Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Spies Beneath Berlin (ORTV/Discovery, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I eventually watched a TV show PBS had recently aired as a filler after the big special on “D-Day’s Sunken Secrets”: Spies Beneath Berlin, a 2011 special, originally produced for the Discovery Channel by something called ORTV, about a daring operation launched by U.S. and British intelligence in the mid-1950’s to dig a tunnel from a building in West Berlin under East Berlin so they could tap the phone lines of a Soviet military facility in East Berlin and get advance news of what the Russians were planning — and, in particular, warning in case they were about to launch a nuclear attack. The CIA and its British equivalent, MI6, planned this — though the British still regard it as classified and therefore no British officials were allowed to be at the event at which the project and the people who worked on it were acknowledged. The tunnel worked through most of 1955 and was built after two people who worked for the East German phone company alerted Western intelligence to the existence of this Soviet communications center — and it was compromised even before it was built because the minutes of the meeting at which its construction was planned were taken by George Blake, a Soviet double agent within MI6 who believed in the ideological superiority of Soviet-style socialism and apparently was willing to betray his country without pay in the service of this higher cause. The most fascinating part of the story was that the KGB allowed the tunnel to exist for nearly a year — until heavy rains in East Berlin led to its “accidental” discovery in November 1955 — and neither exposed it nor fed disinformation through it because protecting George Blake as an intelligence asset was more important than any potential compromise to their intelligence position (not that different from the way the Brits had let Coventry be bombed during World War II rather than risk letting the Germans know they had broken their Enigma code). Blake was finally caught and arrested in 1961 but daringly escaped five years later, then made it to the Soviet Union, where he was granted asylum, wrote his memoirs (extensively quoted on this program) and lives to this day; his story was the subject of Alfred Hitchcock’s last script, The Short Night, a project Hitch worked on sporadically from 1977 to 1979 (a year before his death) until he realized he was not going to be in physical shape to direct another film.