Showing posts with label the Cold War. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the Cold War. Show all posts

08 November 2017

Trabismo

David Edgerley Gates

My pal Michael Parnell alerted me to an event this past Saturday, the 11th Annual Parade of Trabants, held at the International Spy Museum in DC. What's the significance of this? Funny you should ask.

Trabis were churned out in East Germany for a little over thirty years, from 1957 to 1990 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It had a two-cycle engine with 26 horsepower, zero to 60 in 21 seconds. You had to add oil to the gas, like a lawnmower or an outboard motor. They coughed and choked, and blew smoke. They didn't have a fuel pump, the gas tank was in the engine compartment, on top of the engine, the fuel was gravity-fed. 3 million of them were manufactured, and the basic design never changed.

Trabis are kind of like currywurst. The nostalgia element is tempered by the reality. They were cheap, they were crappy, they were a necessary fact of life for those East Germans who could even afford them, crappy as they were. They turned into the punchline of a joke that wasn't funny the first time it made the rounds. Then that world shifted on its axis. In mid-1989, the dominant Cold War paradigm began to collapse of its own weight, a suffocating inertia that just puddled on the floorboards. Thousands of Ossis packed up their household goods and drove their loaded, laboring vehicles through Hungary or Czechoslovakia, to get to West Germany. Like the Joads escaping the Dust Bowl, it was a leap of faith.

A lot of Trabis fell by the wayside on this journey to a better life. Abandoned, derelict, giving up the last gasp. The ones that made it had to be granted exceptions from pollution standards, they burned so dirty. And they were representative, they became proxies for everything that had gone wrong in Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain.

This is an interesting transformation, or perhaps transubstantiation - the specific to the generic, water into wine - technically, I think it's an example of metonymy, where a part stands in for the whole. More than that, it's evolved. Language isn't static. Trabis are emblematic of an era, but they're a moving target. They're shorthand for the Cold War, yes, and at the same time, for Reunification and its discontents. Germans can be very thin-skinned. Like most of us, they don't like being reminded of past humiliations, especially when they've been self-inflicted. Trabants smell of failure. Not only failed history, and the failed state of East Germany, but the failure of West Germany to effectively assimiliate those former East Germans, those Ossis.

This is very much about the present, not the past, although dark echoes of the past are ready to hand. Too many Ossis were unskilled labor, not at a premium in a high-tech labor market. A lot of industry in the East was smokestack, and couldn't be retooled. West Germany was trying to integrate a territory, an infrastructure, and a population half of its own size, which had been economically and politically paralyzed since Berlin fell to the Russians in 1944. There were dislocations and disappointments. It shouldn't come as a surprise that there was a boiling point, a surge in anti-immigrant incidents, skinhead violence, scapegoating, a little too reminiscent of the Germany of the 1920's, with its pervading sense of grievance. 

Ossis are still underrepresented in the German business and political establishment (although Angela Merkel herself is an Ossi). In last September's elections, the far-right Alternative for Germany polled at 21.9 percent in the former East - they were at 12.6 nationally. This phenomenon, this alienation, is fueled by a perceived 'cultural colonialism,' an institutional condescension on the part of West Germans. The structural weaknesses of the East are abiding and genuine.

Twenty-eight years ago tomorrow, November 9th is the anniversary of the day the Berlin Wall fell.  

27 September 2017

Legacies



David Edgerley Gates

My pal Michael Davidson, himself a thriller writer and a former career CIA officer, remarks of John le Carré's new novel Legacy of Spies that it's up to his usual high literary standards, while going on to say, "...the work of MI6 is portrayed as exceedingly cynical and inhuman." I don't know about 'inhuman,' but 'cold-blooded' fits the bill, many of the characters all too slithery and reptilian, even for public school Brits with upper lips shot full of Novocaine. The book's dark heart is the chill of moral frostbite.


