The new Soviet leader had come, as far as we were concerned, out of nowhere. He had already said things never heard from any other Soviet leader, and worse yet for our business, he had withdrawn tank divisions from the five Soviet armies that surrounded us and another tank division each from Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
We had heard it before—thin out one army in order to bring more tank regiments into the adjoining army, or empty a garrison to allow the introduction of some new missile, radar, or gimcrack, but when the divisions began to pack up and actually leave the forward area, we were, in the words of our British colleagues, “gob smacked.”
I was hunched over my scarred desk in a building that bore the architectural signature of Albert Speer. Spread out before me was the Berliner Morgenpost—they didn’t understand Gorbachev either. I had started to re-read a particularly arcane and badly written article when a Army major with Ranger tabs and “Rogers” inscribed on his nametag tapped at my door.
“Got a minute, Sir?
“Come on in.” I recognized him vaguely as one of the members of a very buttoned-up operation down at the end of one of the halls of our sprawling headquarters.
Do you know what ‘unter Vier Augen’ means? It’s German.” He had a guileless face and innocent blue eyes.
“Uh, yeah, I know.” Young whippersnapper, I thought. I made my bones as an agent handler before I rose to the exalted position as Chief of Staff. All the Agents I had recruited were German.
I looked down on the guys who ran Russians. They relied mostly on the drunks and the guys who stole Party funds or slept with the wrong person’s wife. Recruiting Russians was like shooting injured fish in a barrel, all you needed was patience and luck. Recruitment of Germans, on the other hand, was all artistry. I trolled for the ones that hated to be bossed around by the Untermenschen Russians, and for the ones who felt the crushing weight of Nazi guilt. Recruiting Germans was all about history and politics, and occasionally Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen or the Horst Wessel Lied.
“Well, what’s it mean?” Rogers still stood there with his head cocked a little to one side.
“Unter Vier Augen? It means something like ‘eyes only,’ well, no, that’s too strong, more like ‘strictly between us’ I guess; it’s literally ‘under four eyes.’ Why are you asking? I thought you guys strictly worked the Russian problem.”
“Yeah, that’s right, but we just saw that phrase right in the middle of something special. Everything else is in Russian, encrypted in ‘Commander’s key.’ That phrase was in German, and in the clear.”
“What was the rest of the message about?”
“We don’t know. We can’t read that stuff. Maybe somewhere higher up, I’m not sure,” he shrugged. “We’ve got a guy at the Kommendatura who photographs message blanks for us. It’s all between army commanders and up.”
“Yeah, so which commanders? Do you know that?
“Yeah, Two Guards Tank, and Twenty Guards Army,” he said. “Two Guards Tank is apparently the one doing the inviting.” He spoke in the shorthand of the order of battle analysts. The Second Guards Tank Army faced NATO across the Inter-German border. The Twentieth Guards Army was in the second echelon lined up behind the other four frontline armies.
“So two army commanders want to have a secret meeting?”
“What?” the young major blinked, “how do you know that?”
“That’s what unter Vier Augen implies, don’t you think?”
“Hmmm,” he looked puzzled. He was probably a section chief, but his team, composed of a few old Department of the Army Civilians and a few bright-as-buttons young enlisted folks, did the mental heavy lifting.
“So, do you have any guesses?”
“I need to go talk to my analysts. If Postnikov wants to do anything in secret, it can’t be good.” The major had a discomforted look on his face.
“You better tell me more.” I admitted it; I didn’t follow the details of our intelligence anymore. That was a game for the kids. I was more in the line of writing deathless prose to serve as cannon fodder for the next CBJB. For me, The Congressional Budget Justification Book often became a lot more important than servicing a dead drop, or even trolling for new agents. I spent half my time conjuring fantasies for congressmen and the other half arguing with the German police to turn loose a young soldier or airman who had over-imbibed. The joke among our troops was that the Germans have pills that will cure anything—it’s called Kindl Pils. Kindl was the local Berliner swill; it was awful stuff, but every generation of kids had to learn their limitations in turn.
“Well, you’re cleared of course, Sir,” Rogers said, “but our stuff is usually just about OB changes, nothing to take to the top.”
“This might be something big, so keep me in the loop, and send someone to tell me a little bit about General-Major Postnikov.”
Intelligence may stream in with abandon these days—at least that’s the impression you get if you watch CNN—but in those days it came in agonizing little trickles. We sat in the “Berlin Platform” right in the middle of five Soviet armies, but everything we knew came as the result of hard work, good luck, and quite often, Soviet stupidity.
Since 1945 we victorious allies had divided up the city by treaty. The wartime camaraderie between us had not lasted and we Western allies were stuck in the Soviets’ craw. They tried manfully to dislodge us in 1948; and we responded with the Berlin Airlift. In 1961, in a lightning operation, they cut the great city in half, first with barbed wire and tanks, and eventually with a big wall; but we were still there.
