Tag Archives: Berlin

Cold War Linguists: The NSA’s Spies of Teufelsberg

The old US listening station at Teufelsberg, Berlin (Photo: Axel Mauruszat via Wikimedia Commons)

The old US listening station at Teufelsberg, Berlin (Photo: Axel Mauruszat via Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a guest post from the Big Show’s Clark Boyd

Berlin makes for an interesting backdrop for President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss recent revelations about NSA surveillance. It was there, during the Cold War, that the United States and the Soviet Union focused much of their espionage activity.

After World War Berlin lay in ruins, its buildings reduced to rubble. The Russians used tons of that rubble, including parts of Hitler’s chancellery, to build a giant war memorial in what would become Soviet East Berlin.

The Americans created a hill out of their rubble. The artificial hill, built on top of a never-completed Nazi military-technical college, was dubbed Teufelsberg, German for “Devil’s Mountain.” At 260 feet, it was hardly a mountain. But it was tall enough for the NSA to point antennas hundreds of miles into East Germany.

Edward Richardson, now a lawyer, served in the 1960s with the 78th Army Security Agency Special Operations Unit (ASA) at Teufelsberg. Richardson, who was already a member of the National Guard, enlisted in Army and opted for Russian language training.

He was assigned to West Berlin in 1965—to the listening station at Teufelsberg.

There, hidden under giant, slightly menacing-looking domes, the antennas picked up all kinds of radio traffic from the East. And 24/7, the Americans used dozens of vacuum tube radios and reel-to-reel tape recorders to monitor it all.

“This was kind of the Pleistocene Era of communications,” says Richardson. “The operators would sit there all night, and just wait for one of lines on the green screen to squiggle, and they’d start the tape recorder. Then they’d hand the tapes over to a transcriber, and then it went on to NSA or ASA headquarters.”

Richardson was tasked with focusing on Soviet troop movements in East Germany.

“We didn’t care what they were saying,” he says. “What we cared about was who was saying it, and where they were saying it from. Nobody was interested in listening to people’s conversations.”

That sounds like an early version of the “We’re only looking at your meta-data” line of jokes, directed these days at President Obama’s NSA.

Richardson remembers some funny moments, like near daybreak, when weird frequency bounces meant you’d sometimes hear Moscow cabbies chatting. Or when you’d decode a message saying that a Soviet artillery unit was targeting Teufelsberg—only to realize that it was a hoax.

While Richardson worked on the Soviets, Don Cooper listened in on telephone calls between East German government officials.

Teufelsberg veteran and author Donald Cooper

Teufelsberg veteran and author Donald Cooper

“Some days it was fun. Other days it was excruciatingly boring,” says Cooper. “They’d be discussing agriculture reports, things like that. They were having a bad crop of potatoes. And if you were on the graveyard shift, or really just after 8 o’clock at night, we just switched over to Radio Luxembourg and listened to rock ‘n’ roll.”

But Cooper says he does remember hearing one interesting conversation. Walter Ulbricht—“Uncle Walter” as he was called—was the East German leader at the time. Cooper once overheard Uncle Walter’s then second-in-command, Erich Honecker, arranging a hunting trip.

“Walter wanted to go deer hunting up in the northern part of the country,” says Cooper. “They were making sure he’d get a deer. They drugged the poor thing, and when it staggered out, Walter would take a shot at the thing, and they had a sharpshooter with a silencer on his rifle to make sure the deer went down. So, Walter got his deer.”

And the Americans got a bit of insight into how East Germany worked at the time.

Cooper details this in his book “C-Trick“—named after the shift he worked. He says that officially, the Army Security Agency was never in Berlin. The guys in the outfit couldn’t even wear their unit patch on their uniforms. If a German asked, Cooper says you had to tell them: “I’m a clerk in the Berlin brigade.”

He remembers trying that out one night at a place called The White House Whitehorse Bar.

“I was sitting in there enjoying myself, and a couple of Germans, sitting with a couple of Berliners, and they asked: ‘Are you American?’ With the military haircut I had at the time, I said: ‘Yeah, I’m a clerk with the Berlin brigade.’ They laughed and said, ‘Oh, you’re ASA.’”

