It might have been lifted out of a spy novel–the caller, without identifying himself, simply referred to “the interview you requested…” The instructions that followed asked me to have the front desk contact “Mr. Winter” and, when cleared, directed to his room. So, on a hot summer day in 1962, I drove from the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles to meet with a CIA recruiter.
I knew, even then, that “Mr. Winter” was not his real name, but it was kind of sexy going through the charade. “Mr. Winter” fit the profile of what, in those days, was the stereotypical CIA spook – tall, Waspish, Navy-blue suit, white shirt, rep silk Club tie and the bearing of a Yale graduate. I don’t remember a thing about the interview except that it was business-like. I never heard another word from “Mr. Winter” or The Company.
I’m reminded of this because here, in Berlin, spies, spying, and spy craft are an important part of the local history. It’s the real life setting for the fictional world of John le Carre’ who in his latest novel, A Legacy of Spies, again reminds us that secrecy is the currency of spies which, in turn, moves me to find parallels between the secrecy of the old spy world and the more recent clumsy attempts by Donald Trump and his campaign to hide meetings and relationships that were known to many, difficult to hide, and suggest something more sinister than mere forgetfulness.
Le Carre’ is hard on spies. He stresses that spies and spy agencies walk a tightrope between the values they espouse and the methods they employ. That they often cross the line by utilizing methods in conflict with their values.
That’s the underlying plotline of his new novel in which George Smiley, the iconic spymaster, and Peter Guillam, George’s right hand man, are brought back to answer for sins purportedly committed 50 years ago – sins that may have been committed in the unfolding of Operation Windfall, the centerpiece of le Carre’s first great novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
I love Berlin. Living here during the Cold War had a certain dis-ease to it; a wrong turn might take you to a dead end at the Wall, Vopos with mirrors looked under busses, trucks, and cars for defectors at Checkpoint Charlie, and stern, pockmark-faced clerks with Red stars on their headgear checked passports in the dimly lit, tile lined room that was the pedestrian crossing point to East Berlin at Friedrichstrasse.
It wasn’t so long ago that walking the streets of East Berlin felt eerily dangerous. The Stasi were watching and terrorizing citizens while Len Deighton and le Carre’ were setting their spy fiction in its sooty gray streets lined with ugly East-bloc apartment buildings. There are still reminders of that time – broken sections of the Wall that stand crookedly, the Brandenburg Gate where Vopos stood guard with Kalashnikovs, and the bulbous needle-tipped TV tower that looms over Alexanderplatz. Today, barely 27 years after the fall of The Wall, Berlin is vastly different. The streets of East Berlin are full of young people and it hums with small shops, jazz clubs, artist studios, alternative spaces and hipster Kniepes.
I confess, the best part of being in Berlin today is being outside the full-on shit-storm of daily Trump coverage. We live in a global village so we’re not beyond its reach, but here, in Germany, we don’t have to endure the daily deluge of tweets and counter-tweets, insults and counter-insults and other Trump inanities that rain down on us from CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and the New York Times.
On the other hand being here drives home le Carre’s dictum about secrecy and the spy world, about methods and values. It’s obvious to most Americans that the secrecy, dishonesty, and duplicity of Trump and his posse is in conflict with our traditional values and that they crossed into alien territory to pursue the presidency. The world is watching. Our German friends ask us repeatedly to explain what’s happening in America. Isn’t it ironic that Angela Merkel and the Germans have become keepers of the democratic, anti-fascist, ethical flame?
So, why does the City of Spies have such resonance with me? Isn’t it all past history? Not so; in many ways Berlin is the symbol of a spy culture that is very much alive. Thirty years ago it was Russians vs. Americans. Their spies vs. our spies. Today, they’re still at the game and it looks like they’re winning. Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr., Carter Page, Erik Prince and Jeff Sessions were all playing footsie with agents of the Russian intelligence services during the campaign and hid their involvement. American intelligence services are on the defensive and struggling to maintain their legitimacy in the eyes of other Western services. Trump and his posse are “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight,” clumsy, stupid, and naïve, but their actions are undermining America’s stature in the world and that’s exactly what Russia’s action plan intended.
In Berlin’s old Jewish quarter, near Hackescher Markt and the golden dome of the Neue Synagogue (above) built in 1859, there are small brass plaques embedded in the sidewalk outside the apartments of deported and murdered Jews. Germans have not forgotten their legacy and the dark stain of National Socialism, much as Americans can never get away from their own legacy of slavery. It’s such a mystery to me that a small segment of America is now allowing itself to forget the genocidal horror of the Holocaust and promoting white supremacy as a legitimate strand in national politics.
We can’t accept secrecy that hides the truth. We can’t accept methods that undermine our values. We can’t accept policies that favor only a tiny percentage of our citizens. We can’t allow the government to punish our most vulnerable. Today, Germany is shining a light on a dark period in its history. We have to join them by condemning the normalization of intolerance, bigotry, and racism.
I would never have been a good spook. I’m glad “Mr. Winter” didn’t make me an offer. I might have been persuaded or flattered into signing up. Instead, I departed El Toro for Berkeley where I had the good fortune to spend three years learning about the law and institutions that support the rule of law. Three years well spent. Thank you, “Mr. Winter.”