Are we seeing the whole elephant, or just the trunk?
In early 1973, as a 22-year-old Army enlisted man in the Cold War era, I volunteered to work undercover against an East German-funded front group based in Heidelberg, Germany. I operated under the supervision and direction of the 66th Military Intelligence Group in Stuttgart.
As far as that front group was concerned, I was a seriously disaffected soldier who was willing to go to significant lengths to cause harm to the US Army and military in general. I won’t go into all the operational details, even this many decades post-op; military intelligence isn’t as much of an oxymoron as the jokes indicate. But suffice it to say that, for approximately 18 months, following my monthly trips to Heidelberg, I was able to provide information to my “handlers” at the 66th MI that prevented acts of sabotage and even, potentially, terrorism. So it was a “legit” operation in every sense of the word.
But there’s a reason I called it a “front group.” To the public, the group purported to be a safe haven for GIs who thought the military was being unfair and who wanted legal assistance. It also published a relatively harmless left-wing newsletter, which was distributed to subscribers. In fact, I became the editor of that newsletter for a while. But unknown to the public, the group’s organizers were using their operation as a cover for spotting GIs who were willing to engage in illegal activities against the U.S., who could be recruited the same way Al Qaeda has successfully recruited even Westerners.
So all the public could see was the trunk of the elephant, just like in the tale of the Blind Men and the Elephant. And then an Army Signals officer got a peek at the elephant’s leg – and thought he was seeing the whole animal. He saw message traffic from the 66th MI in Stuttgart to their office in Heidelberg, reporting that (code name – and it wasn’t 007) was making his usual monthly trip up to attend the meeting of the front group. The 66th’s office in Heidelberg always provided covert security for me when I was there.
“Oh my,” thought the signals officer. “We’re sending someone to spy on a TOTALLY LEGITIMATE organization. That’s WRONG.”
So that signals officer became a whistle-blower and shared that message traffic with one of the lawyers for the front group – unbeknownst to me.
I headed for the train station to go to Heidelberg and when I arrived there, a counter-intelligence agent from the 66th MI rushed up to me and said, “Your cover’s blown, you have to get home now!” They had learned about the leak just in time – or I would have been walking into a very unpleasant situation.
In the weeks after that, my life was threatened anonymously. My wife and infant son were evacuated from the country ahead of my scheduled rotation date, for their security. And I eventually departed to undergo formal military intelligence training and remained in the Army for another three years.
I believe that there are people in the U.S. Intelligence community who abuse their power and access. Always have been, always will be. There are also those who reveal the secrets to which they have access out of greed, revenge, and other motives that have NOTHING to do with being dedicated to truthful and ethical behavior. But the vast majority are patriots, working in anonymity and sometimes at great peril, for government wages. Please remember that what you see – EVEN with the huge amount of information that can be leaked in this digital age – is STILL only the trunk of the elephant. And maybe a leg.
Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc. and author of Manager’s Guide to Crisis Management (McGraw-Hill).