Our contribution to the city’s defense was a force called the “Berlin Brigade.” They were three battalions of the Sixth Infantry Regiment—real soldiers. The rest of us were the ash and trash of intelligence, and it is almost certain we outnumbered them.
For our part we tapped telephones, steamed open mail, serviced dead drops, and communicated with agents on the other side of the wall that completely surrounded us. We flew intelligence missions through the three air corridors that fed the city from the Western zone.
Each of the allies, including the Soviets, maintained a “liaison mission.” By this point in the Cold War the missions were legalized intelligence collectors. All the allied missions crossed into Soviet-occupied Germany at the Gleinicke Bridge—the famous Bridge of Spies.
The kind of people who gravitated to these missions had ice water instead of blood in their veins, and an unquenchable need for adrenalin. We had Rangers, a Special Forces colonel, a fighter pilot, an Air Commando, and even a Marine intelligence officer who was alleged to be able to outrun a T-80 tank on flat ground while simultaneously taking high quality photos.
We waited and wondered about what was implied by Unter Vier Augen and the days crept past. Our reconnaissance people reminded us that more and more of the giant containers that preceded a withdrawal were showing up at more and more garrisons. A few analysts back in the U.S. gamely kept up the drumbeat call of “it’s a trick,” but more and more it seemed like something big was getting ready to happen—we just didn’t know what.
Perestroika, Glasnost, “a common European home,” the hits just kept on coming. Even Maggie Thatcher thought Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was someone with whom we could do business. The military intelligence guys just kept digging and trying to figure out what was going on—with little success.
After a few days a canny-looking old Warrant officer appeared at my office. He had come to talk about General Major Timofej Andreevich Postnikov, current commander of Two Guards Tank.
“You know about his troubles in the Far East, right, Sir?”
“No, ‘fraid not, I haven’t worked this side of things for a while, give me the dummy version.”
“Well, Postnikov is kind of a hard case. Extreme Russian nationalist, I guess you’d say. He commanded a Spetsnaz unit in Afghanistan. He was fairly famous for a bunch of atrocities. The Mujahidin ambushed one of his teams and wiped ‘em out. Killed everybody, mutilated the bodies, the whole nine yards. Postnikov went into a couple of villages and killed a hundred Afghan civilians for every lost Russian.”
“So he got in trouble in Afghanistan, right?”
“No, actually he got promoted. At first some people apparently thought he was a big hero. He was posted to the Far East Military District. That was where he got in trouble,” he said. “It was in, I don’t know, Omsk or someplace. He started giving speeches about the ‘cancer at the heart of the Party’ and that kind of stuff, and saying that the deaths of Russian soldiers pointed a bloody sword directly at the Kremlin.”
“So how come he’s out out here?”
The Warrant officer looked straight in my face; “I think he’s out here where the Third Chief Directorate can keep an eye on him. They’re scared to have him too close to Moscow.”
“KGB Third Chief Directorate?” I knew they held the charter for military counterintelligence, and they were everywhere in the forward area—far more plentiful than they were anywhere else in the Soviet orbit.
“Yeah, we heard they’re all over him,” the Warrant Officer said.
“So, what do you think is going on with this meeting with Twenty Guards Army?”
He stared at the wall for a long beat. “Two big possibilities, I guess; either they are going to be talking about starting a war with us, to focus attention on the danger to the Party, or maybe they are thinking about a coup against Gorbachev.”
“Wow, you guys are thinking big, scary thoughts.”
“Yessir, I wish I could tell you we know something solid. You need to talk to Major Rogers, Sir.”
It was a few days before the Führer’s birthday—April 20—when the pieces began to fall together. It was cold, rainy, and foggy. Winter was holding out to the bitter end.
Rogers came in to my office clutching a message. “We got lucky. We know where the meeting is going to take place.”
“You know the Ludwigslust Training area?”
“Vaguely, I got chased through there by the VOPOs one night a few years ago. Not a place I’d want to visit again.”
“It’s inside a Permanently Restricted Area.”
“PRA’s haven’t stopped us before,” I said. “We need to know what they’re talking about.”
“Yeah it’s risky, but that’s not the problem.” Major Rogers was thinking hard.
“It looks like the meeting is planned for a big open field. It’s the site of an old Panzerkaserne, nothing left, just foundations; there are no buildings to bug.”
“When is this going to happen?”
“About a month from now,” Rogers said, “Postnikov is apparently waiting for something.”
“A big open field. That doesn’t sound good.”
“I think the Third Chief Directorate is listening to these guys everywhere. They’re probably way more scared of their own counterintelligence folks than they are of us.”
“I need to reach out to some people I know, see if anything is even possible.”