le Carre then
A Legacy of Spies is something of a swan song, or a curtain call. George Smiley takes his last bow. And a good many ghosts gather at his elbow. Alec Leamas, for one, the original Spy Who Came In From The Cold, along with Bill Haydon (Kim Philby's avatar), and Peter Guillam, one-time head Scalphunter and later Paris station chief, and even a cameo from Jim Prideaux. It's fair to say that if you're unfamiliar with Spy, and Tinker, Tailor, and in fact the earlier Call for the Dead - which first introduced the East German Steel Mission and Hans-Dieter Mundt - then this story's going to fall on deaf ears. Then again, it's unlikely you're going to push old ladies and small children into oncoming traffic to get hold of Legacy if you haven't already inhaled the ozone at the top floor of the Circus, and you need the icy rush it promises. Fear not. The old spook hasn't lost his tradecraft, and he can still wind the clock, before he starts shaking the tree.  

It's ill-advised, as a rule, to conflate a writer with his characters, but you suspect that George Smiley, if not le Carré's exact double, or even his reflection, does on occasion speak for him. There's the moment in Smiley's People when George, chasing an old asset in Hamburg, casts his mental eye East, along the shores of the Baltic, and imagines a prison empire and its subject peoples, a horizon empty of hope. This is the closest we ever get, if I'm remembering it right, to any kind of rationale on George's part, in any of the books. Is this le Carré's voice? Hard to pin down. Yes, it sounds right for George, the war generation, first Hitler, then Stalin. "One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic." Then again, we know better than to trust in absolutes, or orthodox certainties. Smiley doesn't. He's lived through a damaged century.

What about loyalties, though? Bill Haydon betrays the Service, and his country, and - perhaps most unforgivably - his friends. He sleeps with George's wife Ann, first because he can ("Love to Ann - everybody's love to Ann"), but under instructions from Karla. Curiously, too, everybody involved in Operation Windfall, and the Testify cock-up, give their loyalty personally to Control, or to Smiley, cutting out the Witchcraft circle, the tainted and suspect. And for the Mustache Petes, like Guillam, their institutional loyalty isn't to the present-day Service, the glassy cubicle farm on the Thames, but to the Circus of old, not just the ill-lit corridors but its habits of mind, its Druid impenetrability.

Le Carré uses Legacy of Spies to post his epitaph on the Cold War. Or more exactly, he has Smiley do it, and we can't be entirely sure who's speaking. But when Smiley tells Peter Guillam that it was all an exercise in futility, that the clandestine wars had no real result, no satisfying narrative coda, it rings false to me. It doesn't sound like Smiley. It sounds like le Carré. And this is where I have to part company with him. I know a few other people who were once in the secret world (the above-mentioned Michael Davidson, for one) who don't buy into this, either. I think that what we did in those years, not to put too fine a point on it, kept the Cold War from getting hot. Your mileage may differ.



This isn't to say that le Carré hasn't made his bones. For sheer operational skills, he's hard to top. I still think Little Drummer Girl is extraordinary, even if you take it purely as a roadmap on how to mount covert. Legacy of Spies doesn't disappoint, I don't want to give that impression at all. In fact, I wish the book were three hundred and fifty pages long, instead of two-fifty. I'm only saying that le Carré and I take different lessons away from our own histories, our own private fictions.

28 June 2017

Wet Work

David Edgerley Gates

All this talk of spies, and Russian manipulation, plots divers and devious, is enough to make more than a few of us nostalgic for the Cold War. My pal Carolyn sent me a link to a recent Dexter Filkins piece in The New Yorker which speculates 'nostalgic' ain't the half of it, the body count going up as scores are settled.

