Report: Dissidents Tracked Using Radiation

V I E N N A, Jan. 4, 2001 -- The feared East German secret police routinely sprayed suspected dissidents with a radioactive solution as a means of secretly tracking them, according to a new report.

Stasi agents would then wear portable Geiger counters that would activate when a marked suspected dissident was nearby, according to New Scientist magazine.

So that targets would not hear the distinctive clicking of the counter at close range, Stasi secret police agents wore the detector strapped under one arm, while a vibrating alarm was slung under the other arm.

The magazine reports that the 30-year-old invention mirrors the technology behind today’s pagers and cellphones. The magazine’s article was based on a paper by leading radiation protection expert Klaus Becker.

Straight Out of a James Bond Flick?

“It really is the stuff of James Bond movies,” Barrie Lambert, a radiobiologist at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, was quoted as saying. “It’s an unpleasant thing to do. The risk is not limited to the person being tagged. You’d be exposing other people, such as a spouse.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, Stasi agents would spray scandium-46, which emits highly dangerous long-term gamma radiation, on the floors of the rooms where suspected dissidents met. The solution would adhere to their shoes, allowing agents to then keep a close eye on anyone who attended a meeting there, the magazine reported.

If people could not be sprayed with a radioactive solution the spies would label their cars, documents or paper money, according to Becker. The Stasi also developed an airgun that could fire tags made of small pieces of silver wire into car tires.

Effects of Radiation ‘Close to Castration’

While the radioactive doses used were usually below what would seriously harm or kill, there were mishaps.

“The Stasi marked West German deutschmarks with large amounts of scandium to see how they circulated, to whom and for what purpose,” Becker was quoted as saying. While they expected to retrieve them, they didn’t and the notes disappeared without trace.”

Dr. Becker says that if a person carried more than one contaminated banknote in a pocket the result would be, according to the Stasi’s own research, “close to castration.”

The threat would continue as money changed hands or shoes brushed off their deadly dust on carpets in the home, particularly where children were playing.

The secret police force was careful, however, to ensure that the risk to its own agents was minimal.

Cancer Machines?

Becker also reported that “unusual non-medical X-ray machines” in former political prisons may have been used for covertly irradiating inmates. Large doses of X-rays are thought to be behind the deaths from cancer of a number of prominent dissidents.

Evidence of the radioactive tracking exercise was found in the vast Stasi archives by officials of the Berlin-based Gauck Commission, a German government agency investigating the former secret police.

“It is a remarkable story,” Becker was quoted as saying. “It’s the first well-documented case of such a thing.”

The German government will likely add his allegations to its massive, ongoing investigation of what may have been the world’s most deadly efficient secret service.

Becker left East Germany in 1951, aged 18. He later became a senior official of the Juelich Nuclear Research Establishment in West Germany.

Reuters contributed to this report.