I called Sam Poston of the FBI. I think they have all kinds of special phones, even video, today; but then there was nothing at all that would let us talk securely to anyone outside the Department of Defense. I called the Autovon operator and booked a call to a regular phone number in Virginia, imagine that.
“Hey, Sam, You got time to see a visitor from Berlin?
“That you Bill? Sure, always. Even got new gadgets to play with. When are you coming?”
“Let’s say tomorrow, late afternoon. I’ll call when I’m at Dulles.”
“See you then.”
We did have mobile telephones then. They were called “bricks,” and that was a perfect description of their size and weight. Nobody carried one in his pocket, and when I said I’d call it meant the old fashioned way—by dropping quarters in a machine bolted to the wall.
Sam Poston’s office was in a grubby little Virginia suburb, next to a tire store. No gleaming Hoover Building office for him. He was from the technical side, one of the guys who took the black art of acoustic surveillance to the very edges of the frontier.
“So, to what do I owe this great honor?” Sam was a sardonic character, and he was perhaps the last person on Earth who might be impressed with the gravity of this potential situation in Germany, but he was a total sucker for a tough technical challenge.
“I’ve got a big problem, Sam. I have two people meeting outside in a field that is approximately five hundred meters by five hundred meters. Got it?”
I could see the wheels starting to turn in his head.
“They are going to talk about something important. They don’t want anyone to know the subject. Shotgun mikes are out—no cover. I can get access to the field maybe a few hours before they arrive—it will be dark when I can get this access.”
“Oh, yeah, this is good.” He was beginning to rub his hands together and I could almost see him salivate.
“It’s possible the area might be swept. Can’t have a bunch of wires all over the place.”
“No, for sure.”
“So, could you figure out a way to do this?”
“Is this somewhere where somebody, say the targets, could sweep the spectrum?”
“Can the bad guys listen to your radio transmissions? Like would this be in your backyard, or their backyard?”
“Oh, definitely in their backyard.”
“And could you get back to this place to retrieve equipment and data and stuff? I mean could the same—uh guys—who put the gadgets in go back and get them?” Sam looked up at me with some wacky idea clear on his face.
“Yeah, if we need to.”
“I’d like to have them back, they’re the only ones.” Sam had a paternalistic look.
“These are things that you made? You personally?” I was getting a sinking feeling. We routinely lost equipment in situations like this. I’d never risk my collectors to go back after a piece of silicon and wire; I hoped Sam could forgive me if it came to that.
He nodded, proud papa. “You have to retrieve them; you need some way to get the data.”
Sam dropped the other shoe; if we didn’t retrieve his precious gadgets, we wouldn’t have the take. “Oh, I get it,” I said. “The things record on board, huh? They must be huge.”
Sam got a sly little smile, “oh not so huge. Let’s go take a look.”
He led me to a lab, gave me a white coat and a hairnet and little booties to go over my shoes. “What do you think?” He opened a metal cupboard, pulled out a wide, flat tray and displayed a bunch of little things that might have been strung together to make a very stylish gold and crystal necklace.
“Wow, they’re beautiful.”
Sam preened, “this is just the guts of course, I have some slender little spikes that they fit into. They’ll take a lot of ‘G’s.’ We’ve hammered them into a concrete block in tests.”
“And where are the recorders and the power supplies?”
“Nope, this is all there is. All integrated. The spike is the whole thing. Sound activated. The recording is on a new medium—very hush hush. It’s all in the processing. See, we lay out a grid and then we—“
“Sam, I’m like a pig looking at a wristwatch. You can’t possibly simplify it enough for me to understand. Is there any chance you could come to Berlin to process the data when we retrieve it?”
“Yeah, I told you; we’re in their back yard. We can bring you in TDY, flights, food, lodging, all that,” I waved my hands in a motion that was meant to dispel all the complexities of interagency fund transfers.
“Maybe,” he said, “I guess.”
“This thing’ll probably happen by the end of the month, and it might take a few days to retrieve your babies. You’ll have plenty of warning. So, I could carry your equipment back to Berlin tomorrow.”
Sam looked like a mother preparing to send little Johnny and Suzie off to the first grade, but then he nodded, “Yeah, Okay.”
When I talked to the collectors I got the knowing looks they always had when we proposed to put their lives on the line and then refused to tell them what they were after.
“I might need a little job done in the Ludwigslust training area,” I said.
“Inside a PRA,” the colonel said.
“Yeah, I know, but—“
A lanky Air Force captain with the mischievous looks of an eight-year-old raised a finger. “Yeah, we wouldn’t want to violate a PRA, but there is a really good hide site right around here.” He indicated a heavily forested area just south of my target. “We go in there to sleep sometimes when the bad guys are chasing us. They never think to look inside a PRA.”
“You could get in there?”
“We try not to do it too often, but, yeah . . . Sir.” The captain studied his nails. The colonel turned to look darts at him.
