The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)
Chapter 8. A legacy
The year is 2003. A bullet-proof, chauffeur-driven Mercedes picks me up at crack of dawn from my Munich hotel and drives me the half-dozen miles to the agreeable Bavarian town of Pullach, industries brewing, since lapsed, and spying, which is eternal. My appointment is for a working breakfast with Dr August Hanning, at that time reigning Präsident of the German Intelligence Service, the BND, and a sprinkling of his senior colleagues. From the guarded gateway we pass low buildings half hidden by trees and decked in camouflage netting to a pleasant white-painted country house more typical of Germany’s north than south. Dr Hanning stands waiting on the doorstep. We have a little time, he says. Would I care to take a look around the shop? Thank you, Dr Hanning, I would like to very much.
During my foreign service in Bonn and Hamburg more than thirty years earlier, I had had no contact with the BND. I had not, as the jargon has it, been ‘declared’; least of all had I entered its fabled headquarters. But when the Berlin Wall came down - an event unforetold by any intelligence service - and the British Embassy in Bonn, to its amazement, was obliged to pack its bags and remove itself to Berlin, our Ambassador of the day bravely took it into his head to invite me to Bonn to celebrate the occasion. In the intervening years I had written a novel called A Small Town in Germany which spared neither the British Embassy nor the provisional Bonn government. In predicating - wrongly - a West German lurch to the far right, I had contrived a conspiracy between British diplomats and West German officials which had led to the death of an Embassy employee bent on exposing an inconvenient truth.
I was not therefore expecting to be anyone’s dream of the ideal person to be ringing down the curtain on the old Embassy, or welcoming in the new, but the British Ambassador, a most civilized man, preferred to think otherwise. Not content with having me deliver a (I hope) jolly address at the closing ceremony, he invited to his residence beside the Rhine every real-life counterpart of the fictional German officials that my novel had maligned, requiring of each of them, as the price of a fine dinner, a speech delivered in character.
And Dr August Hanning, posing as the least attractive member of my fictional ensemble, had risen sportingly and wittily to the occasion. It was a gesture that I took gratefully to heart.
We are in Pullach, it is more than a decade later, Germany is thoroughly reunited, and Hanning is waiting for me on the doorstep of his handsome white house. Though I have never been here, I know, like anyone else, the bare bones of the BND’s history: how General Reinhard Gehlen, chief of Hitler’s military intelligence staff on the Eastern Front, had at some unclear point towards the end of the war spirited his precious Soviet archive to Bavaria, buried it, then cut a deal with the American OSS, forerunner of the CIA, whereby he handed over his archive, his staff and himself in return for instatement as head of an anti-Soviet spying agency under American command, to be called the Gehlen Organisation or, to the initiated, the Org.
There are stages in between, naturally, even a courtship of sorts. In 1945 Gehlen is flown to Washington, still technically a US captive. Allen Dulles, America’s top spy and founding Director of the CIA, looks him over and decides he likes the cut of his jib. Gehlen is treated, flattered, taken to a baseball match, but preserves that taciturn and remote image that in the spy world passes all too easily for inscrutable depth. Nobody seems to know or care that, while spying for the Führer in Russia, he fell for a Soviet deception plan that rendered much of his archive valueless. It’s a new war, and Gehlen is our man. In 1946, now presumably no longer captive, he is installed as chief of West Germany’s embryonic overseas intelligence service under the protection of the CIA. Old comrades from Nazi days form the core of his staff. Controlled amnesia relegates the past to history.
In arbitrarily deciding that former or present Nazis were loyal by definition to the anti-communist flag, Dulles and his Western allies had of course deluded themselves on the grand scale. As every schoolchild knows, anyone with a murky past is a sitting duck for blackmail. Add now the smouldering resentment of military defeat, the loss of pride, unspoken outrage at the Allied mass bombing of your beloved home town - Dresden, for instance - and you have as potent a recipe for recruitment as the KGB and Stasi could possibly wish for.
The case of Heinz Felfe speaks for many. In 1961, when he was finally arrested - I happened to be in Bonn at the time - Felfe, a son of Dresden, had spied for the Nazi SD, Britain’s MI6, East Germany’s Stasi and the Soviet KGBin that order - oh, and of course for the BND, where he was a prized player in games of cat-and-mouse against the Soviet intelligence services. And well he might be, since his Soviet and East German paymasters fed him any spare agents they had on their books for their star man inside the Org to unmask and claim the glory. So precious indeed was Felfe to his Soviet masters that they set up a dedicated KGB unit in East Germany solely to manage their agent, process his intelligence and further his brilliant career inside the Org.
