By: Jacqueline Gill (@jacqsgill)
Forty Flies in the Wall: Soviet Espionage in the Cold War Era
On May 19, 1964, American Foreign Service workers discovered an elaborate web of over forty microphones hidden within the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Foy Kohler, the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, immediately confronted Vassily Kuznetsov, First Deputy Soviet Foreign Minister, about the Soviet’s blatant espionage with an accusatory note, a deactivated microphone, and two incriminating photos of the devices.
Kohler described the exchange in a telegram to the U.S. Department of State Headquarters in Washington, D.C: After examining the note, Kuznetsov informed Kohler that “naturally he was not familiar with situation.” Kuznetsov insisted that the American’s discovery was simply a minor incident, and “wondered why [he] had chosen to make ‘strong’ protest’’ to the Soviets regarding the situation. Kohler then “replied that system of listening devices we had uncovered was so shockingly extensive—covering virtually [the] entire Embassy building, including living quarters, that we felt ‘strong protest’ was indeed warranted.”
Naturally, Kuznetsov was well aware of the forty plus microphones that were lodged into the walls of the American Embassy for over a decade, and, naturally, the U.S. Department of State responded with fervor. The U.S. Marines stationed as guards at the embassy used metal detectors to locate the microphones. Then they smashed through the walls “with crowbars and drills” to excavate the bugs. After examining the microphones, the State Department Security Chief, G. Marvin Gentile, believed that there were “indications that the devices were placed in the building prior to its occupancy by the United States’ 11 years earlier.”
The U.S.Department of State issued a report in October 1964 titled, “Estimate of Damage to U.S. Foreign Policy Interests (From Net of Listening Devices in U.S. Embassy Moscow).” The report stipulated that the Soviets “had the capability to read most, if not all, of our telegraphic messages between Washington and Moscow” during that time period.
The Americans condemned the Soviets for infiltrating the U.S. Embassy while almost simultaneously developing plans to build a subterranean tunnel beneath the Soviet Embassy in Washington D.C. Like the Soviet microphones, the secret tunnel “was reportedly designed as part of a sophisticated operation to eavesdrop on communications and conversations in the Soviet Embassy complex.” The F.B.I. and the National Security Agency began construction on the tunnel in the 1970s, and it remained in use until early 2001, after the agencies accused former F.B.I. agent Robert Philip Hanssen of betraying the tunnel to Russian agents.
Still, the 1964 discovery of Soviet infiltration into the U.S. Embassy in Moscow was not the only time that the Soviet Union duped the Embassy’s security forces.
On December 4, 1972, the United States and the Soviet Union signed a contract that stipulated for the construction of both a new U.S. Embassy in Moscow and a new Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. The two superpowers agreed that the “foundation and structure” would be “built by [the] host country with its materials, and other systems of the buildings built using host country workers under [the] owner's supervision using [the] owner's choice of materials except inside finishing of top four floors constructed entirely by the owner.”
Soviet construction workers broke ground on the new U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1979. The Soviets learned from their mistakes, and managed to place a more advanced system of bugs into the new American Embassy.
Despite warnings of foul play, the U.S. government did not send experts to inspect the building until 1982. The team of American security specialists “discovered interconnecting systems so sophisticated that they could not be removed from the steel and concrete columns, the beams, the precast floor slabs and shear walls between the columns. They found electronic ‘packages’ where a piece of steel reinforcement in the flooring should have been, and resonating devices that allowed the Russians to monitor precisely both electronic and verbal communications” within the new embassy.
The United States “spent $23 million on the building, but more than twice that amount in an attempt to figure out how the Soviets used eavesdropping devices to transform it into a giant antenna capable of transmitting written and verbal communications to the outside.” The U.S. government remained baffled for years and, in 1987, a “Senate committee described” it as “the most massive, sophisticated and skillfully executed bugging operation in history.”
The United States and Soviet Union’s tactics in the covert battle for information during the Cold War pale in comparison to the means of data-collecting in today’s online world. The passive aggressive quarrels and secret passageways of the Cold War Era are mere child's play.
In February 2014, the Russian Ministry of Defense began to develop a Cyber Military Unit. Enhancing cyber warfare tactics means, as argued by U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, that the Russian Military is exercising its cyber capabilities in Eastern Ukraine, which he says has “arguably and unfortunately...emerged as a laboratory for the future of 21st-century warfare.”
The 2015 “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” cites Russia’s cyber warfare capabilities as some of the best in the world. Russia’s Cyber Military Unit becomes more advanced each day.
The 2016 report states that “Russia is assuming a more assertive cyber posture based on its willingness to target critical infrastructure systems and conduct espionage operations even when detected and under increased public scrutiny.” No longer concerned with discretion, Russia’s ability to gather intelligence and to infiltrate foreign government agencies is more advanced than ever before.