I have been working on a presentation on the Cold War that I hope to bring to groups at area libraries. With the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall taking place next year, there seems to be an increasing interest in the Cold War. Despite the fact that this conflict lasted 45 years, involved tens of thousands of front line troops – none of whom could discuss what their role in the war was when they returned home and resumed their roles in civilian life – and even though it was probably the only significant war America has “won” since World War II, very little is known about its origins and how it was fought.
The reason for this, from my point of view, is that the National Security Agency has retained a tight grip on secrets long after their value has expired.
The NSA operation I was involved in during the late 1960s was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the time. From the top of a hill built from the rubble of post-World War II Berlin, we were able to listen to all telephone conversations in the East German Central Committee, from lowly secretaries all the way up to the iron-hand ruler, Walter Ulbricht. (Oops, I just admitted to something that the NSA apparently still considers secret; more on that later.)
The East Germans could have easily shut the mission down had they known about it and how we managed to intercept the signals. Yet the operation remained viable and produced a strikingly wide breath of significant intelligence from around 1962 until the Wall came down in 1989. That is an impressive run for a secret operation. With the reunification of Germany, the secret part of the operation became meaningless.
In my novel, McCurry’s War, I describe precisely what we did on the Hill and how we did it. Of course it also includes, as one kind reviewer noted “anecdotes about the ridiculous inconsistencies that have always been part of the military chain of command. Like Hawkeye in Mash, McCurry does his best to battle the idiotic rules he must live by with humor and civil disobedience.”
I have been told by members of a Yahoo list of fellow “spooks” from that period that I should have sent my novel to the National Security Agency to have it vetted before it was published. Had I done that, I have a feeling that it might never have seen the light of day.
None of us really know whether the NSA has given up its hold on this secret. However, a couple years ago a list member who served on the Hill at about the same time as I submitted a field station related presentation slated for a national crypto conference to the NSA for vetting. According to this fellow cold warrior, The NSA’s response was, while they would admit to a presence in Berlin, “all else associated directly therewith remains classified.” Although they would gladly accept the presentation, it would never be seen “outside the fence.”