US keeps its Stasi secrets locked up

THE GERMANS have the lock, the Americans the key to the mysteries of the Communist world's most formidable spying machine. When the two sides come together to compare notes, thousands of former agents will be unmasked.

So ran the theory. But the clues to the secrets of the Stasi, the East German secret police, are separated by a vaster distance than the breadth of an ocean. The CIA's pile of Stasi documents is in its vaults in Washington, while the recently decoded files to which it corresponds are kept in Berlin.

Never the twain may meet. What had seemed like a simple jigsaw puzzle has turned in recent weeks into a diplomatic nightmare. For Germany's new government, determined to assert itself on the world stage, the bickering has revealed that the US still refuses to recognise Europe's most powerful country as anything other than an American client.

The CIA never had much respect for the West German security service (BND), whose spies were regarded by their US bosses as low in morale and intelligence and lacking initiative. There is no evidence to suggest BND agents found out much about East Germany or captured many Stasi spies.

Under Markus Wolf, head of the Stasi's foreign intelligence operations, Communist agents rummaged through the West's secrets at will. Nato's battle plans and logistics would find their way to East Berlin hidden in train lavatories. Against that the West could muster nothing, not even, for 20 years, a photograph of its chief adversary.

Nearly 10 years after the fall of the Wall, it is still a matter of conjecture how thoroughly the Stasi penetrated the West. The resignation of the West German chancellor Willy Brandt in 1974 after the unmasking of his close colleague, Gunther Guillaume, as a spy, is regarded as the Stasi's finest hour. But allegations persist that there was a second highly placed Social Democrat politician on the Wolf payroll.

It should not be too difficult to find out. Last month investigators in Berlin revealed they had cracked the code to the Stasi's databank. More than 10,000 magnetic tapes storing the Stasi computers' secrets are being processed.

The Germans have said they are happy to share this goldmine with their allies. Chancellor Gerhard Schroder sent his fixer, Bodo Hombach, to Washington last month, and Mr Schroder has tried to get President Bill Clinton involved in the matter. For the German breakthrough, useful as it may be to obtain a complete picture of the Stasi operation, lacks one ingredient: the list of Stasi agents.

The Americans have that, and mightily proud of it they are too. They acquired their half of the puzzle amid the confusion of Communism's collapse. Operation Rosewood, as the sting is called, was "one of the highest points of the Cold War," according to the CIA's public relations department.

In fact, the Cold War had long been over, and the CIA used nothing more cunning than its cheque-book.

Operation Rosewood was a simple business transaction between the Americans and renegade Soviet agents out to make a fast buck. Uncle Sam paid $1.5m for the lot, and spirited it away under the noses of the BND. Now they will not let go of their treasure. Mr Hombach was sent packing, Mr Schroder was given the brush-off. Until a solution can be found, Markus Wolf's agents can sleep soundly.