End of the Prague Spring Western Spies Were Out in the Cold

Forty years ago this Thursday, the Soviet Union ended the so-called Prague Spring with a massive invasion of troops and tanks. Intelligence files from that era show that the largest military operation in Europe since 1945 took the West by surprise.


When it was over, Western officers, awkwardly, seemed surprised. Against their will they had to admit the camouflage hiding the march of Warsaw Pact troops into Prague had been "good," and the speed of their divisions "impressive." The way the Kremlin led units out of the western part of the Soviet Union "unnoticed" was also noteworthy. The enemy, in short, had scored a "tactical victory."

This was the verdict on Aug. 27, 1968 from NATO headquarters in Brussels on "Operation Danube" -- the suppression of the legendary Prague Spring. A week earlier, 27 divisions of Soviet Russians, Poles, Hungarians and Bulgarians -- around 300,000 men, armed with 2,000 heavy cannons -- marched into the small state of Czechoslovakia to end the experiment of "socialism with a human face." It was the largest military operation since the World War II, and the West was caught off guard.

For months, the eyes of the world had been on Prague, where a group of officials around Communist Party chief Alexander Dubcek had challenged the Soviets with new civil rights for Czechoslovakia, new press freedoms and plans for privatization. Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the USSR's Communist Party, ordered a number of threatening military maneuvers in and around Czechoslovakia starting in May.

But when the maneuvers grew serious, the American, British and German governments seemed to look the other way, judging by documents from the NATO archive in Brussels as well as intelligence files seen by SPIEGEL. "Not a single evaluation" managed to predict the Soviet invasion of Prague, according to the NATO Military Committee, the alliance's highest military authority.

About 7,500 tanks droned towards Prague, more than 1,000 planes were launched, including countless transport planes, which brought airborne troops to Brno and other towns in Czechoslovakia. Thousands of officers across the Eastern Bloc received their marching orders -- and no one seemed to notice, at least no Western agent. The Soviet-led invasion counts as one of the greatest failures of Western intelligence.

'Precise and Punctual Reports'

The American CIA capitulated even before the invasion. There was "no possibility" of "predicting the exact circumstances that would give the Soviet leadership cause to violently intervene," according to one report from mid-July. The West German intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), did no better; its officers noted afterwards that the so-called X-time, the start of the Prague invasion, was "detected neither by the BND nor by any other western intelligence service."

In spite of these observations by his spies, the founder of the BND, Reinhard Gehlen, boasted openly that his subordinates at the time had made exact predictions -- the reports were "precise and above all punctual," he said -- and it's because of his praise that the Prague invasion has been falsely remembered as a highlight of the BND's history.

Especially embarrassing: After the invasion, German intelligence officials boasted of having "an exact picture of the deployment of forces involved in the operations." The BND believed in 1968 that the East German National People's Army (NVA) was involved in the brutal occupation. In fact, Brezhnev cancelled the NVA's involvement in spite of protests by East German leader Walter Ulbricht. The 11th Motorized Rifle Division, which the BND claimed to have spotted near the Czech town of Budweis, in fact spent the duration of the invasion waiting peacefully inside East Germany.

In hindsight it's no surprise that NATO first learned about the invasion from the media. The first Associated Press report came out on August 21 at 2:09 a.m., four hours after the start of the assault, and it was another hour before alarm bells sounded in Brussels because the teletype machine at NATO headquarters had broken down. No one noticed, because the officer technically on duty had gone to sleep.

Mistake followed upon mistake: Classified documents show that the Soviet ambassadors to London and Paris had informed the governments there on the night of the invasion. Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin even informed US President Lyndon B. Johnson in person -- Brezhnev wanted to avoid giving the West the impression that the invasion was a preparation for an attack on NATO.

The three big powers kept this information to themselves. In those critical 12 hours the NATO military leaders had to rely on press reports, something they complained about furiously. It was a justified lament, because there could easily have been incidents on the border between West Germany and Czechoslovakia. The invading troops immediately secured the country's western border, but in some places Soviet tanks roared up to the German line -- the line between east and west. What might have happened if a West German commander on the other side had lost his nerve is painful to imagine.

The British ambassador to NATO apologized sheepishly, saying his country would never repeat this type of information policy again.

It later emerged that NATO's Fourth Allied Tactical Air Force were aware that Soviet paratroopers had been flown into the CSSR. However, the officers in charge had not considered this a risk to the alliance and so did not pass on the information.

These slip ups appear all the more astounding in light of the BND's initial claims of success. The agency had sent numerous contacts and informants to Prague in the summer of 1968. The order from the BND field office was to report "all details of military movements on the railways and the streets," under the code word "Nepomuk." Saint John of Nepomuk is the patron saint of Bohemia -- and of confessional secrecy.

No 007 in the Kremlin

German agents in Prague also wanted to gain "access to the most important political people up to Dubcek's inner circle." And much of what these and others reported before the invasion had proved correct in hindsight, for example the reports about a summit meeting in Dresden in March 1968.

Dubcek had just lifted censorship in Czechoslovakia, and now his socialist brother countries accused him of paving the way for the counter-revolution. The BND reported that Brezhnev warned him that "he would not stand by and watch the breakdown of the communist system." If the Czechoslovak Communist Party should "lose control, there would be intervention."

A few weeks later -- in May 1968 -- the BND came to the conclusion that "what the Soviets consider the threshold of tolerance has almost been reached." Relations between the so-called brother parties in Moscow and Prague "must be described as icy."

This insight could have been easily gleaned from the pages of Pravda.

Later the BND claimed it had "anticipated that there would be a military attack by Moscow in association with its allies from mid August 1968." There are, however, no documents supporting this claim, and even if they existed, it would still not change the fact that anticipation is less than knowledge -- which is the purpose of the intelligence agencies.

Nevertheless the BND wasn’t so far off track as the CIA. "Leading CIA officials," according to the BND, had believed that "the 'consideration' of world opinion would force the Soviet Union to abstain from a military attack." This was totally off the mark.

It would have required spies in Moscow to realize that Brezhnev and his comrades had made the essential decision in mid-July to crush the Prague Spring if the situation there did not change. On Aug. 18 the date for "Operation Danube" was set.

The West had no 007 in the Kremlin.

No one in the West could explain the purpose of the unusual summer maneuvers by the Warsaw Pact states, which were there for all to see. Was this to intimidate the Prague reformers, or to prepare the Soviets for an invasion? If it was to prepare for an invasion -- when?

This disorganization is a fact of life at intelligence agencies, as the BND freely admitted in a post-factum analysis: "Only in the rarest of cases (coincidences?)" does the agency succeed in "penetrating potential enemies' most important decision-making bodies."

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the author of the paper that this sentence called into question the very existence of his own agency during the Cold War.


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