“What the heck is a cryptologic linguist…?”

Don’t feel bad. Even my recruiter didn’t know. When he handed me the print-out, it might as well have been a menu written in Urdu.

In 1980, when I enlisted at age seventeen, linguists were one of three so-called critical career fields. The other career fields were Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) and Air Force Pararescue. All of these career fields offered handsome bonuses and often quicker promotion after Basic Training.

Even with the career description in hand, I still didn’t know what I would one day be doing. And despite my excellent grades in German in High School, I still had thirty-six weeks of language training at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) at Monterey, California.

 

Air Force Dormitories, Defense Language Institute, Presidio of Monterey, 1981

After that, there would be an additional six months of technical training at Goodfelow AFB in San Angelo, Texas.

Student dormitories (USAF) at Goodfellow AFB, 1981

Student dormitories (USAF) at Goodfellow AFB, 1981

In April of 1982 I was assigned to the 6912th ESG at Tempelhof Central Airport, in what was then the American Sector of West Berlin. A stone’s throw away was the Wall, and behind it, East Berlin.

Berlin – Leipziger Str. 1982

Forty years after the surrender of Germany the victorious Allies still occupied the divided city. One of the reasons it remained divided was due to its unique value to the Western Allies. Nestled uncomfortably in the middle of the GDR like a burr under a horse’s saddle, West Berlin was the perfect place from which to keep a close eye on the enemy. So, behind the facade of protecting West Berliners, there existed a behemoth network of intelligence collection. On the other side of the Wall the USSR and the GDR did the same.

The US government would prefer that I not discuss what types of Air Force personnel worked in West Berlin. It would prefer, of course, that I say nothing at all. There are several links by former service members that I will list separately, and there you can see what they have to say about Cold War Berlin, who worked there, etc.

RC-135 "Rivet Joint" graphic

RC-135 “Rivet Joint”

Most folks can imagine what a linguist does, so I won’t irritate the spooks at Air Force Intelligence and No Such Agency by telling you myself. What I will say is that when you look into the eyes of your enemy on a daily basis, you often see yourself. I recognized very early on that the men and women on the other side of the Wall were little different than we were. They didn’t like to get up in the morning or work on weekends. They had spouses and children, and they, too, wanted a better world for them. They detested office meetings and gave at the office, even if they really didn’t want to. We also had one other thing in common: we worried about war. More specifically, we worried about nuclear war. To a generation that has since grown up without the spectre of certain and immediate annihilation hovering over each and every day, it may seem almost inconcievable, but that was our world. We had admittedly gotten used to it, which was a bad thing. We went to work each day on our rubble heap and watched/listened as our world teetered at the edge of an abyss, not realizing how close we would come, how close our charismatic president would take us to the ultimate, radioactive death.

President Reagan’s visit to West Berlin, 1982   I took this picture a few seconds before we shook hands.

Some of us who watched were not unmoved. At first, my dissatisfaction with the work we were doing was manifested in plainly spoken verbal rebellion. I was, as everyone knew, a supporter of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. It didn’t matter, however, and my supervisors simply told me to go back to work. “It’s America, Jeff. You are entitled to your opinion,” they would say to me. Being entitled to you opinion is one thing, but being an accomplice in a crime is another, and much of what we did on that rubble heap was a crime.

When you provoke your enemy to use force of arms so that you can point at him, you have embarked on a dangerous course. If this had only been happening in Berlin, it might not have beens so bad, but it was happening around the globe: Grenada, Nicaragua, KAL 007, Libya, and on the borders of the USSR… It was a systematic attempt to make the USSR blink. In 1983, during Able Archer, they blinked. That moment of uncertainty should have caused a nuclear war. But for the brave intervention of one man in Soviet Missile Command, the Soviets did not launch a counterattack in response to a malfunction reporting a US missile launch. East Bloc spies had been feeding information back to the USSR indicating that the West was not planning an attack, but the Politburo was unmoved. Month after month of provocations by US and NATO forces had made Moscow paranoid. Sometimes, everyone is out to get you…

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was directly involved in such provocations. When I later betrayed one such operation, I had no way of knowing how dangerous it actually was. The Russians knew, however, and it is one of the reasons I received the medal that is seen on the main page of this site.

What I did wasn’t about a medal. It was about keeping the world from total destruction. If that sounds grandiose, perhaps it is. In the end I wasn’t alone. Along with other spies and agents of the Minstry for State Security, I was only a small cog in a big machine. Another former HVA agent put it this way: “Jens, we were all just little wheels, but the big wheels can’t move without the little ones!”

Today, along with many others who worked on either side (or both) during the Cold War, we enjoy the luxury of hindsight. As we sit and discuss those confusing, dangerous days over a cup of coffee in Alexandria, Virginia, or during a leisurely stroll along Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin, we never forget how close we came. Every person born after 1983 is a gift, and every person who is still alive is lucky.

We are alive today – all of us – and that is a good thing