WITH THE communist German Democratic Republic falling apart in late 1989 and 1990, the CIA was suddenly presented with an extraordinary opportunity to acquire the operational files of the government's foreign-espionage service. Whether a Russian or an East German sold the files to Americans remains a mystery, but the price for what has come to be known as Operation Rosewood is said to have been $1 million to $1.5 million. The files were shipped to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
For the money, the agency got an invaluable trove: three separate card files listing most, if probably not all, agents of the Hauptverwaltung Aufklaerung, or HVA, the foreign-espionage division of the Ministry for State Security, otherwise known as the Stasi. That division had long been led by Markus Wolf, the best spymaster of modern times. One file consisted of "true cards," the informants' real names; another had cards with the informants' cover names; and a third file contained "statistical sheets," which provided details of meetings and payments to the agents, as well as their operational capabilities.
The overwhelming majority of these agents operated in West Germany, which was the HVA's highest-priority target. Besides messengers, communicators and the like, they included well-placed operatives and agents of influence in military commands (up to NATO headquarters), businesses, academia, unions, the media, intelligence services and political parties.
After learning that the HVA materials were in U.S. hands, the German government wanted to see them to assess what damage Wolf's operatives had wrought. In early 1993, German counterintelligence officers were given permission to visit Langley. But the CIA did not permit them to examine the original HVA files and allowed them only to take handwritten notes on versions that had been transferred to computer disks.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl's intelligence coordinator soon began to press for the return of the original files to German custody. The CIA refused and has continued to resist German demands that the documents be returned. Indeed, the agency does not publicly acknowledge that it has the HVA files.
This episode might have remained little more than a mildly intriguing Cold War footnote if not for an institutional arrangement common to dictatorial regimes: The HVA was not simply a spy service like those all governments operate. Rather, it was an integral part of the GDR's repressive apparatus, the Stasi, which fused intelligence and police functions.
With more than 4,700 employees, the HVA was the Stasi's biggest division. Documents uncovered since 1990 also show that it spied at home as well as abroad, and participated in Stasi-led repression. The security structure was a virtual duplicate of Hitler's Nazi espionage service, the SD.
Complicity with the past
For decades after World War II, Germans in the west and the east did a poor job of facing up to their complicity with the Nazi past. In West Germany, the reckoning was not wholehearted until the mid-1980s; in East Germany, it never began. After 1990, however, East Germans took a different and courageous approach to the crimes committed by their communist government.
Central to their readiness to face up to this past - with greater honesty and openness than that displayed by Germans after Nazism - was an invitation to all victims of Stasi spying and harassment to review their files. With the critical exception of the HVA division's files, most Stasi documents were recovered during the GDR's final months, thanks to the work of brave civil-rights activists. The German parliament set up an authority, which was fully independent of any ministry, to preserve and make available these files. It is headed by a Lutheran pastor, Joachim Gauck, who had been a victim of Stasi pressures.
More than 180,000 East Germans were working in 1989 as informants for the Stasi, a ministry with 91,000 employees. Since millions upon millions of East Germans had been spied upon and denounced, there has been great interest in the authority's holdings. More than 1 million East Germans have applied to examine their files. The success of this approach has served as a model for several East European countries making the difficult transition from dictatorship to democracy.
Far less attention has been paid to Stasi activity in West Germany and the HVA's role in it. But it, too, was mind-boggling. Between 1950 and 1990, when the GDR disappeared, at least 20,000, and perhaps as many as 40,000, West Germans worked for the Stasi in one capacity or another, about half for Wolf's division. At any given time, 3,000 to 4,000 were active.
Imprisoned behind the Berlin Wall after 1961, East Germans easily, perhaps too easily, succumbed to pressures to cooperate with the Stasi. In the West, most agents and informers worked for the HVA and other Stasi divisions voluntarily, out of ideological conviction or a desire for money. Gauck's office is convinced the CIA's holdings includes far more than the 1,553 HVA agent names that the Germans have been permitted to copy. Completely missing, for example, are the names of an estimated 10,000 HVA agents living in East Germany.
Request to Clinton
On Nov. 9, nine years after the Berlin Wall fell and the CIA acquired the files, a group of former civil-rights activists from East Germany sent a letter to President Clinton asking him to direct the CIA to return the HVA trove to German custody. The president should comply. Unlike the East Germans, West Germans have had no way of learning who was spied on and by whom, because the files on the West German HVA agents have not been made available. Some might still hold influential positions in politics, government and business.
East Germans have had to endure suspicion, contempt and taunts from their West German countrymen because of their complicity with Stasi repression. By contrast, the extensive collaboration by West Germans with the HVA has escaped public scrutiny. This should not continue.
A belated but successful confrontation with the Nazi past made democracy in West Germany whole, and certainly strong enough to deal openly with personal legacies of cooperation with East German communism. The United States rightly takes pride in the fact that it helped West Germans, from the very start, rebuild their democratic culture. We can similarly help all Germans today by returning to their possession documents that are not only rightfully theirs but will establish historical facts and individual responsibility, both of which are essential to their democracy's long-term health.
Robert Gerald Livingston, former director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, is writing a book on the German-American relationship since 1945. The article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.