So much for top secret.

There was, of course, plenty of spy-versus-spy goings on in those post-war decades.

The Soviets had built their own listening station on a hill in East Berlin. Christopher McLarren served with the ASA at Teufelsberg in the 1970s.

“As long as they listened to the West, and we listened to the East, things went fine. Because after 1980, the real big danger was surprise, panic and military over-reaction,” says McLarren. “Since we were all listening, [there was ] no surprise, no panic, no over-reaction. So it worked very well.”

McLarren ended up marrying a Berliner, and staying on in the city after he left the Army. He watched as the fall of the wall and reunification brought an end to the NSA’s listening station on Teufelsberg.

“Reunification was 1990. From what I understand, the Americans listened in—just to make sure, for another year, just to make sure everything was straight. And then they dismantled the place, so I think operations finished in 1991 or 1992.”

And Teufelsberg itself—the buildings with the strangely shaped domes? It’s fallen into almost complete disrepair.

Artists and musicians love to visit the eery place for inspiration.

Many development ideas have been floated for the site—a hotel, luxury apartments, a spa—but none of them has worked out. The locals aren’t too keen on any of these plans.

Christopher McLarren is part of a group called BerlinSightOut that gives organized tours of the now derelict and dangerous buildings. At a minimum, he says, he’d like to see a small museum built to highlight the history of the place. He says that while Berliners are typically keen to forget the past and move on, they do pause to consider Teufelsberg’s history. Eighty percent of his tour-goers are Berliners.

“It’s very much ‘in’ at this point,” he says. “I always think, when you go through the place—since I knew what it was like before—is in terrible condition, an absolute ruin. But for the people who were never there before, this is all fascinating stuff.”

And no, McLarren says, there hasn’t been an uptick in tour requests since the recent revelations about the N-S-A’s massive data snooping program.

Instead, he says, it’s just a steady stream of people, coming every weekend despite the notoriously bad Berlin weather, to look out over a now-unified city, and country.

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British English as it is, was, and could have been

This week’s podcast is hopelessy devoted to Brit-English. First, the story of what might be the earliest audio archive of regional British dialects. During World War One, German linguist Wilhelm Doegen recorded the voices of more than 140 British prisoners of war. His archive includes  dialects from many parts of the  UK — tows like Aberdeen, Macclesfield, Bletchington and Wolverhampton.  In those days of course, Britain’s imperial reach was global, as was its army’s linguistic reach: Doegen recorded soldiers speaking Hindi, Punjabi, Pashto and Bengali, among other languages. Until recently, the recordings languished in relative obscurity (for the British at least) at the Berliner Lautarchiv at Humboldt University in Berlin. Now, the British Library has acquired a digital copy of the archive.

Then, wine labels.  They don’t make much sense at the best of times. Now, British convenience store chain Spar has found a way to make them almost completely incomprehensible. Spar has ahem, translated them into  some of the same regional accents (though with less of an eye for accuracy) as those recorded by Herr Doegen.  The company says it’s all about making wine talk more regionally relevant. It may also be, excuse the pun, a dry comment on the pretentiousness of label literature. Never one to defer to the European palate, we at the pod add a little New World flavor with a label rendered in Bostonian English.

It’s well known that English is a co-optive language; there’s nothing it likes better than to beg, borrow and steal from anything in the vicinity. It did plenty of that in the wake of a momentous episode in British history, the Battle of Hastings in 1066. That was when William of Normandy (also known as William the Bastard) became William the Conqueror (and later King William I).  Cue the start of French and Latin’s influence over English. Well, what if the Saxons — the English as they’re sometimes called — hadn’t beaten William and his Normans at Hastings, sent them back to France? David Cowley has written a book called How We’d Talk If The English Had Won in 1066.

Finally a couple of stories related to cockney rhyming slang. These days, rhyming slang is barely in use, except in parlor game form — and of course as something to make money out of.  The first story is on an ATM company uses cockney rhyming slang to dispense cash. And then, a little something I did in 1990 for KALX, college radio in Berkeley, CA on the obsessive love that  some Americans have not just for rhyming slang but for anything British.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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