U.S. Military Liaison Mission operations
March 27, 1985
By Henry Gottlieb
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. Army officer killed by a Soviet guard in East Germany was a member of a cadre of American soldiers who, for 38 years, have used a loophole to gather intelligence on the Red Army.
"We'd go in at 90 miles per hour between 11 at night and 1 in the morning to try to keep the Russians from seeing where we were going," a former member of the U.S. Military Liaison Mission in Potsdam, East Germany, recalled Monday.
"It's a hairy experience," he said. "There aren't any rules. It's a very dangerous job. It doesn't surprise me that someone was killed. I'm surprised it hasn't happened before."
He talked about the operation only on the condition that he would not be identified.
The Pentagon says the purpose of the unit cannot be termed "spying" because it is done openly.
But, according to military sources, the unit's task is to travel around the country hunting intelligence information.
Why do the Soviets permit it?
"Because they have the same kind of unit on our side of the fence," said an officer familiar with the operation.
Attention focused on the work of such operatives Monday with the disclosure that U.S. Army Maj. Arthur L. [sic] Nicholson was fatally shot Sunday by a guard in what the Soviets said was a restricted zone in Ludwigslust, East Germany, about 100 miles from Berlin.
The unit Nicholson was a member of was established in 1947. The Soviet occupiers of East Germany agreed to let American, British and French observer teams set up shop in Potsdam in return for similar rights in Western zones. Potsdam was the site of Soviet military headquarters.
The stated purpose of the teams was to provide contact between headquarters, help settle legal disputes that arose from the occupation and give all four countries a chance to show their flags in both Germanys.
"I'd say that, even from the start, the job was 95 percent intelligence and 5 percent waving the flag," said one of several current and former military officials who discussed the unit's work Monday. They insisted they not be identified.
"Our job was to travel the roads, keeping our eyes open," said an officer who was in the unit in the 1960s. "We would get specific orders to find out about equipment or troop dispositions, and we'd go out and try to get the information."
He said British, French and U.S. teams would meet on a regular basis to coordinate their work, "so we didn't duplicate efforts."
Most members of the team live in West Berlin and go into East Germany for several days at a time, driving into the zone over the Glienecke Bridge, the former member said.
He said typical missions he undertook involved taking photographs of Soviet aircraft and installations. Once, he was part of a team that tried, but failed, to rescue the crew of a U.S. surveillance airplane that had crash-landed.
"The East Germans got there first," the former officer said. "The Soviets would have kicked the unit out years ago if they didn't think having their own teams on our side made it worth the trouble."
By all accounts, Nicholson had a typical academic background for the job, a master's degree in international relations and a special interest in Eastern European affairs. One source described the job as a training ground for U.S. defense attaches -- the American military eye's and ears in diplomatic posts around the world.
Brig. Gen. Randall A. Greenwalt, now defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, was operations officer in the Potsdam mission from June 1976 to May 1978.
"I wouldn't use the word 'spy,' but, on the other hand, this is an intelligence-gathering post," a source said. "They're obviously there to keep their eyes and ears open and make observations."
"Everyone knows that the men in Potsdam are there to gather information on the Soviet forces and send it back to the United States," another source said.
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