Operation Tamarisk – as it would become known – was executed mainly by the military intelligence services of the United States, United Kingdom and France. Operating originally in East Germany, the spy teams were at first tasked with gathering documents from garbage bins associated with key buildings.
The results were rewarding and the programme extended to include the trash left behind after military manoeuvres. In particular, western agents had discovered that Soviet and East German soldiers were desperately short of toilet paper and had resorted to using official documents and ‘orders’ as an alternative. These would be left behind after the forces had moved out of the area and the enterprising agents only had to stroll thought the now accessible area to discover many gems of information including code books, technical drawings, weapons specifications and movement orders.
In fact, due to sanctions and rationing, toilet paper was becoming scarce even in embassies, government buildings and more permanent military installations. The unintentional practice of using office documents as wipes became widespread. These documents weren’t supposed to be used and would clog up the pipes so they found their way into the trash instead. It’s very possible that the Soviets simply didn’t realise how many of their personnel had resorted to these measures and therefore the scale of the information flowing ‘outside’ was never fully appreciated for the security risk that it had become.
These discarded documents were incredibly important to the Western Missions, as they could provide invaluable information on “everything from ciphers to intelligence on morale levels and also on Army-Party-MGB relations in the field,” Richard J. Aldrich – The Hidden Hand: Britain, America and Cold War Secret Intelligence.
Some of the documents found revealed extraordinary secrets. Some of these included:
- A booklet of cyphers and codes current for the time.
- Human limbs with shrapnel wounds that allowed the west to calculate predicted injuries.
- The specifications for Soviet vehicle armour.
- The strengths and the weaknesses of the then current Russian tank.
- Military training guides including combat tactics.
Over time the practice of going through an enemy’s garbage has become known as ‘Tamarisking’ and, according to active agents, is still going on today although the use of official documents for toilet paper is apparently far less common in Russia.