Summer, 1945, and after shedding blood together for many years to defeat the Nazis, the United States and the Soviet Union embrace each other fondly and prepare to carve out a bright, hopeful future for all humanity.
Just kidding, as the second world war wound down, both sides prepared for the inevitable third world war against each other.
It started with children, which should have been the first tip-off to US intelligence services because children are terrible. As the US ambassador to the Soviet Union was moving into his new digs in Moscow, a group of children arrived with a spying gift.
The Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization 1, an organization kind of like the Boy Scouts but with a million names because it was Soviet, had hand-delivered a present to the ambassador as a sign of their nation’s gratitude for critical US aid during the fight against Hitler.
The gift was impressive, a hand-carved wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States, and the ambassador was overwhelmed with gratitude. Turns out though, the gift was sort of a self-gift for the Soviets. Kind of like when you surprise your girlfriend with dinner out on the town- at the place you want to go.
US Ambassador Averell Harriman promptly hung up the wooden seal inside of his private study, where conveniently he’d end up doing most of his official ambassadorial work, like sharing juicy state secrets with visitors or making sensitive phone calls back home to the United States.
Without even knowing it, Harriman had just given the Soviets a spying chance on every single one of his conversations, and it wouldn’t be discovered for seven years.
Soviets spying wasn’t a secret
The Soviet Union spying on people wasn’t exactly a new concept even in 1945, the nation had after all run a massively successful intelligence network even before the second world war. When you move your ambassador into a home built by Soviets on Soviet soil, you can expect that it’s going to come with more than a few spying devices.
Thus the ambassador’s home was searched carefully for any spying devices planted in the walls, floors, ceilings, vents, etc., and yet discovered nothing. Even sweeping the home for tell-tale radio signals revealed no planted spying devices, putting the ambassador at ease and dropping his guard.
How did the US miss very obvious listening device planted right in the middle of the ambassador’s study?
The ‘thing’, as it would go on to be called, was devised by Russian inventor Leon Theremin. If that name sounds familiar it’s probably because you’re a huge nerd and either own or have played with the musical instrument known as the theremin.
Created in the 1920s while Theremin, the person not the musical instrument, was working for the Soviet military, the theremin- this time yes, the instrument, not the human- works by generating electromagnetic fields around two antennas. One antenna, straight and vertical, controls pitch, the second antenna, positioned horizontally and looped, controls the volume.
By manipulating the electromagnetic fields with their hands, a skilled operator can create beautiful musical harmonies.
Shockingly, Theremin- now the person again, not the instrument- had not in fact been hired by the Soviet military to create whimsical musical instruments, but rather to design radios and other electronic communications and listening devices. Eventually, Theremin was thrown into a gulag as part of Stalin’s grand strategy of murdering every brilliant scientist, engineer, or military officer the Soviet Union had to offer.
Then the 1940s came, and the Germans began being awfully rude neighbors who insisted on visiting Mother Russia and overstaying their welcome. Realizing that perhaps the best way to be a powerful nation was to not in fact imprison everyone smarter than you, the Soviets let Theremin and thousands of other engineers and scientists out of their prison camps.
Theremin was quickly apologized to by the Soviet authorities who kindly offered him a choice of a job developing spying devices or taking an early retirement fifty feet below the surface of the Volga river.
Theremin created the world’s most sophisticated listening device
Theremin would go on to create what would be the world’s most sophisticated listening device, something truly decades ahead of its time.
The Great Seal gifted to Ambassador Harriman, was much like a Russian nesting doll, with a hidden cavity inside the wooden seal itself. The cavity worked to catch and trap sound waves, and a small quarter-wavelength antenna would act as a microphone.
The most brilliant bit however was the fact that the device ran on absolutely no electricity- the ‘thing’ had no batteries, wires, or even a transmitter. There was no electromagnetic activity that would be easily found by US spies looking for bugs. In fact, without outside interference, the device was completely inert.
Soviet spies could listen to Ambassador Harriman’s every conversation
The truly brilliant bit was how the thing would allow Soviet spies to listen to Ambassador Harriman’s every conversation.
The thing only worked when a radio signal of a very specific frequency was transmitted to it from nearby. Sound waves from inside the ambassador’s office would pass through the wooden case and strike the interior membrane, causing it to vibrate. This vibration caused the electric charge of the antenna to vary, which would modulate the radio waves being broadcast towards it before re-transmitting them.
Then, KGB agents on the receiving end could demodulate the signal and listen in with startling clarity to the conversations going on inside the ambassador’s office.
Because it had no moving or powered parts, the thing could potentially sit in place forever, which eliminated the need for KGB agents to covertly enter the apartment and change out batteries on their planted bug, potentially exposing themselves in the process. The device could also be operated at great distance, with KGB spies sitting in a van a block away, completely undetected by the ambassador or any of his staff.