We're on shaky ground here, in the Twilight Zone between coincidence and conspiracy. The politically suspect have been raw meat for years, inside Russia, journalists a favorite target, but the received wisdom has always been that the security organs don't operate with impunity in the U.S. I'm not so sure. Historically, we've got the murder of Gen. Walter Krivitsky, in 1941. His death was ruled suicide, but informed opinion agrees that NKVD rigged it to look that way. (Krivitsky died six months after they got to Trotsky, in Mexico.) Then there's Laurence Duggan, who fell out of a 16th-story window in New York in 1948. He had a meeting scheduled with his Soviet control that day. You think to yourself, Okay, but that was Stalin, this isn't the old days, when Yezhov and Beria could conjure up triggermen like dragon's teeth. Then again, who exactly is Vladimir Putin if not a wolf in wolf's clothing?

What we're talking about is the possibility, at least, that Russian state security is fielding hit teams on American soil. In the past, these were proxy killings, and they took place in client states or satellites. Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia. Very seldom, if ever, would you take out the pros on either team, the agent-runners, KGB, CIA, the Brits, the Israelis. You compromised their assets, you sowed discord and misdirection, you put them at cross-purposes, but you didn't knock 'em off like gangland rivals. And we didn't go after targets in the Soviet Union, they didn't come after targets Stateside. That seemed to be the unspoken agreement, anyway. Professional courtesy. Elsewhere was fair game. Berlin, or Vienna. Helsinki, Athens, Istanbul. And the Third World? You couldn't even trust the water.

It all changed in late 2006, with the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. We'd had the killing of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident, in the UK. This was back in 1978, the notorious poisoned pellet in an umbrella tip - Bulgaria's secret service, the DS, borrowed the toxin from KGB, it's thought. Nobody ever made the case, though. Markov was a one-off. (Not exactly. There was another Bulgarian, in Paris, ten days earlier.) Or maybe the DS operation was rogue? (Not that, either. There's good collateral KGB sponsored it.) In the event, the trail went cold. This isn't to say nobody cared about Markov, but it was a story that flared briefly, and petered out. We're talking about Bulgaria, after all. How many people can find it on a map? More to the point, Markov's murder didn't indicate a pattern. It was an anomaly. And then, almost thirty years later, Litvinenko. Another exotic poison, in this instance, polonium. A defector, a known enemy, a slanderer, and a personal insult to Vladimir Putin that the son-of-a-bitch is still walking around.

The issue for the Kremlin seems to be that people like Litvinenko, and the opposition politician Sergei Yushenkov, and the reporter Anna Politkovskaya, just won't shut up. The three of them are now dead, of course. The bone that got stuck in their throat appears to have been Chechnya. Chechen terrorists were blamed for the apartment bombings in Moscow and two other cities in 1999 that gave Putin political cover to jump-start the Second Chechen War. In a fourth city, Ryazan, a team of FSB covert operatives were arrested after planting explosives, and the story went round that all of the apartment bombings were a security service provovcation, a false-flag attack. Then there's the Moscow theater siege in 2002, which people have also suggested was a provocation, and there's the Beslan school hostage massacre in 2004. Three events pinned on Islamic jihadis from the Caucasus, and used to prosecute the war with increasing brutality - scorched earth, in effect - and three events possibly orchestrated or abetted by federal security agencies. The stories aren't going to stop, but they've become whispers and hearsay, their voices have been lost, along with Litvinenko, Yushenkov, and Politkovskaya.

Using state security, or the Mafia, or freelance private contractors, to settle up your debts can be habit-forming. You get a taste for it. And quite possibly, you get bolder, or maybe you just don't care if you leave your handwriting. When you come down to it, what's the point of intimidation, if you don't sign your name?

In his New Yorker piece, Dexter Filkins floats a few possibilities, U.S. targets, ex-pat critics of the Kremlin who wound up in the hospital, or dead. If targeted they were. It's a tough call. Guy gets drunk and chokes on a piece of chicken? Could happen. Guy gets beaten to death in a hotel room? Seems less like a happy accident. What about the guy who had a gun put to his head? Nobody murmured in your ear, "Michael Corleone sends his regards." There's nothing solid to go on. All we can say is, This happened before, and such-and-such didn't. We're left with supposition and suspicion.