“When?” The colonel was a stand-up guy, but he was a little prickly when it came to matters of turf.
“Sometime toward the end of the month. I need someone to plant some sensors.” Eyebrows went up.
“What, to record the new T-80?” The collectors knew all there was to know about technical intelligence collection. They had done it all before.
“Something like that. I’ll train two guys. It has to be limited to the two who are going to do the job.” The colonel gave me the fish eye, but he pointed at the captain. “Take your driver. You two know the area.”
“Yessir.” The captain had a laid-back look about him, but I knew it masked spring steel underneath, He was nuts, and his driver-a young NCO from the Midwest—was a certifiable adrenalin junkie. This pair had penetrated onto a Soviet airbase through a big hole in the perimeter fence and ranged far and wide. They left the base by driving the hulking, camouflaged Mission vehicle out through the main gate. The sentry had snapped a salute, then a classic double take as he realized that he was facing two foreigners wearing bizarre-looking Night Vision Goggles. Yeah, they would do fine.
Came the eve of the great secret meeting, my collectors slid into the training area, concealing their entry by mixing their tracks among the jillions of churned-up trails of T-62’s and 72’s. They hid in the underbrush until the last of the Soviet units departed and then they were all over that field like a rash, planting Sam’s little spike mikes and carefully documenting their positions.
Back at Headquarters I was sweating bullets. In due course the captain and his driver appeared, covered in mud and grinning like possums. I said, “You guys know you’re going to have to go back there, right?
“Sure, sir,” the driver made a steering wheel in the air with his two hands. “Piece ‘a cake. Right now though, I think they might be a little stirred up. We saw more KGB in there than I knew existed.” He stopped with a look of puzzlement, “you know, it was almost like they weren’t looking for us.”
I called Sam and got him saddled up to come out. I got hold of Major Rogers and told him he was Sam’s caretaker. “Major, I want you to do whatever he wants, but don’t let him get into any trouble.”
“In Berlin, Sir? How could that happen?” Rogers’ face split into a sly grin.
“I’m not kidding. And the first second he has anything from these tapes or whatever they are, I want to know. This could be really critical. You give me the word and I’ll set up a NOIWON most rikky tik.”
Rogers rolled his eyes at my outdated Viet-Nam era slang. But he nodded. The National Operational Intelligence Watch Officer's Network was a big deal back in the day, and if we were convening that cast of worthies it meant there was probably big trouble in the offing.
He snapped a salute and turned without another word.
It was almost nine long hours later when he returned with Sam in tow. The looks on their faces made me think somebody’s favorite cat had died.
“What? Don’t make me wait.”
“My little sensors worked great,” Sam said, “we reconstructed ninety percent of the discussion.” But for some reason, he was not smiling.
“For God’s sake, Major, what was it? Did you do the translation in person?”
“Yessir. It wasn’t what we thought.”
“What do you mean?”
“It was about stolen cars.”
“Postnikov told General Nemtsev he had more than a thousand cars stolen from the West. You should have heard him ‘Sieben Reihe Beh Em Veh, Ferarri, Porsche Turbo, Grossser Mercedes,” Rogers mocked Postnikov’s pronunciation. “He was asking Nemtsev to see if he can get some more shipping containers. The general can seal them and there’s no inspection. State secret and all, y’know? He said they could make millions off these stolen cars in Moscow.”
“Well, I’ll be damned. They really are going.”
“Not only that, this guy we thought was Superman, he’s nothing but a crook.” Rogers looked as if some warrior faith had been shattered.
I went back to the office and wrote a cable. I warned that the information came from an unimpeachable source of proven reliability. I stated in the most direct possible terms: The Group Soviet Forces, Germany is being withdrawn from the forward area. They are going all the way home.
Churchill had it right. It was not yet the beginning of the end, but it was certainly the end of the beginning.
I went home after that tour, and soon ended up in arms control. We negotiated in good faith, NATO on one side and the signatories to the Warsaw Pact on the other, and then one day, all the opponents were gone.
We never got Nemtsev’s answer to Postnikov’s proposition, but by the end of summer The Group Soviet Forces Germany was gone, and the Berlin Wall was close behind them.
I’m pretty sure Nemtsev went along with the idea, because I saw him a few years ago in London. He is now one of the new class of Russian “biznesmenij.” He was all Saville Row and Turnbull and Asser, with a Bentley standing by to whisk him to the country estate. He must have gotten a great start from that stolen car gig.
Postnikov soared even higher. He got into politics, fronting for new oligarchs who arose from the rotten corpse of the Soviet petroleum industry. He soared high enough on money and rhetoric that he caught the attention of some of his political competition. Last I heard Postnikov was doing ten years in some slimy prison somewhere. It’s not a good idea to cross swords with Brother Putin and his boys.
Lots of history, and it all started with a little meeting unter Vier Augen.