Strange things took place at the end of the Cold War. It was all the war many of us had ever known. This is a fiction story, but the millieu is real enough.
Some of our leaders were the "rough men" from previous conflicts and they often questioned, just as we did, whether the incessant meetings with former foes were real or fantasy. This is an extract from a novel called "The Goodbye Kiss." Some here have read parts of it before. Perhaps someday you may read it all.
My thanks to our host for sharing many memories of the time and for being a good writing partner.
For me, it was scutwork.
The end of the Cold War, at least my part of it, came with bewildering rapidity. It shouldn’t have been that way, I admit. Our jobs in West Berlin clearly involved understanding what was going on “Drüben.” It was German for “over there,” and that’s we called the East. Of course in Berlin it wasn’t just east in direction it was all around us.
Since the occupation zones were set up at the end of the war we had been smack in the middle of five Soviet armies. It was the new kind of normal. Politicians on the Potomac wailed and gnashed teeth about the dreaded “Fulda Gap,” and the threat of marauding Soviet Armor, but sitting literally inside the Group Soviet Forces, Germany we didn’t think about it all that much. We carried on spying as normal.
When Gorbachev came we began to hear unthinkable things. “Common European Home,” “Perestroiks,” even Maggie Thatcher opined that Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev was one with whom we could do business. When Ronald Reagan said “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” he ruined our business.
When the giant packing crates began to appear at army garrisons all over the Forward Area we were puzzled, but when the units actually began to load armor on special trains and cross the border into Poland en route to the Moscow Military District we were stunned.
It didn’t take long for our masters to decide we didn’t really care that much about East Germany, indeed it was clear that soon there would be only a single Germany, and it would be the one that was already a NATO partner. In short, I was out of a job.
I headed home to Washington. For a while, in time-honored tradition, I walked the halls of our massive Headquarters, but this time it was different. A case officer with no agents is one thing, but a case officer with no target at all is quite different.
I found some employment translating Stasi documents that we had purchased for two cents on the Östmark from East German agent handlers who had enough sense to steal something to sell as they bailed out of their respective agencies. I was lucky to have my natively fluent German. The competition for Russian-language-required jobs was impossibly intense.
I was bored silly. People kept telling me Washington was the happy hunting ground for eligible bachelors, but the gaping wound that Trudi left where my heart should have been was still far too painful, and too prone to bleed again at any provocation. She was my best agent, lodged deep in the Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung—East Germany’s foreign espionage service.
My teachers taught me well, I was the perfect hard-hearted empath, able to relate to my agents without caring much for their long-term prospects. They forgot to teach me, though, about the deadly hazards of falling in love while engaged in what was supposed to be a strict business proposition.
Trudi was gone. She died in a senseless traffic accident when I tried to get her out of the zone with an excellent set of papers. We kept current escape packages for our agents, but I didn’t use Trudi’s package. I didn’t trust our own people to keep her safe. I used the connections that all case officers cultivate to skirt the system, but it ended badly for Trudi, and for me.
I was on the treadmill of mediocrity; I was drinking too much and staring too much at blank walls. I was going nowhere, and I knew it.
Finally, one of the Dons of military intelligence—an old hand in the HUMINT business—took pity on me. He was to lead a delegation to Budapest. We had been invited to go play kissy-face with the Hungarians who were just dying to make some new contacts. Even I could see that the Soviets were about to disappear like the Cheshire cat, leaving behind only a grimace, and the Hungarians were way ahead of me.
I was cheap labor. The delegation leader called me in for an interview. He was a cold-eyed Irishman with the soft hands of a renaissance nobleman. His manners were courtly, but I could feel him probing me without showing any cards.
“You operated in Hungary?”
“Under cover as a German businessman, fully backstopped.”
“They have photos of you?”
“No doubt; border crossing stuff mainly, and probably some street surveillance,” I could feel a thousand confessions about my meetings with Trudi struggling to burst from my lips, but I thought that might just be too much detail. “They never rousted me, if that’s what you mean, but their watchers are damned good, I couldn’t promise they never made me.”
“It’s good you’re honest,” he said, “I get case officers in here every day telling me nobody ever saw them, they think they’re all just like a puff of smoke, but it’s usually a fantasy.”
I nodded. I knew it was true.
