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  • Spies Beneath Berlin
  • David Coleman
David Stafford , Spies Beneath Berlin. London: John Murray, 2002. £7.99.

In April 1956, Soviet officials in East Berlin announced that they had caught the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) red-handed in a brazen act of espionage. With carefully scripted indignation they described to international reporters and photographers they had assembled for the occasion how the CIA had secretly dug a tunnel from the U.S. sector to trespass into the Soviet sector in order to tap subterranean telephone and telegraph cables used for Soviet and East German military communications.

Whereas Soviet and East German officials denounced the Berlin tunnel as a "gangster act," in the West it has been remembered as an audacious CIA triumph: Through a combination of ingenuity and cutting-edge technology, along with a healthy dose of old-fashioned American can-do spirit, a small group of CIA spies overcame daunting logistical challenges to eavesdrop on Soviet military and intelligence communications. Although the CIA has always been outwardly coy in accepting responsibility, it has quietly reveled in the bravado of it all. Allen Dulles, who was CIA director when the operation was planned, implemented, and ultimately betrayed, later described it as "one of the most valuable and daring projects" the agency ever carried out (Allen Dulles, The Craft of Intelligence, New York: Harper & Row, 1963, p.202).

The problem with this conventional telling of the story, as David Stafford points out in Spies beneath Berlin, is that it neglects the key role played by the British intelligence services. The British themselves are partly to blame for this CIA-centric view. When the USSR first announced the discovery of the tunnel, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was visiting London. To avoid complicating the political climate, British and Soviet officials encouraged reporters to believe that the tunnel was an exclusively American adventure. More recently, the British intelligence services have generally remained remarkably tight-lipped about the matter, true to their policy of official silence on intelligence activities. This contrasts with the readiness of some U.S. intelligence agencies and some former Soviet and U.S. officials to shed selective light on their own Cold War secrets. Working with the materials that are now available, scholars have found it much easier to write about the American and—surprisingly—Soviet sides of the story than about the British. But, as is so often true of intelligence history, fact has too often been embellished with fiction. Even some of the more recent accounts—such as David Murphy, Sergei Kondrashev, and George Bailey, Battleground Berlin: CIA vs. KGB in the Cold War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997); and Donald P. Steury, ed., On the Front Lines of the Cold War: Documents on the Intelligence War in Berlin, 1946 to 1961, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: Center for the Study of Intelligence, 2000), pp.299-302—that have helped dispel much of the mythology have reinforced the mistaken view that the Berlin tunnel was, first and foremost, an American operation.

Stafford sets out to redress this misperception. In the process he offers a novel perspective on the operation. His book begins not in Berlin but in Vienna, with an account [End Page 200] of the surveillance operation conducted by the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) that essentially provided the model and inspiration for the Berlin operation. A key figure in this part of the story was the SIS station chief, Peter Lunn, who is dismissed even in the excellent account by Murphy, Kondrashev, and Bailey as merely someone "who had been aware of the [Berlin] tunnel from its inception" (Battleground Berlin, p.252). In reality, as Stafford shows, Lunn was instrumental in both the Vienna and the Berlin operations. Under Lunn's direction, British spies in Vienna dug a series of tunnels that tapped into Soviet communications cables. The CIA was informed about the tunnels at a relatively late stage. The SIS operation proved not only that such undertakings were possible and risky but that they were potentially valuable. Success in Vienna encouraged both British and U.S. intelligence officials to explore the possibility of a similar operation in that other cauldron of Cold...