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“BRIDGE OF SPIES” TELLS UGLY TRUTHS ABOUT GOVERNMENT: PART TWO (END)

In Bureaucracy, Entertainment, History, Law, Law Enforcement, Military, Politics, Social commentary on March 21, 2016 at 12:01 am

“Bridge of Spies” vividly recaptures a now-forgotten time in American history.

It was the time of “the Cold War.”  A time when:

  • America was almost universally seen as “The Good Guy,” in contrast to “The Bad Guy” of the Soviet Union;
  • The United States and the Soviet Union held each other at bay with arsenals of nuclear weapons;
  • Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy terrorized the nation, accusing anyone who disagreed with him of being a Communist–and leaving ruined lives in his wake;
  • American TVs blared commercials warning that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had boasted: “We will bury you”; and
  • Children and teenagers were taught in school that they could survive a nuclear attack through “duck and cover” drills. They were instructed to keep their bathtubs filled with water for safe drinking, in the event of a Soviet nuclear strike.

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Bert the Turtle teaches schoolchildren to “Duck and Cover”

Yet even in this poisonous atmosphere of fear and denunciation, some men stood out as heroes–simply by holding fast to their consciences.

One of these was a New York insurance attorney named James B. Donovan (played by Tom Hanks). Asked by the Justice Department to defend arrested Soviet spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) Donovan did what no one expected.

He gave Abel a truly vigorous defense, arguing that the evidence used to convict him was the legally-tainted product of an invalid search warrant.

Upon Abel’s conviction and sentencing to 45 years’ imprisonment, Donovan again shocked the political and legal communities by appealing the case to the Supreme Court.

Donovan argued that Constitutional protections should apply to everyone–including non-Americans–tried in American courts. To do less made a mockery of the very freedoms we claimed to champion.

He lost by a vote of 5-4. But the arguments he made would resurface 50 years later when al-Qaeda suspects were hauled into American courts.

James B. Donovan

In 1961, Donovan was again called upon to render service by a Federal agency–this time the CIA.  It wanted his help in negotiating the release of its spy, Francis Gary Powers, shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 while flying a high-altitude U-2 spy plane.

Throughout “Bridge of Spies,” audiences learn some unsettling truths about how the American government–and governments generally– actually operate.

The first three of these were outlined in Part one of this series:

Truth #1: Appearance counts for more than reality.

Truth #2: Individual conscience can wreck the best-laid plans of government.

Truth #3: High-ranking government officials will ask citizens to take risks they themselves refuse to take.

Now for the remaining truths revealed in this movie.

Truth #4: Appeals to fear often prevail when appeals to humanity are ignored.

After crossing into East Germany, Donovan enters into negotiations with Wolfgang Vogel, a lawyer representing the East German government.

Vogel offers to exchange Frederic Pryor, an American economics graduate student seized by the East German secret police, for Abel. Donovan replies this is a deal-breaker; the United States (which is never mentioned during the negotiations) wants Powers, not Pryor.

Nevertheless, Donovan is equally concerned for Pryor, and adds him to the list of hostages to be released in return for Abel.

Then a new complication arises: The East German government that holds Pryor threatens to pull out. claiming to be insulted because Donovan did not inform them that the USSR was a party to the negotiation.

His reasoned, legal arguments having failed, Donovan resorts to a threat. He conveys a warning to the president of East Germany:

Abel has not yet revealed any Soviet secrets. But if this deal fails, he may well do so to earn favors from the United States government. And, in that case, the Soviets will blame you–Erich Honecker, the president of East Germany–for the resulting damage.

Where arguments based on humanity have failed, this one–based on fear–works.  A prisoner-exchange is arranged.

Truth #5: Personal loyalty can supersede bureaucratic inventions.

On February 10, 1962, Donovan, Abel and several CIA agents arrive at the Glienicke Bridge, which connects East and West Germany. The Soviets have Powers, but not Pryor–who is to be released at Checkpoint Charlie, a crossing point between East and West Berlin.

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    Glienicke Bridge, the “Bridge of Spies” 

The CIA agent in charge of the American delegation tells Abel he can cross into East Germany, even though Pryor has not been released.

But Abel has learned that Donovan has negotiated the release of not only Powers but Pryor. Out of loyalty to the man who has vigorously defended him, he waits on his side of the bridge until word arrives that Pryor has been released.

Then Abel crosses into East Germany while Powers crosses into the Western sector.

Donovan returns home. Before flying off to West Germany, he had told his wife he was going on a fishing trip in Scotland.

His wife and children learn the truth about the risks he ran and the success he attained only when a television newscast breaks the news:

Francis Gary Powers has been returned to the United States. And the man responsible is James Donovan, once the most reviled man in America for having defended a notorious Soviet spy.

