. That was just SOP. It was a look I got when he started telling me about some crazy thing that he came across at work. For instance, he’d start to tell me about this odd unit he heard about that he’d never run across before and that he didn’t know what it did. He said I got this look that said to him, “Oh, yeah? Well, I know what that unit really is—and I can’t tell you. But you just go on and talk.” Sometimes he’d stop in mid-sentence and say, “You know all about this, don’t you? It’s some spook agency, right—and you can’t say anything?” I guess I’d just smile and keep my mouth shut. I mean, he knew I couldn’t say anything. It wasn’t my fault. One time he launched into one of these monologues—and he was talking about the CIA’s cover ID. (Ironically, there’s a TV series, on one of the streaming networks I believe, about the CIA in Berlin today, and it’s called—can you guess?—Berlin Station!)
One night some time back I watched a TV show in which the FBI was a central presence. At one point in the story, a local cop, despite having been warned off, inserted himself into a federal operation and almost compromised it and nearly got a UC agent killed. In order to get him to back off, the FBI ultimately had to reveal the existence of the UC agent, but this potentially endangered the operation and the agent, so the cop had to be neutralized. The feds decided to bring him into the Joint Terrorism Task Force—but he would be assigned to the “Legal Attaché in Sri Lanka.” The Legal Attaché, or LEGAT, was the cover designation of the FBI overseas. (You remember that the FBI isn’t supposed to operate in foreign countries, just as the CIA isn’t supposed to operate in the States. Hence the cover name.) LEGAT was one of the agencies we commonly queried for a records check in a background investigation. (I also heard a character on another TV show, an FBI agent, refer to an overseas office of the Bureau this way, but the character pronounced it l∂-GAT, as if it were related to the Anne Rice vampire, Lestat. Silly wabbits.)
Well, anyway, we weren’t undercover that way. We were the contact point for intelligence for the U.S. Forces in Berlin. If something came to us and it was in the jurisdiction or operational area of another unit or agency, we made the referral and served as go-between for the initial contact if necessary. Everyone knew where we were—we had a listed phone number (only one, however; our individual office phones were unlisted—and we answered them with the last four digits of the number, not our names or the unit’s name) and even the German Labor Force guards at the gate knew how to reach us. This was expressly for “walk-ins”—people off the street who came to the HQ compound and said they had something to report. If they were old enough to remember WWII or the Occupation, they asked for the OSS (the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime forerunner of the CIA) or the CIC (the Counterintelligence Corps, the forerunner of Military Intelligence Branch); if they were younger, they asked for the CIA. No one ever asked for MI as far as I know—but that’s whom they got. When a walk-in came to the gate and told the guard he wanted to talk to the CIA (or CIC), they sent him to a small outbuilding just to the right of the gate, right next to the corner of the main building where our offices were located. This was our debriefing and interview room for outsiders, before we let someone into our offices proper. You’ll see why this disconnect was necessary.
As you might imagine, 99% of walk-ins were nonsense. Many, even a majority I’d say, were nuts. The following anecdotes are either from my own experience or from stories my colleagues told—but based on my experience, they’re all true. One guy I talked to came to report that the Soviets had agents on the moon (no shit) and that he was in contact with them by “eye television.” (By the way, all these interviews were conducted in German, so there was always one agent and one German legman as translator/interviewer. My German—and I spoke way better than most other GI’s in the unit—would never have been good enough to get through most of this stuff. I do remember, though, that what this guy said was Augenfernseh—that’s a literal translation for “eye television.”) What he meant was that he received images in his mind transmitted from the moon by these Soviet agents. (Schizophrenia, anyone?) This same guy also wanted us to know that the Russians were leaving poisoned cigarette butts on the streets so GI’s would pick them up and smoke them. (I used to see GI’s picking up discarded cigarette butts all the time. I mean, who could afford 35¢ a pack? Riiight.)
As soon as we arrived to interview the walk-in, we’d get his ID documents and all other pertinent info. The legman, who was an experienced interviewer/interrogator—ours had worked for us longer than any of the GI’s in the unit and probably most of the DAC’s—patted the guy down and we searched any bags he brought. Meanwhile, before we even started to talk to the guy, the agent called the office and give them the ID info so they could run records checks and search our files. Some of these walk-ins were frequent fliers: they’d come in before. Not surprisingly in other instances, we often learned that the walk-in was a mental patient who had walked away from some minimum-security asylum. When that was true—and I recall that it was in the case of the “eye television” guy—we’d call the hospital and they send someone out to get the guy back. We’d have to stay with him and talk to him to keep him occupied until the van arrived, never more than a few minutes later. When there was no such record, we’d talk the guy down—thank him for his help, tell him we’d look into the matter, and say we’d contact him if we needed anything more. Then we’d escort him back to the gate and see him off the compound. These were usually guys who’d seen too many James Bond movies. If we thought the guy was nuts even if he hadn’t come from a hospital to start with, we might get him taken to one. Rarely, we’d have to call the cops.
Another walk-in was a woman who used to come in every six months or so—had been showing up for a couple of years. I even remember her name—Hanna Bregemeyer. Her story was that someone had stolen her identity and was going around being her. She insisted that we report this to the UN (the UN?) so that they’d make the other person stop being her. (Are you following this?) Because her identity had been stolen—we’re not talking stolen ID documents here, by the way (this was long before real identity-theft was ever heard of)—she refused to carry official papers. She made her own documents. It turns out that her actual name was Hanna Meyer; B. Reg. stood for bürgerlich registriert, a made-up term she used to mean “registered by the citizen.” If I recall, she came along one more time while I was in Berlin, then she seemed to disappear. (Maybe someone finally stole the rest of her. Who knows?)
One of my friends told me of a young man who came in and reported that spies were poisoning him. That’s not so weird, as you might guess by now, but what was frightening was what he had brought along as proof. He had a couple of tote bags with him, and my friend opened one to reveal that it was full of little bottles of the guy’s blood. When the legman opened the guy’s other bag and found that it was full of handguns, he was summarily bundled off to jail—and probably a hospital after that.
Most walk-ins were just poor souls who wanted some attention. Some were nuts and some were just lonely. One I spoke to was a 19-year-old kid who’d run out of money, been thrown out by his girlfriend, and just lost himself. He was pathetic, but not dangerous. He even broke down crying as the legman questioned him. No one I ever saw or heard of had any real information. Anything like that came from other routes. These included phone-ins, which were seldom any more productive than walk-ins. That dork who said he was Red Kappel was a phone-in, you’ll remember. So was the guy who claimed to know one of the Baader-Meinhof gang.
But sometimes . . . . One evening when I was on call, I was called by the DA to come in and take a phone call. The call was from a German man who worked for the U.S. Forces in Berlin and who said he had been in contact with East German agents. He was scared for several reasons, not the least of which was that German law made contact with Soviet or East German agents a crime. (The FROG had political crimes on the books. Membership in the Nazi or Communist Parties, for instance, was illegal.) I arranged to meet the guy in one of the remote districts—Tegel, I think it was, in the French Sector—at an U-Bahn station. I got one of our legmen (they were called this, by the way, because they did a lot of the legwork) and went out after the guy. No show. We waited around, checked out the area nearby, but no one was around who fitted the description the guy gave us. We gave up and went back home.
A few days or a week later, the guy called again, during the day. I remember it was February 14, Valentine’s Day. The legman and I went out after him again, and this time he showed at the meeting place. We took him out to one of the safe houses we used for serious interviews—not the little building on the compound grounds we used for walk-ins; this was a house in town—and sat him down in the dining room at the big table. The man was scared shitless—he was shaking and nervous and nearly unable to talk. But we finally got his story—and it’s pretty typical except that his went further. He had taken a vacation in Bulgaria and had met a woman. This, too, was common: trips to the Eastern Bloc were much cheaper than similar trips to Western Europe; Black Sea vacations in Bulgaria were very popular among working Germans. She was from East Berlin, and they arranged to meet there when they got back home. (West Berliners weren’t actually permitted to cross into the Eastern Sector, but many got around this by registering as a resident of some West German city, using a friend’s or relative’s address. This was illegal, of course, but very common.)
So, the man went over to East Berlin and met his new girlfriend at her apartment. They started up a romance and this continued for several visits. One day, the man showed up at the woman’s apartment and found a visitor. An East German intel agent was waiting for him. “Here’s the situation,” the agent explained. “Help us out with a few little things and we won’t report you to the West for this meeting.” Remember, contact with an agent of EGIS (the U.S. Army term for the East German Intelligence Service; in the DDR, it was known as the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit—Ministry for State Security—or, infamously, the Stasi) was a crime in West Germany. Of course, if the guy had simply gone back to the West and reported the meeting and the circumstances, nothing would have happened—the West German Kripos (Kriminalpolizei, or criminal police) knew what went on in the East.
This was a very common scenario. But the EGIS agent counts on the fear and ignorance of the target, and if it doesn’t work—well, nothing’s lost but a little time. If it does work, they get someone on the hook for little effort, and they can play it out as long as it lasts. Again, nothing has been expended but a little time. If the guy goes for it, they get him to hand over some seemingly innocuous document—a BB phone book, a tank manual—nothing classified or obviously sensitive. Maybe they do that two or three times, then they move up a notch. “If you don’t cooperate more, we’ll report everything you’ve done to the West. You’ve helped us out now, so you’re not innocent.” Then they’ll tell him to get a job with the U.S. or other Allied forces—any job will do. This man was an upholsterer so he got a job with the maintenance service for the U.S. facilities in Berlin.
When he had done that, the EGIS agent gave him a “concealment device.” That’s spook-speak for a secret pouch for hiding and carrying documents. And that was the clinching evidence that this man’s story was true—the device wasn’t something you got at the local stationery store. It looked like a pencil case, but it had a hidden pocket you could only open with a pin and knowledge of where to maneuver it. Obviously the EGIS agent was going to start getting the man to steal more important papers and smuggle them into East Berlin. But that’s where the man got too scared to continue. He stopped going to East Berlin, but then he started to be afraid of the West German police. That’s when he called us the first time—but he was too scared to follow through. In addition, he was an alcoholic, and he started drinking so heavily that he was fired for being drunk on the job. That’s when he called us the second time and met us. During the interview, by the way, the man got so nervous that he reached for a vial of pills in his jacket pocket. The legman literally pounced on the man and grabbed the pill vial. He was afraid they might have been poison—this guy was that scared. (They weren’t; they were antacids.)
We finished the interview, got the man’s story, arranged to be in contact again. I wrote up the interview, turned in the report, and briefed the Ops Officer. A while later, the “guys who aren’t there” inquired if we would get them together with the man. They had decided that the story was credible enough that it would be worth trying to double the man. He was turned over to the folks in Building 7, and we were out of it. (Berlin Station wasn’t an intel-gathering agency; we were a counterintel unit. Positive intel was the responsibility of other units; we only ran sources—that’s what they were called—if it was a counterespionage operation.) The “Company” wasn’t very good about sharing info—they didn’t play well with others—so we seldom learned what they were up to. Some time later, however, we heard about the upholsterer—the Company got him his job back—but his alcoholism had gotten so bad that even the CIA couldn’t keep him in his job. He was fired again, and without a job with the U.S. forces, he wasn’t much use to EGIS. He tried to get a job with the French and the Brits, but failed. EGIS cut him loose, and so did the CIA. I have no idea what became of him after that.
Most Germans had family on both sides of the border—either in East Berlin or East Germany. The division of Germany after the war split almost every German family, and even those without relatives in the East had close friends or circumstances like the upholsterer. Except for West Berliners, West Germans were free to cross into the East to visit, and thousands did regularly. (Berliners, however, could travel elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc—just not East Berlin until after 1973.) A typical scenario would go like this: Hans from Frankfurt would go every month to visit his mother’s elderly sister in East Berlin. He’d bring cigarettes, wine, food, other small gifts—some of which were considered contraband. Maybe he’d also give her money, probably in West Marks because the black-market exchange rate was much better than the official one-to-one rate he’d get if he bought East Marks at the border. Hans’s aunt could get much more for the West Marks than he could—but possessing western currency was illegal in the East. One day, Hans would arrive at his aunt’s apartment, and there’d be a strange man in the living room—an EGIS agent. “We’ve been monitoring your visits to your aunt,” he’d tell Hans. “We know what you’ve been bringing into the DDR. Would you like us to arrest your aunt? Take away her identity papers so she can’t buy food? Have her evicted from her state-owned apartment?” Of course, Hans couldn’t let that happen. “The next time you come over, bring a U.S. military phone book. It’s not even classified—just a little favor.”
Maybe the EGIS agent would ask Hans to get a job with the Allies or in a Western embassy. It would always be something easy and relatively innocuous. It was both a test and a hook. If Hans bit, EGIS would ask him for increasingly sensitive stuff, plus the threat to reveal his cooperation to the Western authorities. (Another way of setting the hook they liked to use was to exploit alcohol, gambling, or drug problems, homosexuality, illicit affairs, indebtedness, and petty or trumped-up crimes committed in the East. The recruitment always involved a threat and coercion—these were not politically-motivated or paid agents.) If the hook worked, the Soviets and their friends would get a source in the West for almost nothing. Whatever benefit they got was all gravy. If Hans didn’t bite, if he reported the contact, or if it wasn’t a family member he was visiting—say, a woman he met (a very common occurrence)—and he just stopped coming East, the Soviets lost nothing in the attempt. More than likely, they wouldn’t even bother to punish the relatives in the East—too much trouble—or they’d do something petty like harassing them for a few months, just so the word would get back to Hans in the West.
Another scenario was to approach minor criminals in the East like burglars, bootleggers, pimps, or prostitutes who had been caught. The KGB or EGIS offers a deal: “Go over to the West, get into some position where you can get useful info, and bring it back to us periodically, and we’ll let you go.” Who wouldn’t agree to that? Be a refugee in West Germany versus sitting in an East German jail for some months or a year. Duh. So what if the recruit cops out as soon as she gets to the West—what have they lost? They get rid of an undesirable who is now the problem of the FROG. If the recruit actually does get info and passes it back . . . well, all the better. It’s a win-win situation—and no expenses except some phony documents for the “refugee” and transportation to some border location. (This is, of course, why we had screeners at Marienfelde to interview refugees. You’d be surprised how often someone would admit right away that they’d been sent over by EGIS or the East German cops. I’m sure it sounds paranoid, but, take my word for it, it was real and common. And more often than not, mostly harmless—except perhaps to the psyche of the person who’d been approached by EGIS. It must have been a very strange existence for people like that, caught between the East and the West that way. And the Soviets used a shotgun approach: fire as many pellets as you can—a few are bound to hit a target. For many, many reasons—ethics being only one—we could never get away with that.
(Approaching GI’s and other official U.S. personnel was slightly different. The Eastern agents still looked for exploitable weaknesses like indebtedness or an addiction, but there had to be money in the bargain as well—often in very large sums. Seldom were the American sources impelled by ideological commitment, though that happened now and then, but other emotional motivations played a role, such as anger or resentment and family loyalty. This last was particularly effective with naturalized Americans with family still living in Eastern Bloc countries. The risks, however, for the Soviets or East Germans in the event of failure was much greater. They nonetheless tried, and surprisingly often considering how limited our attempts to recruit sources in the East were. Even when a successful recruitment was unlikely, the Soviets and their surrogates used the same logic: the more attempts, the more the chances of success—and a failed recruitment was a small loss.)
The Cold War was a wondrous time—if you’re Franz Kafka!
The upholsterer case was the closest I ever came to an actual spook operation. (My brush with real spookery was somewhat reminiscent of a German TV mini-series that aired while I was at the German military intel school in Bad Ems: the three-part TV movie, Der Illegale: Biografie eines Spions—“The illegal [agent]: biography of a spy.” I blogged about this show and its connection to my stint at the Bundeswehr MAD-Schule in “Der Illegale,” posted on 5 July 2009.) I did some surveillance, some demo coverage, lots of interviews, and a smattering of other tasks—before they made me an accountant. I even did a couple of stake-outs from a car—like you see on TV. Do you know what a cop or an agent does when he’s in a car trying to watch someone and he has to go to the bathroom? It’s a bit of esoteric lore you don’t often learn, but I did. In Germany, the law requires bars and restaurants to allow pedestrians to use their bathrooms, so that’s option number one—but you can’t really drop the surveillance and leave the subject unobserved. What if he or she goes on the move while you’re away from your car? So, the agent keeps a bottle in the car—it’s much harder for female agents than males for obvious anatomical reasons. Now you know. It may sound a little disgusting, but it’s a practical necessity.
