CLEARWATER BEACH — “Mankind's existence came within a hairs breadth of nuclear annihilation in 1983,” retired Army Colonel Water A. Bawell told the Clearwater Beach Rotary Club last Thursday.
In 1983 Colonel Bawell's responsibilities included the stationing of nuclear capable Pershing II missiles in Europe. He was Chief of the Joint Programs Section, Office of Defense Cooperation at the U.S. Embassy and responsible for negotiations between the U.S. Department of Defense and the German Defense Department during the “Cold War” between Russia and the United States.
Colonel Bawell, who was the guest speaker at the beach rotary club last week, recounted a dramatic love affair between a 32-year-old translator and interpreter at the American embassy in Bonn, and a “Romeo” spy sent by the Stasi - East Germany's secret police - to spy on the West during the Cold War, a sustained state of political and military tension between powers in the Western Bloc (the United States with NATO and others) and powers in the Eastern Bloc (the Soviet Union and its allies in Warsaw Pact).
The job of the “Romeo spy” was to seduce and romance women at the American Embassy, who were lonesome and hoping to find an American husband, into handing over secret documents.
During his time at the American embassy in Bonn, West Germany, Colonel Bawell was unaware that the embassy's translator, Gabriele Kliem, was dating a Russian spy, Frank Dietzel.
Dietzel had the German look of blue eyes and blonde hair, and spoke perfect English, according to the colonel. He told Kliem that he was a physicist working for an international research company committed to world peace; beyond that, he remained vague.
Kliem succumbed to the agent's advances and after just three months of courtship, the agent and the translator became engaged; this lasted seven years.
The relationship, the colonel said, “did not make it acceptable for her to convey classified documents into his care.”
According to news reports, Kliem handed over information for six years, including training plans for tanks and guns and that the Stasi was using her as part of a “false flag” project, meaning that she believed she was giving the information to a western agency.
Colonel Bawell said she also passed information on the stationing of nuclear missiles, military exercises and communication.
But in 1991, after the Berlin Wall came down, she was charged with espionage and found guilty. She was given a two-year suspended sentence and a large fine. Dietzel was dead, but other former spies, granted immunity from prosecution, gave evidence against her.
It is unknown exactly how many women were duped by the Stasi. But over the course of four decades, around 40 women were prosecuted for espionage in the Federal Republic of Germany, as a result of romantic relationships with undercover officers of the German Democratic Republic, according to the colonel.
Colonel Bawell, who grew up on Clearwater Beach, served two tours in Vietnam. He had assignments at the Pentagon, and extensive tours in Germany during the Cold War as a Foreign Area Specialist. One of his most memorable experiences was witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.
After he retired from the U.S. Army, Colonel Bawell worked for industry and later was elected President of the American German Business Club in Bonn, Germany, which was established in 1964.
The Clearwater Beach Rotary Club meets on Thursdays at 12 noon, at the Carlouel Yacht Club.