At the end of this month, I am scheduled to give a presentation on the Cold War at an area bookshop, including, of course, the role of Mike McCurry, the main character in my novel, McCurry’s War. As a result, I have been re-examining the notes I have made over the years as well as the role played by what are now being referred to as the “cold warriors.”
To many Americans, the Cold War is just a figure of speech, a way of explaining the tension that existed between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In reality, it was a hard-fought war, a war waged not on a field of battle but behind the closed doors of top secret listening posts around the world. It was a war that lasted 46 years and ended when the Soviet Union dissolved into 15 separate nations in 1991.
The National Security Agency, which emerged as the leading entity of the Cold War, was created in 1952. Some accounts indicated that its creation was the result of the squabbles that developed between civilian and Armed Forces intelligence-gathering organizations. Other sources – and the ones I believe are the closest to reality – contend that the NSA was formed because the Central Intelligence Agency was failing miserably in its efforts to infiltrate agents into the Soviet Union. It came from a recognition that signal intelligence was the wave of the future in the field of espionage.
The Army Security Agency was created specifically to supply the NSA with its staffing requirements around the world. Recruiting officials were told to cull out potential recruits with particularly high test scores and funnel them on to the ASA recruiter. These became the soldiers of the Cold War – armed with language skills for covert listening posts, analytical skills for unearthing actionable intelligence from raw data, radio intercept skills and a host of others.
The Army Security Agency, during its zenith from about 1961 until 1976 when it was absorbed into Military Intelligence (an oxymoron both then and now) was considered one of the most successful intelligence-gathering operations of the post-World War II era. As Mike McCurry would say, this is undoubtedly because it was overseen by civilians.
The NSA was unparalleled in its ability to maintain a cloak of secrecy over its operations. It was often referred to by those who had worked within its walls as No Such Agency. The operation I was part of on Teufelsberg in West Berlin remained classified for at least 20 years after the hill was abandoned in 1989.
This kind of secrecy often baffled me. Why would the NSA maintain top secret classification on long-abandoned intelligence operations that had no relevance to today’s espionage activities? Now that Edward Snowden has pierced the veil of secrecy surrounding the NSA, documents are emerging that explain a lot. In the case of Teufelsberg, we were listening in on the private telephone conversations of East German Central Committee members, all the way up to and including its leader at the time, Walter Ulbricht. Someone made the decision that this could conceivably become an embarrassment kept the information from becoming public by maintaining its top secret classification.
It will be interesting – particularly for us “cold warriors” – to see what else comes to light in the years to come.