NSA Knew Berlin Wall Plans Days before Construction
Policy + Politics

NSA Knew Berlin Wall Plans Days before Construction

The National Security Agency is once again in hot water in Germany. But this time, it’s not for their surveillance programs. This grievance dates back to the Berlin Wall. 

According to documents published by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, a Web site dedicated to news for expats here in Germany, NSA knew that the Soviets planned to build the wall four days before construction began on August 13, 1961. They did not, however, tell President John Kennedy about the plan to close the border. 

"On 9 August 1961, the NSA intercepted an East German Communist Party message reporting on plans to begin blocking all foot traffic between East and West Berlin," Matthew M. Aid and William Burr wrote in an article announcing the findings. "The interagency intelligence Watch Committee, which compiled and published the latest information, assessed that this intercept might be the first step in a plan to close the border,' which turned out to be correct.” 

Many people don’t realize that the Berlin Wall – which eventually spanned 96 miles -- was not built at the end of the Cold War. Until 1961, Germans were relatively free to move between the free sectors controlled by the United States, France and Great Britain and the communist Soviet section. 

By the mid-1950s, East Berlin was in the midst of a brain drain. In an August 1958 letter to the Soviet Central Committee, Yuri Andropov, then the Director on Relations with Communist and Workers Parties of Socialist Countries, warned that 50 percent of the people fleeing East Berlin were intellectuals. He wrote "the flight of the intelligentsia has reached a particularly critical phase." 

But just two months before construction of the wall began Socialist Unity Party Chairman Walter Ulbricht told reporters, "No one has the intention of erecting a wall!" It was the first time the term wall was used in reference to a divided Berlin. 

On midnight on August 13, Soviet troops began to destroy roads that linked East and West Berlin, and erected barbed wire fences along the border. Families who were separated were not allowed to reunite. Had the NSA revealed plans for the wall, these families might have been able to gather before construction started. 

Two people were killed trying to escape. Ida Siekmann was killed on August 22 when she tried to jump over to the West from her East Berlin apartment, which sat along the wall. Günter Litfin was shot two days later as he tried to swim to the west across the Spree River. 

The early days of the wall did produce one of the most iconic images of the Cold War. East German soldier Conrad Schumann was pictured leaping over the wall on August 15. He then ran to a waiting West German police car, which sped him away. 

Kennedy was furious when the wall went up. But according to Aid and Burr, he also “was relieved that the East Germans and the Soviets had only divided Berlin without taking any action against West Berlin's access to the West.”