Not long after the attacks of 9/11 took the lives of some 3,000 Americans, Congress acted to pass the NoFEAR Act of 2002, putting the CIA under its strictures. If one were to guess by the title and the timing, one might conclude that the NoFEAR Act was designed to reconfigure our lead intelligence agency so that it would be well organized to locate, capture, and/or kill our terrorist adversaries. But one would be wrong. All that the the NoFear Act required was for the CIA to work harder in weeding out discrimination and to post summary statistics on its website about its progress in resolving complaints about things like “sexual” and “non-sexual” harassment. In 2005, the typical such complaint was under investigation for an average of 897 days. By the following year, the CIA had made a huge stride forward and the typical complaint was investigated for an average of only 396 days.
Meanwhile, Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, Iran’s stark raving president, is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. Does the CIA have inside sources in Tehran that report to us what he tells his cabinet members, or microphones in his home so that we know what he chats about with his charming wife through her chador? I wouldn’t count on it.
Once upon a time, though, we had a very different kind of intelligence agency.
During the cold war, when the divided city of Berlin was regularly the pivot point of world crises, America’s lead spy agency was vitally interested in knowing what the Russian military high command was talking about in its local headquarters and in its discussions with Moscow. As early as 1948, U.S. intelligence officers began to contemplate the possibility of tapping Soviet and East German communication lines. Sometime in 1952, an actual operation to do just that was set in motion: the Berlin Tunnel project, codenamed PBJOINTLY.
A clandestine tunnel was mapped out—some 1,500 feet long, extending well into the Soviet zone where military communication cables were known to be buried. A major problem was how to handle the huge volume of extracted dirt without tipping off the omnipresent guards along the border. A number of different ideas were entertained. One CIA employee proposed digging a hole and dumping the dirt into it; out of this facetious suggestion a real solution to the problem was found.
That piquant detail, and the story of the tunnel operation in full, are recounted in an internal CIA history of the operation written in 1967 and only recently declassified (and made available in the invaluable online document repository maintained by the Federation of American Scientists). The episode may have been one of the great U.S. intelligence triumphs of the cold war. But as with all things in the intelligence wilderness of mirrors, maybe not.
The official history notes that the existence of the tunnel was disclosed to the Russians at its inception by a Soviet mole inside British intelligence. For unknown reasons Moscow may then have let it operate only to terminate it on their own schedule. But a good deal of countervailing evidence suggests that PBJOINTLY came to a more prosaic end brought about by bad weather.
In April 1956, heavy rain caused some short-circuits in Soviet cables; repair efforts were made to restore the broken links; in the course of replacing aging lines, Soviet technicians found the equipment chamber at the end of the tunnel where the Americans were tapping their communications. But the CIA, which was very clever back then, had put an official looking sign on the entrance in Russian and German: “Entry Forbidden by Order of the Commanding General.” In case the instruction was disobeyed, they had also placed a microphone inside the chamber. The conversations the CIA picked up made it clear that the Soviets had no idea what they had stumbled upon. Only gradually, as they Russians investigated further, did the nature of the chamber dawn on them.
With that, after eleven months and eleven days of operation, the CIA tunnel project came to an end. While it was running, however, it provided a wealth of highly sensitive information about Soviet politics and military developments in a range of spheres, including discussion of unrest among Soviet nuclear scientists. The official history comments on the information’s reliability: “Despite our knowledge that certain elements of the Soviet government were aware of our plans to tap these cables, we have no evidence that the Soviets attempted to feed us deception material through this source.”
Could American intelligence replicate such a feat today? We don’t know what we don’t know about the CIA’s successes, so it may be unfair to judge. But with the agency attempting to comply with a hundred absurd congressional mandates that have turned it into a timid and paralytic bureaucracy, it seems highly unlikely. We are in the midst of one of the most dangerous moments in our history, and given what it tells us about our own lack of seriousness in matters of intelligence, the NoFEAR Act itself is one of the major things we have to fear.