Whenever an international spy story hit the headlines, a number of local residents engrossed. After all, this town is the site of Camp Peary, the main training ground for new CIA intelligence officers and a favored retirement place for former CIA officials.
The recent report about a retired Austrian colonel suspected of working for Russian intelligence since the 1990s was felt here. The colonel provided Moscow with information about all aspects of the Austrian military and, according to news reports, he was paid more than 300,000 euros for his almost 20-year service.
This brought back stories of what was called “The Redl Affair.”
On May 25, 1913, Col. Alfred Redl, one of the most powerful and ruthless intelligence chiefs of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, was found shot to death in a Vienna hotel room, an apparent suicide. An elaborate effort was made by the government of Emperor Franz-Joseph to cover up the reason behind it.
Redl’s official death notice appeared in Prager Loyd, a German-language daily paper published in Prague, Bohemia. Egon Ervin Kish, a young reporter, saw the official announcement but didn’t pay much attention to it. That is, not until his soccer team lost their Sunday afternoon match.
One of the best players, a locksmith, didn’t show up at the game — but he had a valid excuse. He was summoned to the headquarters of the military counterintelligence service and taken to Redl’s apartment in Prague. Redl was Chief of Staff of the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Army in Bohemia.
The locksmith was ordered to open the door and all locked drawers in the apartment. He overheard the counter-intelligence officers talking about high treason, and he was sworn to secrecy, never to divulge what he had witnessed.
Learning all this, Kish, the reporter with the perseverance of a bloodhound, picked up the trail of the story.
He learned that for more than a decade, while serving as the chief of the imperial counter-intelligence service, Redl was a paid agent of Czarist Russia. He not only protected Russia’s spies, but furnished Moscow with sensitive intelligence, including the Order of the Battle of the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Army.
Redl became a Russian spy by succumbing to blackmail. A Czarist military attaché stationed in Vienna learned of the colonel’s homosexual escapades. To avoid being exposed, he agreed to work for the Russians.
For years, Redl communicated with Moscow through coded letters addressed to mail drops in Switzerland. He in turn received instructions and payments via letters to be picked up at the post office in Vienna.
Because of heightened international tensions, mail censorship was instituted throughout the Empire. Redl, no longer in charge of counter-intelligence, was not aware of it. When he arrived to get the mail addressed to a fictitious name, a letter stuffed with banknotes and a coded message, he was observed by a counter-intelligence agent.
Redl, was shadowed as he returned to his hotel. His driver noticed Redl opened the letter with a small, silver, pocket knife. It was found, slipped behind the upholstered seat of the carriage. With the retrieved knife in hand, the agent walked up to Redl in the hotel lobby. He asked Redl whether the knife belonged to him. He acknowledged ownership, then his face turned pale. As a former intelligence officer, he realized immediately that he made a fatal mistake.
Redl’s interrogation was conducted according to the rules of “chivalry” existing among the officers of the Imperial Army. He made a detailed confession and was spared a humiliating public trial. He was given a pistol and allowed to commit suicide.
The “Redl Affair,” was thought to have been disposed off with a watertight cover up. It almost succeeded, but for a lost soccer match in Prague, a talkative locksmith and the tenacity of a young reporter.
Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.