To this day it’s not known what intelligence the Soviets were able to glean from the thing. As a ‘non-active’ listening device, its range would have been extremely limited- the thing could only clearly pick up conversations that happened near it. Luckily for the Soviets, the ambassador had placed the thing in the place that made most sense inside his home- his private study where he would have handled many sensitive details of his work.
With regular sweeps for bugs, it’s likely the American ambassador felt very secure inside his own home, and the thing was likely an intelligence gold mine for the KGB. The thing would happily operate undetected for six years before people started to realize something strange was going on.
People started to realize something strange was going on
The British were the first to become suspicious while doing their own bit of espionage. In 1951, a British agent was monitoring radio communications from the Soviet Air Force inside the British embassy.
Suddenly, he began to overhear an American and British voice carrying on a conversation on an open radio channel- unknowingly the British had happened to tune in to the right frequency as nearby KGB agents beamed radio waves into the US ambassador’s home in order to activate the thing. The radio operator immediately recognized the voice as belonging to the British Air Attache’.
A year later, an American radio operator – also snooping in on Soviet military chatter – happened to pick up a conversation with voices that sounded distinctly American. Triangulating the signal revealed it to be coming from the direction of the Ambassador’s home.
Immediately the US launched several sweeps for bugs, but because the thing would only transmit when illuminated by a specific range of frequencies, and emitted no electromagnetic energy otherwise, nothing was discovered.
A few months later, a new set of sweeps was undertaken, with the Americans aware that the KGB often liked to plant bugs and then remove them, only to replant them again when the heat died down.
The US State Department dispatched some of its best minds to Moscow, confident that not only was the US ambassador’s home bugged, but so were both the British and Canadian embassy buildings.
Using a signal generator that allowed them to broadcast various radio frequencies and listen for a return, the State Department team stumbled upon the thing, which they realized to their horror had laid undetected in the Ambassador’s study for almost a decade.
With the device being discovered, only thing left, was to analyze it
With the thing discovered, the last thing the US wanted was for the Soviets to remove it before they had a chance to analyze its technology. Thus that night the incoming ambassador George F. Kennan slept with the thing securely under his pillow, flying it back to Washington the next day.
The device was analyzed by both the Americans and their British allies, with the British eventually improving upon the technology in order to create their own breakthrough listening devices codenamed SATYR.
These devices, which would be used by the British, American, Canadian, and Australian militaries, had a much greater operating distance than the thing, and far greater acoustic sensitivity.
The improved SATYR devices were built on existing Soviet tech to make bugs that could be operated from a greater distance and could better listen in on their targets.
The US never confronted the Soviet Union about the thing, until May 1960. After four days of meetings by the UN Security Council to discuss the shooting down of an American U-2 spy plane inside the Soviet Union, the US brought out the thing for the security council members to inspect.
In a global game of finger-pointing with nuclear implications, the US justified its overflights of the Soviet Union by pointing out that the Soviets had also been spying on the US.
The spying device was operable for seven years, gathering massive intelligence, but in 70s, US got their revenge
For seven years the US had been outfoxed by the Soviets, resulting in an intelligence coup for the Soviet Union. But in the 70s, the US had more than its revenge.
In summer of 1972, the United States nuclear submarine Halibut silently slunk within just miles of one of the Soviet Union’s most important naval bases in the Sea of Okhotsk. There, under 400 feet of water, ran vital communication cables that linked straight back to the Kremlin.
As the Halibut approached the cables, it released an anchor that would keep it floating directly above the cables. Then, divers emerged from the belly of the submarine, carrying wiretapping equipment that looped CIA operatives inside the Halibut directly into the most secret of Soviet naval communications.
The Halibut would sit in a position for days, dutifully recording Soviet communications onto hard tapes, which would then be shipped back to the US for analysis. From this incredible wiretapping, the US recorded everything from Soviet nuclear strategy, to Soviet fleet deployments, to even conversations between Soviet admirals and their mistresses.
For their part, the Soviet military didn’t even dream that such an operation against them could be possible. For one, the cables were only several inches in diameter, leaving the US with over 600,000 square miles to search for a bunch of cables as thick as your wrist.
Then there was the trouble of accessing the cables so close to hordes of Soviet warships and military installations- the Soviets had no idea how truly stealthy US subs had become. Lastly, the Soviets did not realize that the US had developed deep diving techniques that allowed human divers to operate at an incredible depth of 400 feet.
But the Halibut managed to overcome these challenges, and despite having taken place 50 years ago today, the methods employed to tap into the Soviet communication cables and decipher their conversations remain secret.
The wiretapping operation proved to be an intelligence gold mine for the US, and is widely believed to have directly led to the end of the Cold War itself. Unfortunately, an American traitor would go on to reveal the wiretapping secrets to the Soviets in 1980, when he sold the information for $5,000.
Featured Image: The Thing Great Seal where spying device was installed, by Boevaya mashina, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons