Friday, January 22, 2021

SIT

I read about the death of George Blake, a Cold War double agent in December of 2020 and my mind went directly to January 1962. I knew about Operation Gold mentioned in the article, but not its name at the time. That operation betrayed by Blake was a joint mission of the British and U.S. intelligence agencies to dig a tunnel underneath East Berlin to tap Soviet phone lines in the early 1950s. The article didn’t tell of other operations with the same goal. I also remembered a 1990s Public Broadcasting special on a CIA cave in Berlin where England’s Office of Strategic Services had also operated.

One of the missions of the intelligence services at the time I was stationed in Frankfurt was special interests targeting (SIT). The PBS special showed the NSA’s Teufelsberg listening post but did not mention that the ASA operated it. I hadn’t known about it until my 1962 visit.

Berlin courier was one of our duties and my second trip to Berlin was initially in the guise of courier. We were normally scheduled in advance, but I got a night call to report. I thought I was a last-minute replacement. My armed escort I and got to Berlin, and a Second Lieutenant met us with a change of orders. I’d say someone knew all along what was happening but just kept me out of the loop for security reasons. The LT had authorized keys for the handcuffs, so I figured everything was OK. He and the escort went on their way and the sergeant that was with him took me to Teufelsberg.

A sergeant had me put tape on my dog tags and exchange my dress uniform for civilian clothing. He instructed me to not discuss anything, including not introducing myself, and took me to a room where several others were seated. There were five of them, six if the man in charge is included. I recognized him from an assignment in Frankfurt. I thought he was from NSA that oversaw the ASA’s activities. I had contact with him later and found out he was with the CIA.

Except for him, I didn’t know any of the men before that day and never contact with any of them again. I believe to this day that the former was by design and the latter is just coincidence. In fact, all including me were in casual civilian clothing for the briefing, so I don’t know if I was the only one in the Army.

The mission was not given to us until we were transported to an entrance to a subway tunnel that opened in West Berlin, ran under East Berlin, and opened at the other end in West Berlin. Four of us were given tools, and small battery powered microwave transmitter-receivers with mounted parabolic dish antennae.

If one looks at the internet, the tunnels that we went into, but were blocked at the surface are clearly identified, but I had no idea then and don’t know today which one we entered. We were instructed to just follow the guy in charge in single file.

One man was dropped at the tunnel entrance with a set of equipment. The rest of us stopped at a slightly wider place in the tunnel about fifty meters from the entrance (obviously pre-determined) and set up a line of sight mini-parabolic antenna. Slightly wider was a true description – the place was just one-half meter deep. And the train car edges ran just outside rocking distance (about ¼ meter from the tunnel walls). We were cautioned that trains were scheduled every fifteen minutes and inattention to that schedule would be disastrous to the mission and even more to one who would have less than ten inches between the train and the wall.

The next ‘wide place’ was about 300 meters from the second and the third was about 300 meters more. The first train thundered past with three of us squeezed into the third indentation. One man and a setup were left there then the last two of us and the supervisor went to the fourth place and took the hinges off a metal cabinet hanging on the wall.

We used a special signal identifying device to determine which lines were live then connected them to a device that would transmit each live line at a different frequency. Each of our pickup devices was also equipped with a miniature a remote-control thermite grenade. Thermites were not explosives but produced enough heat to destroy the entire pickup device. Thermites were also mounted on the microwave antennas. We got a pulse letting us know the monitoring system was working, then started the 1200-meter (3/4th mile) run to the tunnel entrance.

Each of us was picked up individually. I don’t know where any of the others went, but the taxi I’d been escorted to dropped me off at one of our Berlin compounds as if I’d been on an overnight pass. My return trip to Frankfurt was as if I was returning from courier duty.

I never knew if the operation was fruitful or not, but we did get our part done. When being interviewed for a CIA job, neither the man I knew, nor I brought opened a dialog about it.

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