I like to think I played a role in “winning” the Cold War. I put “winning” in quotation marks because there are times today when I wonder what we won. Be that as it may, we did help bring down the Wall in Berlin, which ultimately led to the total collapse of the Soviet Union and its disintegration into 15 separate countries.
My role in this, as anyone who has been reading these blogs or my novel, McCurry’s War, knows was played out in a top secret listening post in West Berlin in the late 1960s. We had Russian and German linguists in our little abode atop a pile of rubble known as Teufelsberg, or Devil’s Hill. The Soviets knew communications among their troops during Warsaw Pact maneuvers were being monitored. They made the necessary adjustments to insure that no top secret information was revealed.
The East German government officials whose phone calls we were monitoring had no clue. It was probably the best kept secret of the post-World War II era, and it was maintained from the early ‘60s through the fall of the Wall in November 1989. (Actually, it was still classified as top secret right into the 21st century.) As a result, those of us who served there gleaned untold reams of information which, when combined with other sources of information, helped bring about the fall of the Wall.
What if the press were as widely dispersed around the world as they are today and had the investigative prowess they do now? From what I understood at the time, it would have only taken simple capacitors attached to each of the East German microwave dishes to shut us out. If someone had reported that not only were we intercepting sensitive conversations among the East German government officials but how, it would most likely have changed the course of history. At the very least, it would have taken many more years before the Wall was taken down and the Soviet Union collapsed.
Fast forward to the State Department’s August 2, 2013 global travel alert and the order closing diplomatic posts in 22 nations. A number of media outlets learned and subsequently reported that the global alert was issued following intercepts of communications among Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor as al-Qaeda chief in Pakistan, the head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, and other regional terrorist commanders. Did U.S. citizens really need to know the name of the al-Qaeda official who sent the communications and to whom? You can bet whatever form of communication al-Zawahiri used, he’ll find an alternative now.
Are American citizens safer because of this kind get-the-scoop-regardless-of-the-cost reporting? I don’t think so; and, as a former journalist, this is difficult for me to say. We are in a global war with al-Qaeda that is in some ways far more dangerous than the former conflicts. Maybe it is time the government and media representatives began meeting to determine how leaks should really be handled to keep Americans safe.
Don’t hold your breath.