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Spying on Science: Western Intelligence in Divided Germany, 1945–1961 (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 49, Number 2, April 2008
pp. 486-487 | 10.1353/tech.0.0036

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

For much of the cold war, academics and journalists interested in examining cold war intelligence had limited documentary resources with which to work. As files from both sides of the Iron Curtain have become increasingly available, it has become possible to shed new light on cold war intelligence operations. Paul Maddrell has done just that in his account of Western (specifically British, U.S., and West German) intelligence activities in Germany from the end of World War II to the building of the Berlin Wall. Bracketed between his introduction and conclusion are ten chapters which, inter alia, focus on the extraction of intelligence from refugees and defectors, returning prisoners of war, spies recruited by a variety of means, intercepted letters and monitored telecommunications, the British military liaison mission to East Germany (Brixmis), and covertly installed sensor systems.

What Spying on Science makes very evident is that Western intelligence aggressively employed every conceivable technique and strategy to gather intelligence on Soviet technology, particularly military technology. Thus, intelligence organizations assiduously targeted individuals for defection, they were sure to mine those crossing over to the West for whatever intelligence they could provide and whatever leads they would give to potential recruits for espionage, and they recruited those willing to spy in exchange for money or a future in the West. Among the espionage coups was America's recruiting of a dentist who treated members of the SED Central Committee and who fitted a camera into a dental tool. Meanwhile, U.S. or British agents attached Geiger counters to railway lines running to the Soviet Union so that the radioactivity of material being transported could be measured. The result was intelligence on topics ranging from Soviet atomic capabilities and facilities to electronics.

Beyond his portrayal of the Western intelligence effort,Maddrell makes two additional points. He describes how the effort to induce defection was not simply a means of obtaining intelligence, but also an act of economic warfare—as it was expected that successful defections would undermine East Germany's industrial capability, causing further problems for the regime. In addition, he makes a credible case that the collection effort within Germany represented a significant intelligence breakthrough in the years before the U-2 and satellites—even though it was a limited breakthrough and the value of the intelligence gathered, particularly from refugees, defectors, and returned prisoners of war, would have become outdated with the passage of time.

To produce his incredibly detailed account, Maddrell relies on two sets of primary source materials—the British National Archives and the files of the East German Ministry for State Security (MfS). A significant number of the book's one-thousand-plus footnotes refer to documents from those groups of records. Maddrell has also mined secondary sources in English and German. What is largely missing are primary sources from the United States. Discussions of American (and West German) intelligence operations, when derived from primary sources, come almost exclusively from British or MfS files.

There are two other limitations to Maddrell's book. It would have benefited from an early overview of the organizations in Washington and London, as well as in the field, that gathered and analyzed the intelligence collected across Germany—which ranged from the well-known (the CIA and British Secret Intelligence Service) to the obscure (the West German Main Office for Questioning). In addition, while Maddrell's final chapter concerns the use of the intelligence gathered, the focus here is largely on how that intelligence spurred further collection efforts—particularly the targeting of the U-2 spy plane and the earliest reconnaissance satellites. While it would be expecting too much for any author to be able to specify precisely how the intelligence gathered influenced U.S. and British assessments of Soviet capabilities, it would have been useful and interesting to try to compare how assessments changed, in terms of details and conclusions, in response to the data being gathered in Germany.

But the bottom line is that Maddrell's book is an example of what can be accomplished by a dedicated author and is a significant contribution to the history of cold war intelligence.

Jeffrey T. Richelson  

Jeffrey Richelson is with the National Security Archive...