Olof Palme at a bus stop in what appears to have been a US city in the summer of 1948

When the perhaps most effective spy master of the Cold War era, East Germany’s Markus Wolf, passed away in 2006, many persons drew a sigh of relief over the fact that he took a lot of names with him to the grave.

Putting together some scattered pieces from the life of Sweden’s former Prime Minister, we wonder if one of those names might have been Olof Palme.

To work as a spy during the Cold War was probably different from the age of the Internet and WIFI.

Nicking secrets from bulky documents may have been the easy part of the job.

A greater challenge was to continue to be able to do this for months and years on end, without being discovered by the counterintelligence.

Back then, the perhaps most hazardous element of such clandestine work was visiting secret meetings for debriefing and handing over stolen a/o photographed documents to the spy’s handlers.

During the Cold War handing over secrets had to be physical, using dead drops or meetings.

Today a USB-stick can hold all the books in a municipal library and the data can be transmitted through short microwave bursts (think WIFI) – making unnecessary physical contact.

To become a spy of the caliber that former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme at times were accused of having been, by his political enemies, requires training in the craft of espionage.

Above: Scotland Yard notes (arrows) on the photo of Olof Palme

A common way to solve the need for continuous “education” was that for a few weeks, sometimes months, agents sneaked away from their responsibilities and met their handlers at undisclosed locations.

In order to maintain agent’s cover, stories about vacations or meetings with relatives were invented – narratives “confirmed” by forged documentation such as counterfeit entry and exit stamps in passports or manipulated photographs.

In order to try to investigate the espionage accusations against Olof Palme, we asked Scotland Yard to examine a copy of a famous photograph of Palme, where he allegedly stood at a bus stop somewhere in the United States in the summer in 1948.

The suspicion was that the manipulated photograph was part a cover story.

From Private Secretary to Prime Minister

In the wake of the new openness that followed in the wake of the end of the Cold War, a Swedish television crew flew to Moscow where they were offered the opportunity to directly ask representatives of the newly formed Russian intelligence: Did Olof Palme ever work for any of the intelligence services of the East Bloc?

In front of the camera sat two Russian men, an elderly Cold War spy master and a young colonel from the newly created Russian intelligence service. The older man passed the question on to the younger man.

The colonel explained that it would have been very impractical – if not impossible – to try to recruit and run a head of government as spy.

A much better better choice, continued the young colonel, would have been to recruit the Prime Minister’s private secretary or some other more anonymous person, an administrator with access to the Swedish state secrets, but which had more personal freedom and could fly under the radar of the general public and the counterintelligence.

Above: Prime Minister Tage Erlander (1946-1969) with his protege and indispensable private secretary Olof Palme

As soon as the colonel finished answering the interview was concluded. The impression given the viewers was that Palme in all likelihood had not been a spy, and that accusations leveled by i.a. Carl Bildt (himself a CIA-agent) were unfounded.

The circumstance never mentioned in the interview was that before Olof Palme became Prime Minister, he was actually the protege and private secretary of his predecessor Tage Erlander for almost ten years…