In all the long history of spies, no country has managed to make itself leakproof. Right now the United States is prosecuting a special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on charges of passing secret documents to a female agent of the Soviet KGB. A Navy spy ring that operated for years has recently been broken up. Great Britain has never lived down the case of Kim Philby, a spy for the Soviets who served at the very center of British intelligence before fleeing to Moscow in 1963.
But nobody in recent years has topped the record of the West Germans as an open book in which spies browse undetected for years on end.
In 1954 Otto John, the head of Bonn's counterintelligence operation, turned out to have been a Soviet agent all along. Twenty years later Chancellor Willy Brandt was forced to resign because Guenter Guillaume, a close aide, was exposed as a Communist agent. Now we have the spectacle of a key official in the counterintelligence service defecting to East Germany, and secretaries to the president and the economics minister fleeing to avoid arrest.
The embarrassment of the West German government is understandable. It's as though, over a period of years, Communist spies had turned up on the White House staff, in the highest levels of the FBI and in the anteroom to the secretary of the Treasury.
The West Germans do face some uniquely difficult problems. People in East and West Germany speak the same language, frequently have relatives in the other zone and tend to consider themselves as two halves of one nation. The flow of immigrants from the East is enormous, and it is inevitable that sleeper agents are among them. Estimates of the number of East German spies in West Germany run as high as 25,000.
By any standard, though, the present spy case is mind-boggling. Hans Joachim Tiedge, the central character, was a veteran of 19 years in the counterspy service. For the last three years he had headed the department charged with ferreting out East German spies. Up to the very minute when East Germany announced that he was in East Berlin, government officials were pooh-poohing the notion that he might have gone over to the other side.
Yet Tiedge's superiors had known for years that he drank heavily, was disastrously in debt and suffered fits of depression. His housekeeper warned authorities long ago that he had a habit of leaving top-secret documents strewn around his flat. The lame excuse of his superiors is that, had he been fired, he would have been a greater security threat than if left undisturbed in his job. They know better now.
It is being recalled, belatedly, that 200 West German agents in East Germany have been arrested in the last 18 months, while arrests of East German spies had decreased considerably since Tiedge took over the spy-catching job three years ago.
The Tiedge case is an unmitigated disaster for West Germany, which must now assume that the East Germans and the Russians know just about everything that there is to know about the personnel and operating techniques of the West German intelligence services.
The effect on the United States and other Western allies is less clear. Some officials in Washington and other Western capitals suggest that the damage to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's overall intelligence operations will be slight. Others say that the damage, including the possible exposure of American and other Western agents, may be grave indeed.
The most unsettling thing about the case is its open-ended nature. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that, sensational as the disclosures of the past week may be, they are not the end of the story--that many other Communist agents remain in place in Bonn, prepared to pass on the innermost secrets of the Western alliance.