“BRIDGE OF SPIES” TELLS UGLY TRUTHS ABOUT GOVERNMENT: PART ONE (OF TWO)

In Bureaucracy, Entertainment, History, Law, Law Enforcement, Military, Politics, Social commentary on March 18, 2016 at 12:01 am

Steven Spielberg’s new movie, “Bridge of Spies,” is that rarity among films: An intelligent mixture of history and drama, stripped of gratuitous sex and violence.

It’s also a film that accurately reveals unsettling truths about how government intelligence agencies really operate.

Truth #1: Appearance counts for more than reality.

The movie opens with the FBI’s arrest of KGB spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance). The evidence against him is overwhelming. This–plus the “Red Scare” climate of 1957–will guarantee his conviction.

But the Eisenhower administration doesn’t want the upcoming trial to be seen as a hangman’s court. It must have the appearance of a fair proceeding.

So the Justice Department (through the Brooklyn Bar Association) asks a New York insurance attorney named James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) to take on Abel’s defense. He’s expected to make a reasonably competent effort but not go all out on behalf of his client.

Truth #2: Individual conscience can wreck the best-laid plans of government.

Donovan has never handled a spy case before. And he has no delusions that Abel isn’t the spy he’s charged with being. But he’s determined to give Abel the same committed defense he would give to any other client.

Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) and James Donovan (Tom Hanks) in court

This comes as a shock to the prosecutors, the judge, his law firm and even his family.

A CIA agent approaches Donovan in a nearly deserted restaurant and asks him to reveal any secrets that might help win Abel’s conviction.

Donovan replies: “This conversation isn’t happening.”

“No, of course not,” replies the CIA agent, assuming Donovan is agreeing to keep the overture secret.

“No, I mean this conversation isn’t happening,” angrily says Donovan, who leaves the agent fuming.

Donovan becomes a pariah; his mailbox is stuffed with hate mail and one night a would-be drive-by killer riddles his house with bullets.

Abel is convicted and sentenced to 45 years’ imprisonment. But Donovan–again shocking everyone he knows–pursues an appeal up to the Supreme Court.

He argues that the evidence against Abel is tainted by an invalid search warrant. No American citizen could be convicted under such circumstances. And the Constitutional protections that hold true for Americans should hold equally true for non-Americans charged with crimes in American courts.

Donovan’s arguments will be heard a half-century later, when al-Qaeda suspects are hauled before American courts.

He puts on an impressive case on Abel’s behalf, but loses 5-4 at the Supreme Court.

That seems to be the end of Donovan’s relationship with Abel. But events soon dictate otherwise.

Before the judge could pronounce a death sentence on Abel, Donovan had argued that this might be a mistake. The day might come, he told the judge, when an American spy might fall into Soviet hands.

And then the United States would need to swap Abel to secure the release of its own agent.

The judge, moved by that argument, had given Abel a lengthy prison term instead.  

That day comes sooner than anyone in the Pentagon expects.

On May 1, 1960, Francis Gary Powers, a former Air Force pilot, is flying a high-altitude U-2 plane above the Soviet Union for the CIA. The plane is equipped with state-of-the-art cameras, and Powers intends to photograph military sites and other important complexes.

Suddenly, a surface-to-air missile slams into the plane. Powers ejects before it crashes, but fails to commit suicide with a poison pin concealed in a phony silver dollar. He’s captured by the KGB and brutally interrogated, but maintains his silence.

At about the same time, Frederic Pryor, an American economics graduate student living in West Germany, visits his German girlfriend living in Soviet-dominated East Germany.

The Soviets are starting to build their infamous Berlin Wall, which will stop the flow of refugees from East to West. Pryor tries to bring his girlfriend and her father into West Berlin, but he’s stopped and arrested by agents of Stasi, the East German police, who accuse him of being a spy.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union wants its spy, Abel, returned, before he can spell its secrets. In turn, the new Kennedy administration wants Powers returned, before he can be made to spill American secrets.

Truth #3: High-ranking government officials will ask citizens to take risks they themselves refuse to take.

In 1961, Donovan is once again sought out by the American government–this time by no less than CIA Director Allen Dulles.

And he’s asked to go where no official American representative can go–East Germany. His new assignment: Negotiate the exchange of Powers for Abel.

The CIA wants its spy back. And it’s willing to send Donovan into East Germany to negotiate his release. But it’s not willing to back him up if he’s arrested by Stasi, the notorious East German secret police.  

The fiction must be maintained that Donovan is acting strictly on his own behalf, not that of the United States.

In such a case, Donovan could spend the rest of his life in a Communist prison cell.

 

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