The Spy Who Betrayed the Berlin Tunnel Has No Regrets

[This article was written for, and first appeared at, EXAMINER.COM]

There is a celebration of sorts going on in Russia these days.  The 90th birthday of a British traitor is being marked by a documentary film and personal greetings from President Vladimir Putin—a man who knows a thing or two about the spy business.

George Blake was apparently drawn to the Soviet side while working for the SIS in Korea. He was captured by the North Koreans and eventually decided to turn traitor. It’s a strange story with a Manchurian Candidate feel.

For most of the 1950s, he wreaked havoc on British and American security services.  These days he tells everyone that he’s fine with what he did.  “I am a happy person, a very lucky person, exceptionally lucky,” he told a recent interviewer.  Interestingly, there seems to be a connection between Blake’s missing moral compass and the fact that along with loyalty to his homeland, the other thing left behind in his life was any semblance of belief in ultimate accountability. “I do not believe in life after death,” says Mr. Blake. “In my childhood, I wanted to become a priest, but that passed. As soon as our brain stops receiving blood, we go, and after that there will be nothing. No punishment for the bad things you did, nor rewards for the utterly wonderful.”

George Blake in 2002

Unlike his traitorous contemporaries—Philby, Burgess, and MacLean—who all lived notably barren and frustrated lives in Russia after fleeing there to avoid accountability for their nefarious work, Blake seems to be a person at peace with himself.  Or so he says to Russian media and a world that barely remembers the dangerous dynamics of the Cold War.

George Blake is likely responsible for the deaths of many British agents—and at least one extensive and expensive joint U.S. and British intelligence initiative.

These days, the Berlin of that era is most often remembered for an airlift and a wall – the latter becoming the ultimate Cold War icon. But a few years ago, the CIA declassified a report, originally written forty years before, reminding us that when it came to Berlin and Cold War history, there was a third image – one that is often forgotten.

In between the airlift and the wall there was – a tunnel.

Nicknamed “Harvey’s Hole” after legendary Bill Harvey, head of Berlin Operations Base for the CIA during that period, the digging of a tunnel twenty feet longer (1,476 feet) than the Empire State Building was tall, was the biggest wiretap job in history. The idea was modeled after a successful British effort in Vienna, though the Austrian version was significantly smaller at mere 70 feet. The Berlin dig was dubbed Operation Gold (to insiders it was also referred to a PBJOINTLY).

The basic idea was to tunnel under a quite unappealing part of Southern Berlin, beneath the dividing line between the American and Soviet sectors. More than 650 people were employed in London and Washington, D.C. to process information gleaned from the taps. On the American side – just to show the dimensions of what they had to analyze – 4,000 feet of messages were handled daily. The mother lode was the KGB Headquarters compound located in the Karlshorst district of the city.

Digging began in August 1954 and the tunnel was completed in February 1955. The work involved displacing 3,000 tons of dirt and the installation of the actual physical taps on three cables – considered the most sensitive aspect of the project. The tunnel was ready for information to start flowing on May 11, 1955.

However, though it wasn’t known at the time, the initiative was doomed almost from its conception. The tunnel lived as an espionage conduit for 11 months and 11 days before being discovered by the East Germans on April 21, 1956. The story was that they had been looking for a problem with one of their cables, when they accidentally came upon evidence of the tunnel.

This was the widely accepted version of the events at the time as evidenced in the now declassified history. An internal CIA memo prepared two months after the tunnel was blown concluded that “the loss of this source was purely the result of unfortunate circumstances” beyond their control.

But Bill Harvey (who was known in some circles and “the American James Bond”) was never satisfied that the Soviets had just happened on the tunnel. A skeptic by nature, it would take a few years before that skepticism was vindicated. With painfully fresh memories of moles in the British intelligence community (MacLean and Burgess had defected to Moscow in May of 1951), some on the American side were understandably leery of such a massive and highly sensitive joint espionage venture. But whatever the concerns, they were dismissed in favor of the potential benefits.

But in this case, there really was a mole—George Blake. He would not be exposed as a KGB spy until 1961, but he had already been working for a few years for the Soviets by the time he was uniquely positioned to betray this project to his handlers. In fact, he attended vital meetings – always taking detailed notes – having ironically been tasked by MI-6 with preparing a written record of the discussions about the tunnel and its progress. He did so faithfully and gave copies to all involved. Of course, he kept a copy for himself – but it wouldn’t stay in his possession for very long.

In January of 1954 Blake met his KGB contact on the top deck of a London bus, handing over a copy of the minutes of the meetings between the CIA and SIS (Secret Intelligence Service – a.k.a. MI-6). So, the Soviets were in the loop all along.

George Blake may describe himself as happy man, but his life and work on the wrong side of history tell a different story.