By 1956, when the Org acquired the grand title of Federal Intelligence Service, or Bundesnachrichtendienst, Felfe and a fellow conspirator named Clemens, also a son of Dresden and a leading player in the BND, had supplied the Russians with the BND’s entire order of battle, including the identities of ninety-seven field officers serving under deep cover abroad, which must have been something like a grand slam. But Gehlen, always a poseur and something of a fantasist, contrived to sit tight until 1968, at the end of which time 90 per cent of his agents in East Germany were working for the Stasi, while back home in Pullach sixteen members of his extended family were on the BNDpayroll.
Nobody can do corporate rot more discreetly than the spies. Nobody does better mission creep. Nobody knows better how to create an image of mysterious omniscience and hide behind it. Nobody does a better job of pretending to be a cut above a public that has no choice but to pay top price for second-rate intelligence whose lure lies in the gothic secrecy of its procurement, rather than its intrinsic worth. In all of which, the BND, to say the least, is not alone.
We are in Pullach, we have a little time, and my host is giving me the tour of this handsome, rather English-style country house. I am impressed, as I suspect he wishes me to be, by the imposing conference room with its shiny long table, twentieth-century landscapes and pleasing outlook on to an inner courtyard, where sculptures of strength-through-joy boys and girls on plinths strike heroic postures at each other.
‘Doctor Hanning, this is really remarkable,’ I say politely.
To which, with the faintest of smiles, Hanning answers, ‘Yes. Martin Bormann had pretty good taste.’
I am following him down a steep stone staircase, flight after flight of it, until we stand in Martin Bormann’s personalized version of Hitler’s Führerbunker, complete with beds, telephones, latrines and ventilation pumps, and whatever else was needful to the survival of Hitler’s most favoured henchman. And all of it, Hanning assures me with his same wry smile as I stare stupidly round me, officially listed as a protected monument under Bavarian state law.
So this is where they brought Gehlen in 1947, I’m thinking. To this house. And gave him his rations, and clean bedding, and his Nazi-era files, and card indices, and his old Nazi-era staff, while uncoordinated teams of Nazi hunters chased around after Martin Bormann, and the world tried to absorb the indescribable horrors of Belsen, Dachau, Buchenwald, Auschwitz and the rest. This is where Reinhard Gehlen and his Nazi secret policemen were installed: in Bormann’s country residence that he won’t be requiring any time soon. One minute Hitler’s not-very-good spymaster is in flight from the Russian fury, the next he is the pampered favourite of his new best friends, the victorious Americans.
Well, perhaps at my age I shouldn’t have looked so surprised. And my host’s smile tells me as much. Wasn’t I once in the profession myself? Wasn’t my own former Service energetically trading intelligence with the Gestapo right up to 1939? Wasn’t it on friendly terms with Muammar Gaddafi’s chief of secret police right up to the last days of Gaddafi’s rule - terms friendly enough to pack up his political enemies, even pregnant ones, and see them rendered to Tripoli to be locked up, and interrogated with all the best enhancements?
It’s time for us to climb back up the long stone staircase for our working breakfast. As we arrive at the top - I think we are in the main hallway to the house, but can’t be sure - two faces from the past greet me from what I take to be Pullach’s wall of fame: Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of Hitler’s Abwehr from 1935 to 1944, and our friend General Reinhard Gehlen, the BND’s first Präsident. Canaris, a dyed-in-the-wool Nazi but no fan of Hitler, played a double game with Germany’s right-wing resistance groups, but also with British Intelligence, with whom he remained in sporadic contact throughout the war. His duplicity caught up with him in 1945, when he was summarily tried and horribly executed by the SS: a brave and muddled hero of some sort, and certainly no anti-Semite, but a traitor to his country’s leadership for all that. As to Gehlen, also a wartime traitor, it is hard to know in the cold light of history what is left to admire in him beyond deviousness, plausibility and a con artist’s powers of self-persuasion.
So is that all of it, I wonder, surveying these two uncomfortable faces? Are these two flawed men the only role models from its past that the BND has to offer to its shiny-eyed new entrants? Think of the treats that await our British new entrants to the secret world! Every spy service mythologizes itself, but the Brits are a class apart. Forget our dismal showing in the Cold War, when the KGB outwitted and out-penetrated us at almost every turn. Hark back instead to the Second World War, which to believe our television and tabloid press is where our national pride is most safely invested. Look at our brilliant Bletchley Park codebreakers! Look at our ingenious Double-Cross System, and the great deceptions of the D-Day landings, at our intrepid SOE radio operators and saboteurs dropped behind enemy lines! With such heroes as these marching before them, how can our new recruits fail to be inspired by their Service’s past?