I did one vehicle surveillance that involved a brief car chase—a mini-Bullitt. (Very mini.) My partner and I had been watching an apartment for a potential visitor we suspected was an EGIS agent. He’d been courting a lonely, middle-aged German secretary in an Army office. No one had actually ever seen the man, but the secretary’s phone was tapped and her mail was monitored, so we knew about his visits from the woman’s conversations with her friends. But he never communicated with her directly, either by phone or mail; he sent her flowers by Fleuropa (the European counterpart of FTD) and made their dates via the messages accompany the bouquets. I inherited the case, which had been running for a couple of years or more, and it seemed obvious that nothing was happening anymore. The woman had retired and there hadn’t been any contact from the mystery man for months.
I determined that we probably ought to end the eavesdropping and close the case, but then the woman reported a new contact from her beau—more flowers arrived—and reported the he was going to come to her apartment for a date. I set up the vehicular surveillance to see if we could finally see the guy and try to ID him. We sat across the street from the woman’s apartment at the time set for the date and waited. No one showed up. The woman was on the phone indicating that she still expected her gentleman caller, however, so we hung around until a man did arrive and go into the building. He stayed a little while and then left, and we took off to follow him in his car. We did just like the cops do on TV until we were able to get a look at the driver, and when he didn’t match the description we had of the subject, we abandoned the chase. In the end, I concluded that if there ever had been a real man in the secretary’s life, he had long since vanished and she had kept him “alive” with tales to her friends and flowers she sent herself. In any case, since no breach of security had ever been detected, and since the woman’s access had ceased when she retired, I closed the case. But I got to do a car chase!
As I said, running sources wasn’t our job (that’s what the 9668’s were there for), which was to keep the other side from doing to us what we were trying to do to them. We were basically a security unit. We had three main sections at Berlin Station, aside from Ops, Files, Tech Services (photography, bugging and miking, lock-picking, polygraphy, and so on), and CCU (which, despite its similarity to a medical abbreviation, stood for the Classified Control Unit—a big vault where all our classified files were kept. The teams were Counterespionage, Countersurveillance, and Personnel Investigations (usually referred to by their initials: CE, CS, and PI). CE, as you might guess, was tasked with preventing the Soviets and their crew from planting agents in our midst; CS was responsible for detecting, clearing, and preventing listening devices, bugs, electronic spyware, and so on in the facilities in our jurisdiction; PI was just what the name suggests: conducting background investigations on personnel up for security clearances (including getting higher clearances and renewing clearances). PI was the bread-and-butter of Berlin Station (and all MI units like it around the world). It was the largest section, and the busiest. I was briefly OIC of PI Team—before they made me an accountant! (Piss me off. I waited for over a year for my own section, doing stints in both CS and CE as an ordinary Special Agent—the same as the NCO’s on the job, with a boss who was maybe six months my senior. Then I finally got a section on 1 February 1973 and a few months later, on 25 May, Colonel Collins handed me orders to take over the spook bank in the basement! Believe me, I am not an accountant. I can only balance my checkbook because I have a calculator!)
[I hope you’ve found my reminiscences of Cold War Berlin interesting and worthwhile. As I’ve been saying, this series isn’t being released on a regular schedule, so I can’t say for certain when part 5 will appear, but I’ve been posting the installments every two or three weeks. So come back sometime later this month to see what comes next. In “Berlin Memoir, Part 5,” I will talk about some of the common activities of my daily—or at least weekly—life as an MI officer in West Berlin. I think you’ll find a lot of it absurd almost to the level of Kafkaesque. I hope you’ll catch it.]