Here's a supposition. Putin thinks he can get away with murder because he hasit's that simple. As for the niceties, or the courtesy, well. Chert vozmy. The devil take it. This is somebody who doesn't even have to pretend to courtesy. Still. It presents an uneven risk-benefit ratio. My guess is that it's more about, Who will rid me of this tempestuous priest? In other words, it isn't Putin's express bidding. He doesn't have to put pen to paper, or even raise his voice. Oligarchs and Mafia bosses kiss his ring. The thought is father to the deed.

One other thing. Rules of engagement aside, it seems awfully petty to put so much energy into hunting down a few loudmouths, mostly nuisance value, sticks and stones. You have to take yourself pretty seriously to take them so seriously. Which is I guess the point. We imagine that Power is the great engine, the dynamic that shapes men, and history. What if it's just vanity, or hurt feelings? 

14 June 2017

Michael R. Davidson's THE DOVE

David Edgerley Gates



1987, the Cold War. Reagan is president, Gorbachev is General Secretary. The Russians are mired in Afghanistan, ground down by attrition, death by inches. What if there's a way to bleed them out faster?

CIA's chief of operations at the Paris station is approached by French security, We have a potential KGB defector, in Moscow, they tell him. But for us it's a Denied Area. We don't have the resources to operate there. You do. Harry Connolly, CIA operations, knows Rule One: There are friendly countries, but no such thing as friendly intelligence services. What do the French want in return?

It turns out the French want the product. They've just been beat out of the biggest arms deal in history by the British, a total of 20 billion pounds sterling, to the Saudis, and the French smell a rat. The defector in Moscow has inside information on the arms sale.

The defector has access to the material because his skill set is technology theft. KGB has a compromised asset inside the Saudi deal, but more to the point, CIA could use the defector's knowledge to map Soviet weaknesses. Where are the gaps, what's on their shopping list, which specific technology problems are they targeting? 

And we're off. Paris to Moscow, Paris to DC. London to Riyadh, London to Geneva. Harry has good tradecraft, and he begins to pull the threads together. Everybody's got a piece, from the fixer for a Saudi Prince, Mohammed Attar, to the British procurement minister James Abbott, to banker and bagman Wafiq al Salah, to the Novosti correspondent Nikolay Kozlov, a KGB spook under journalistic cover, and the hapless defector-in-place Stepan Barsikov, giving classified information to the West because he's defeated at love. The journey crosses personal landscapes as much as physical distance. And interestingly, not everybody learns everything. There are things left hidden, or unspoken.

And the last question, the historical one, about the end of the Soviet Union, did they fall or were they pushed? It's perfectly plausible, as The Dove suggests, that the Russians could be goaded into overreach and overspending. Imperial ambition, with an economy on the edge of collapse, and political hardening of the arteries, the Old Guard unable and unwilling to accept reform, meant the system was on life-support, and ready to collapse of its own weight. They were perched on a narrow ledge. Gravity did the rest. Oh, and maybe just a small thumb on the scale.

https://www.amazon.com/Dove-Michael-R-Davidson/dp/0692877142/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1497302186&sr=1-1&keywords=michael+r+davidson


This is a review I posted on Amazon for The Dove, with the tagline "authentic and thought-provoking." I've got a couple of things to add. They're in the nature of personal observations, what you might call editorial asides.

First off, it's probably obvious I have a weak spot for Cold War spy stories, having written a few myself, and Michael Davidson knows the territory. This is probably the place to note that Davidson is former career CIA.

Second, although I wouldn't presume to call us close friends, Michael and I are Facebook pals, and we've had the occasional private e-mail conversation. Fair disclosure.

