British historian Stafford (Roosevelt and Churchill, 2000, etc.) casts a revealing torchlight on an obscure and odd episode in the Cold War espionage game.
It’s not much comfort to know, as the author recalls, that British schoolchildren in the 1950s feared nuclear annihilation as much as their American (and, presumably, Soviet) contemporaries. Neither is it much comfort to read of the astonishing incompetence that seems to have marked Allied efforts to spy on the Reds. Stafford provides a meaty case in point: a daring project in which American and British intelligence agents tunneled half a mile into the Soviet sector of Berlin to set up a listening post by which they could intercept Russian and East German transmissions. Allen Dulles, then head of the CIA, called the Stopwatch/Gold tunnel “one of the most valuable and daring projects ever undertaken,” and by all rights it should have worked, to judge by the success of similar capers in Vienna. Trouble was, the Soviets knew about the tunnel before an ounce of dirt was removed from the construction site, thanks to the diligent work of a British double agent named George Blake, one of many Secret Intelligence Service employees in the employ of the KGB. Strangely, the Soviets did not take full advantage of this opportunity to disseminate disinformation; instead, while they gave out enough mixed signals to keep the West on its toes—as one CIA report had it, “Intelligence is inconclusive as to whether or not the Soviet intention is to precipitate a global war now”—they also used transmissions into the tunnel to assure the Allies that they weren’t about to launch a first-strike nuclear attack. The Soviets finally dug up the tunnel in 1961, not long before Allied agents figured out what Blake had been up to; a 15-meter section is now preserved in a Berlin museum. To judge by Stafford’s account, it’s amazing the Cold War turned out the way it did.
Good stuff for le Carré fans.