Above all: we won, so we get to write the history.
But the poor old BND has no such heart-warming tradition, however mythologized, to offer its recruits. It can’t crow, for instance, about the Abwehr’s Operation North Pole, otherwise known as the England Game, a deception that over three years fooled SOE into dispatching fifty brave Dutch agents to certain death and worse in occupied Holland. German achievements in the field of decryption were also impressive - but to what end? It can’t celebrate the undoubted counter-intelligence skills of Klaus Barbie, former Gestapo chief in Lyon, recruited to the BND’s ranks as an informant in 1966. Barbie, it emerged only after a prolonged Allied cover-up, had personally tortured scores of members of the French Resistance. Sentenced to life, he died in the prison where he had perpetrated his worst atrocities. But not before he had apparently been recruited by the CIA to hunt down Che Guevara.
As I write this, Dr Hanning, now in private practice as a lawyer, stands in the crossfire of a German parliamentary committee charged with investigating the activities of foreign intelligence services in Germany, and the possible collusion or cooperation of German spy agencies. Like all inquiries held behind closed doors, this one is very public. Accusations, innuendo and unsourced media briefings abound. The most sensational charge is, on the face of it, scarcely credible: that the BND and its signals intelligence wing, deliberately or by bureaucratic negligence, has since 2002 helped the US National Security Agency to spy on Germany’s own citizens and institutions.
On the evidence so far, this cannot be the case. In 2002 an agreement was struck between the BND and the NSA which stated categorically that German targets were a no-go area. Filters were put in place to make the agreement stick. So did the filters fail? And if they did, was their failure due to human or technical error - or merely the consequence of laxity over time? And did the NSA, having spotted the failure, perhaps decide there was no need to trouble their German allies with it?
The most likely outcome of the Committee’s deliberations, in the view of Bundestag watchers better informed than myself, is that the Chancellor’s Office will be found to have failed in its statutory duty to oversee the BND; the BND to have failed to oversee itself; and that, while there was cooperation with American intelligence, there was no collusion. And probably by the time you read this, yet more complexities will have emerged, and fresh ambiguities, and nobody will be held to blame except history.
And perhaps in the end history is indeed the only culprit. When American signals intelligence first cast its web over the young West Germany in the early post-war years, Adenauer’s fledgling government did whatever it was told, and it was told very little. Over time that relationship may have changed, but only cosmetically. The NSA continued to spy at will without BND supervision, and it’s hard to imagine that this habit didn’t include, from day one, spying on anything that moved in the host country. Spies spy because they can.
To imagine that the BND at any time exercised effective control over the NSA strikes me as unreal: least of all, when it came to the NSA’s selection of German and European targets. Today the NSA’s message is loud and clear: if you want us to tell you about the terror threat in your own country, shut up and knuckle down.
In the wake of the Snowden revelations, Britain of course has held comparable inquiries of its own, and reached the same sort of botched conclusion. They too touched upon such ticklish matters as the extent to which our signals intelligence arm was doing for America what America was legally forbidden to do for itself. But the British public, for all the furore, is weaned on secrecy and encouraged by spoon-fed media to be docile about violations of its privacy. Where laws have been broken, they have been hastily rehashed to accommodate the breach. Where protest rumbles on, the right-wing press scotches it. If loyalty to the United States is undermined, it is reasoned, who shall we be then?
Germany, on the other hand, having known fascism and communism in a single lifetime, does not take lightly to state spies who pry into the affairs of its honest citizens; least of all when they do so at the bidding and to the benefit of a foreign superpower and supposed ally. What in Britain is called the Special Relationship, in Germany is called treason. Nevertheless, my guess is that, in these turbulent times, no clear verdict will have emerged by the time this book goes to press. The German parliament will have had its say, the greater cause of counter-terror will have been invoked, and Germany’s worried citizens will have been advised not to bite the hand that protects them, even if it has wandered now and then.
But if against all odds the worst case were proved, what would there be left to say in mitigation? Only perhaps that, like anybody else who is confused about his upbringing, the BND didn’t know quite who to be. Two-way trading with an over-mighty intelligence agency is never going to be an easy ride at the best of times, least of all when you’re trading with the country that put you on earth, changed your first nappies, gave you your pocket money, checked your homework and pointed you where to go. And it’s harder still when that parent country has delegated swathes of its own foreign policy to its spies, a thing the United States has done rather too frequently in recent years.