Third, it should be said that Michael and I aren't entirely on the same page, politically. I think he's somewhere to the Right of Attila the Hun, he thinks I'm somewhere to the Left of W.E.B. Du Bois. (I'm exaggerating. A little.) The point here, specifically referencing The Dove, is that it's an article of faith among Reagan's admirers that he brought the USSR to its knees by forcing them to spend money they couldn't afford on advanced weapons systems, to keep pace with American technological developments. This isn't unfounded. I'd be likely to give some credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union to the Polish pope, or Lech Walesa, and fissures in the empire - the Causasus, the rise of radical Islam, falling oil prices - but let's be fair.

It's interesting to me that two guys with an intelligence background, Michael's far more extensive than mine, can agree to disagree on a fair number of things, yet not lose sight of certain homely truths. Neither one of us trusts the Russians worth a rat's ass, which is the inner unreconstructed Cold Warrior for you, in full plumage, and we both have an old-fashioned regard for keeping faith, for honorable service, for duty. There are worse things.

09 December 2015

Gone, No Forwarding

by David Edgerley Gates

Having put THE BONE HARVEST up on Amazon, I added the following note. 
"You don't necessarily have any specific object in mind when you start a book, but I knew going in that THE BONE HARVEST would be about the nuts and bolts – the gear, the manpower, the physical resources – what it takes to mount an actual spy operation. My model was a now-abandoned listening post on the outskirts of Berlin, in Marienfelde, near the sentry wire where the East German guard posts once stood. There was a time when the world seemed divided into two armed camps, static and unyielding, written in stone, but these days that's become the fossil record."

I could go on, although this is fine, for the here and now. Or more to the point, the there and then.

None of this is my invention, or reinvention. The Cold War was real. And there were times when it just missed getting hot.

I'm not nostalgic for the climate of fear. I'm talking about revisiting a physical place in memory, because the place itself is physically lost. Gone, no forwarding.

We might see the footprints, but that's an act of imagination. The archeological evidence is thin on the ground.

Back in the day, the Army Security Agency and the USAF Security Service each had operational sites in Berlin. Teufelsberg, the ASA facility, began monitoring Soviet and Warsaw Pact communications in 1961, and the Air Force commissioned Marienfelde in 1967. Both listening stations, as it happens, were built on landfill, rubble from the ruins of Berlin. It gave them artificial height, the better to intercept signals.

I remember going out to Marienfelde at the beginning, when the move was just starting, the equipment being transferred from Tempelhof to the site. All the ELINT gear first, the Voice stuff last. It was spooky, tell you the truth, the perimeter fence lit up, and secure access, but the building almost empty. I was assigned to a ghost ship. Over the next couple of weeks, the whole business ramped up, and pretty soon we were 24/7. It's instructive to look back on the logistics, the heavy lifting, how it was purposed. I don't think we got a lot of outside help, I think it was all more or less in-house. Some of it must have been
flat-out improvisation. Then again, we had experienced Operations people on board. They'd set up in remote places, without immediate or close support, and even hostile environments. The best part, you really want to know, is how quickly and effectively we got it going. There must have been wasted motion. I mean, seriously – it's the military. But there wasn't any loss of coverage. The mission never went dark. We didn't even brake for the turn. That's the most amazing thing. That it came out right. Somebody should take a bow.


There's nothing left of it. T-berg's a ruin, Marienfelde's overgrown.

Berlin Brigade, along with the other occupation forces, the British, French, and Russian, were decommissioned twenty years ago, and they had a parade. All in marching order. History turns the page.


I guess the lesson is not so much things slipping out of our grasp, or whether memory is reliable or not, but what we might like to think we hold in trust. Maybe it didn't actually happen quite that way, and the facts were messier. That's usually the case. We clean things up. We allow as how there's a moral to the story. Or we settle old scores. It's always going to be something. You leave part of it out, or you adjust the seasoning, or you come up with a better punchline, twenty years too late. But this is one of those instances where I didn't have anything to lose. I wanted to make outfitting Camp Hector as accurate as I could, and I had the example of the installation at Marienfelde to keep me honest. Credit where credit is due.

(And some of it, yeah, I made up.)

DavidEdgerleyGates.com