Somebody’s Watching Me: Surveillance and Betrayal in Operation Gold

Sareena Dubey

Rockwell’s song “Somebody’s Watching Me” has become somewhat of a Halloween classic. Its eerie sound in the key of C-sharp minor and catchy pop melody make it an enjoyably spooky listen. Rockwell’s lyrics conjure up a particularly suspenseful story rooted in the paranoia of being surveilled. “Somebody’s Watching Me” was released in 1984, a decade marked by espionage and surveillance related to the Cold War. In 1984 alone, there were twelve arrests made by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on foreign spies. By the 1980s, the CIA was a well-established agency with vast resources, research, and experience at its disposal. However, thirty years prior, the program was still in its infancy. During this time, a green CIA teamed up with the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) to intercept Soviet telecommunications in Operation Gold.

Operation Gold began in 1954 as a response to the lack of knowledge concerning Soviet operations and swelling fears of atomic attack. The Soviet Army’s shift in communication from radio to telephone landline rendered the Western Allies’ methods of interception useless. Additionally, the detonation of the hydrogen bomb by the Soviets the year prior had put the world on high alert. The CIA was motivated to find another method of gathering information and disclosed their plans to the SIS. Upon receiving the CIA report, the SIS revealed their experience tapping telephone lines in Vienna during Operation Silver. This catalyzed British and American intelligence cooperation on Operation Gold. The British would be in charge of monitoring electronic communication while the Americans were tasked with the construction of an underground tunnel in West Berlin that would provide access to Soviet telephone lines. 

The operation was strategically located in Altglienecke, a rural area of the American Sector of Berlin. It was chosen due to the location of an interceptable telephone junction that was accessible through construction of the tunnel. However, the U.S. forces had to come up with a way to covertly build the tunnel that did not raise suspicion. Therefore, the first construction project in Operation Gold was a “warehouse” which concealed the actual intention of building the tunnel. The basement of the “warehouse” was unconventionally deep since it ultimately served as the staging area for the tunnel. This did not go unnoticed by the Berlin-based engineers working on the project. Time reported that one of the civil engineers had quit the project due to the unusual specifications, asking, “Why build a cellar big enough to drive through with a dump truck?” 

US forces began constructing the tunnel in August 1954 and completed it in February 1955. The tunnel was 1,476 feet in length and during the process “3,100 tons of soil were removed; 125 tons of steel liner plate and 1,000 cubic yards of grout were consumed.”  The tunnel was lined with sand and cast-iron lining plates and a wooden-rail track was built for construction vehicles to navigate over. During its construction, several unanticipated issues arose including a leak from an undocumented pre-World War II cesspool which flooded the tunnel. Engineers solved this problem by installing a pump; one of the civil engineers on the project stated in retrospect, “History does not record what was used to alleviate the odor!” Moreover, the tunnel was rigged with explosives during its construction and operational use to ensure its destruction upon the completion of the mission. 

After the British successfully tapped the telephone cables, surveillance began. CIA and SIS agents listened in on conversations and correspondences between Soviet forces. They accessed messages from the Soviet embassy in East Berlin, the Soviet military headquarters, and information being relayed from East Germany to Soviet officials. According to Stephen Budiansky from his book Code Warriors, “Sixty-seven thousand hours of Russian and German conversations were sent to London for transcription,” a windfall for the CIA and SIS.

Despite Operation Gold’s perceived success, this covert operation had been exposed right from the beginning. George Blake, one of the SIS agents who was involved early on in the project, was actually a double agent! He reported knowledge of the tunnel to his Soviet superiors. However, they viewed Blake as too valuable of an asset to compromise and thus decided not to halt the flow of confidential information (high level communication was on a separate untapped system) . When Blake was transferred away from Operation Gold, the Soviets decided to “discover” the tunnel. On April 21, 1956, Soviet forces broke into the tunnel from the eastern end. Their intention to expose the acts of the CIA and SIS was overshadowed in the media coverage of the discovery, which focused far more on the engineering feat that Operation Gold accomplished. 

The success of the project in its intention to extract information is widely debated. Regardless, the operation did demonstrate the CIA’s ability to secretly construct a 1,500 feet tunnel underneath one of the most heavily patrolled borders in the 1950’s, a dazzling feat of engineering and surveillance, a feat that captures the fear of surveillance Rockwell displays in his song “Somebody’s Watching Me.” Now, every time October rolls around and Rockwell begins to sing “who’s watching,” I hope you think of Operation Gold.

Image from Rockwell. Somebody’s Watching Me. UMG Recordings, Inc, 1984, Accessed October 30, 2022.

Sareena Dubey is an M.A. student in the Global, International, and Comparative History (MAGIC) program. Her focus is on long-term immigrant settlements in the West originating from South and Southeast Asia.  Her research specifically explores the resulting cultural practices, intra-ethnic hierarchies, social movements, and outside interventions on and within these communities. In her free time she enjoys collecting records and cuddling with her dachshund, Disco.

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