“I think you’ll do. Keep your mouth shut, stay against the wall and watch the crowd. I want your feelings, your observations, are we really having an exchange, or are they just blowing smoke up my ass?” His blue eyes showed not a trace of levity, he was deadly serious. “It’s easy to get caught up in the newfound friends thing,” he said, “I don’t believe in fairytales.”
“You worked with Hungarians before, Sir.” It wasn’t so much a question as a probability.
“Worse,” he let a tight little smile spread across his face, “Arabs.”
When it came time they slapped me into a new alias, and sent me out for a makeover. A smart, middle-aged blonde from Langley assessed me as if I were a piece of meat. “There are a few things we can do.” When she was finished I had shoe-polish black hair in place of my normal sandy color, and a pair of brown-tinted contact lenses that were decidedly uncomfortable. I couldn’t argue though. When I looked in a mirror it was a stranger looking back. She gave me small device to put in my mouth that promised to change my speech. I protested that I had been told to keep my mouth shut.
She smiled in a motherly way and said, “Excellent. It will work even better that way.”
The Don didn’t bother to introduce me to his team, and I literally sat off to the side. To the Hungarians he presented me as his personal assistant. They seemed to understand without further explanation.
The team was wined and dined as if the Austro-Hungarian Empire was still in flower. Hungary might have been an economic basket case, but no one would have known from the level of treatment we received.
We had broken bread multiple times with our Hungarian counterparts. The riches of Budapest had been paraded; the obligatory tours to historical sites had been dutifully attended. We made the appropriate “oohs” and “ahs,” and finally we sat arrayed across from each other, case officers from opposing sides, with me sitting behind our leader. I was as silent as the grand mute. I felt invisible, but clearly I wasn’t. When I later arrived in Vienna the Hungarians spotted me as a ringer before any of the other delegations.
The AVO agent handlers were the hard core, revelations came slowly and only with much prodding. Coffee was brought, then pastries, and inexplicably Coca Cola, and then, at last, two bottles of Asbach Uralt, a fine German Cognac. There were ornate trays and tiny gold-chased glasses; finally something that might have been mistaken for fellowship began to be seen.
One of our case officers began, “There was a person we knew as Shröder, Hans Kliment Shröder, an employee of the U.S. Army at Wiesbaden, 1985 to 87, does the name seem familiar?
On the other side of the table there was a stirring. A graying man nodded and leaned forward, “He was mine—’Hegyi János.’ Wiesbaden? That was not I.”
“Hegyi was your agent?” His interlocutor pursued.
“Yes, but not against you,” a brief shake of the head, the English very precise now, “I ran him against the British—BAOR,” he said the acronym for the British Army of the Rhein, “in Rheindahlen for two years and then I had some problems,” he lapsed into silence. There was a look on his face as if he had just had a tooth pulled.
“What was he doing in Wiesbaden?”
The case officer swallowed, a disbelieving look spreading down from his eyes. “He was uncontrollable. I thought you had turned him.”
“So when we burned him?”
“We thought you were trying to send him back to us—a clumsy penetration, you know?”
“We suspected him,” the American said, “but we could never prove anything. We pulled his tickets, he left of his own accord.”
The graying Hungarian case officer looked down at his knuckles. “We interrogated him, he claimed innocence; we held him—” he paused for a long time, straightened his fingers and looked closely at his nails. “He died.”
“What about one of yours?” A Hungarian with a thin, aristocratic face started slowly. “His name was Nagy”— he said it with the soft ‘j’—from Pennsylvania. “His Hungarian was good, and he had been in your signals intelligence. He said he wanted to defect.”
On our side glances went back and forth. “Nope, not ours.”
“Did you send Ferenc Gabor?” A lob came from our side of the table.
There was mirth, “A fool, a clown, surely you don’t think he was ours?”
“We caught him with a thousand NATO documents on microfilm.” Shrugs, blank looks.
Slowly the volleying gained speed, names were proposed, admissions made, or protests lodged, the case officers from opposing sides somehow began to resemble each other; there were rapacious grins and puffed out chests, sometimes followed by the chagrin of an admission.
The head of the Hungarian delegation leaned toward our leader. The quiet man was a general officer of the Hungarian military intelligence organization. He had been dragooned into this meeting only because our delegation leader was a civilian of general officer rank. The old general manifestly did not approve of the counterintelligence officers.
“Now you see,” he said gravely to his counterpart, “the devils have come down from the church murals and sit together to discuss the fates of their victims.”
Our leader looked at him with cold, blue eyes and said nothing in response.