The East Berlin Tunnel: Whose Ruse?

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On a rainy day 52 years ago, the cover was blown on one of the biggest espionage plots of the Cold War. Soviet and East German forces announced that they had found a quarter-mile-long tunnel that the CIA had burrowed into East Berlin as part of a massive wiretapping operation.

Though the audacious project had come to a crashing end, news of the discovery generated unrestrained glee across the Atlantic at CIA headquarters. America's spymasters were thrilled by the world's response: admiration for the CIA's daring and technical prowess, and a general assumption that the agency had roundly snookered the Soviets.

"Worldwide reaction was outstandingly favorable in terms of enhancement of U.S. prestige," the CIA wrote in an internal history of the Berlin Tunnel project that was declassified last year and recently made public. ...

More than a half-century later, however, scholars and spies are still arguing over which side really succeeded in pulling the wool over the other's eyes. The debate, revived in part by the recent release of the CIA's internal history of the operation, underscores how public perceptions are often more important in espionage than the value of stolen secrets.

"It was all part of the bigger game between the Americans and the Soviets during the Cold War," said Bernd Stoever, a historian at the University of Potsdam who studies the conflict. "Spying was something like a contest, in which they showed each other who was better at playing the game. They were happy to show the public that they were professionals in this secret spy war, in which normally they can't talk about anything."...

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