‘Special Talents and Notorious PSYWAR’: Cold War Spy Tradecraft Behind The Iron Curtain

Although there weren’t high-tech gadgets like today, Cold War espionage was extremely efficient. In a geopolitical situation where the nuclear threat was constantly present, information was a key currency. As there were no smartphones, internet, or other benefits of the modern age, people were the most important. Especially behind the Iron Curtain where their modus operandi was perfectly shaped. The intelligence communities of the communist regimes always looked for people with certain talents. Later, after recruitment, these talents were improved to perfection, just as tradecraft. Here are some methods and techniques.

Cold War Intelligence: People

Looking closely at the KGB or Stasi reports, they can say much. Attention to details (if it’s needed), bigger picture, important questions. Everything is done in a clean, clinical manner. Very precisely and of course, written in a certain ideological tone. That made the Cold War a pretty hard information war. Here is a part of some, for example, Stasi report:

“Our main enemy, the United States, has created a special committee for strategy and ideological operations which reports directly to the US president. Similar organizations have also been established in other imperialist states. In England there exists a respective state organization with the prime minister. In the Federal Republic [West Germany] there is the Ministry for All-German Affairs, the Ministry for Expellees, and the Federal Chancellery. I want to remark here that we do not have updated information about changes that occurred in the meantime [after the change in the Bonn government in October 1969]. We ask you to support us here with intelligence.”

It’s very clear that intelligence reports mixed up with ideology were a very powerful means to an end.

Spy Tradecraft

As said technologies, methods and techniques during the Cold War relied heavily on people. A specially trained agent could photograph or, if needed, steal the secret files and codes. Although quite simple if we compare it to today’s tech, the Stasi’s car camera, for example, was a wonder during the Cold War years and with skillful operatives, it could catch the things needed. An important link in this human-relied system was also the contacts. Especially if an agent went to Western Europe or the U.S. A contact of value was priceless in forming the spy ring.

Kiss of Death, lipstick gun used by the KGB during the Cold War, CC BY-SA 4.0

Communication was also a weapon. The agent could behave like “a friend of the cause” or infiltrate a certain group as an agent provocateur to sow instability, conflicts, fight, etc. The tradecraft also comprehended kidnappings and assassinations, so the agents needed to have the skills in matters like these, too. The KGB’s lipstick gun is one of the proofs how people and technology (the best possible during these years) worked together.

Notorious Psychological Warfare

Talking about communication the secret services behind the Iron Curtain used, the PSYWAR definitely cannot be left out. When it comes to the Cold War-era PSYWAR, the Stasi especially mastered the notorious methods. What’s today often regarded as a “weapon” of narcissists and sociopaths, behind the Iron Curtain it was a usual method of state institutions. For example, in  East Germany, the Zersetzung was used by the Stasi against those who were ‘suspects for doing  subversive activities.’ In other words, political opponents.

Directive No. 1/76 on the Development and Revision of Operational Procedures, which outlined the use of Zersetzung, Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, 1976

So, the targets of the Zersetzung were exposed to disruption of their own private lives. Only some of the things this involved were gaslighting, smear campaigns, bugging, wiretapping, destruction of reputation (false denunciation, drug possession, theft, etc.)… Some operatives even made a mess in the target’s apartment by rearranging and hiding personal things, planting foreign objects and similar. There were even cases where operatives changed the time when a target’s alarm clock was set. According to reports, these ‘operational procedures’ (aka sabotage, conflict, isolation) worked best when they were done according to a target’s personality. That’s why the procedure also included creating special psychograms and sociograms.

Source: “Stasi Note on Meeting with KGB Officials, 13 November 1969,” November 13, 1969, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Office of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records (BStU), MfS, MfS, SdM 577, p. 88-110. Translated from German for CWIHP by Bernd Schaefer. https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/115714

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