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The Great Seal that held a listening device. Other grape-pit size transistor mikes have become available as the space age has developed,some from Japan for as little as $14. Private detectives specializing in divorce cases use one which can be secreted in a man’s food. When he swallows it, the warmth of the man’s stomach powers it, and it emits a high-frequency beep which can be picked up on a receiver 300 feet away. Another pill, with a different beep, is secreted in the food of the mistress. If the operative hears the two beeps together coming from the same room, he knows the two are making more than beautiful music together.” Photo: NSA.

The Great Seal that held a listening device. Other grape-pit size transistor mikes have become available as the space age has developed, some from Japan for as little as $14. Private detectives specializing in divorce cases use one which can be secreted in a man’s food. When he swallows it, the warmth of the man’s stomach powers it, and it emits a high-frequency beep which can be picked up on a receiver 300 feet away. Another pill, with a different beep, is secreted in the food of the mistress. If the operative hears the two beeps together coming from the same room, he knows the two are making more than beautiful music together.” Photo: NSA.

 Great Seal Bug

 That Time Soviet School Children Bugged the US Ambassador’s Office

In 1946, a group of Russian children from the Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organisation (sort of a Soviet scouting group) presented a carved wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States to Averell Harriman, the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union.

The gift, a gesture of friendship to the USSR’s World War II ally, was hung in the ambassador’s official residence at Spaso House in Moscow. It stayed there on a wall in the study for six years until, through accident and a ruse, the State Department discovered that the seal was more than a mere decoration.

It was a bug.

The Soviets had built a listening device—dubbed “The Thing” by the U.S. intelligence community—into the replica seal and had been eavesdropping on Harriman and his successors the whole time it was in the house. “It represented, for that day, a fantastically advanced bit of applied electronics,” wrote George Kennan, the Ambassador at the time the device was found. “I have the impression that with its discovery the whole art of intergovernmental eavesdropping was raised to a new technological level.”

There it hung until one day in 1952, when a British radio technician in Moscow, listening in on Russian air traffic, discovered something unexpected on one frequency: the sound of the British ambassador, loud and clear, along with other American-accented conversations. Thus began one of many exhaustive tear-downs of the embassy. They were looking to find a listening device—and they did, along with a new frontier of spying. The culprit was the Great Seal.

Inside the Americans and British found a tiny device the likes of which they’d never seen. So alien was the Great Seal Bug that the only appropriate name for it seemed to be “The Thing,” after the character in the Addams Family (which was then still just a New Yorker cartoon). It was a retroreflector.

The Great Seal features a bald eagle, beneath whose beak the Soviets had drilled holes to allow sound to reach the device. At first, Western experts were baffled as to how the device, which became known as the Thing, worked, because it had no batteries or electrical circuits. Peter Wright of Britian’s MI5 discovered the principle by which it operated. MI5 later produced a copy of the device (codename SATYR) for use by both British and American intelligence.

The American Ambassador to the USSR, was Averell Harriman, so that means that for six years, the Soviet Union had the ambassador’s office bugged. On May 20th 1960, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. revealed the great seal bug to the UN.

This seal was expertly carved, and beneath the eagle’s beak were barely visible pin holes made by a jewelers drill to admit voice waves to the diaphragm of the miniature microphone. The actual bug was very ingenious. Any sound made in the room caused a spring to vibrate. Eavesdroppers outside the building could then pick up the vibration measurements from the spring and turn it back into sound.

The microphone hidden inside was passive and only activated when the Soviets wanted it to be. They shot radio waves from a van parked outside into the ambassador’s office and could then detect the changes of the microphone’s diaphragm inside the resonant cavity. When Soviets turned off the radio waves it was virtually impossible to detect the hidden ‘bug.’ The Soviets were able to eavesdrop on the U.S. ambassador’s conversations for six years.

The Thing is a so-called resonant cavity microphone, consisting of a resonant cavity, combined with a condenser microphone. The diagram above shows an 'educated guess' of the construction of The Thing, based on various reports and publications. The device consists of a copper cylinder with a highly polished silver-plated interior, that acts as a high-Q resonant cavity of the reentrant type. At the center is an adjustable mushroom-shaped disc with a flat surface, acting as a capacitor in combination with a very thin 75µm membrane that closes the open end. An antenna enters the cavity through an insulated hole in the side of the cylinder and is capacitively coupled. The cavity has a diameter of 19.7 mm and is 17.5 mm long. The antenna is ~22.8 cm long (9"). The membrane, or diafragm, at the front of the cylinder is just 75 micrometers thick (3 mil). The tuning post can be adjusted to increase or decrease the capacity of the mushroom. The flat face of the mushroom has machined grooves to reduce the pneumatic damping 1 of the diafragm. According to one report, the distance between the mushroom and the diafragm was 230µm.

The Thing is a so-called resonant cavity microphone, consisting of a resonant cavity, combined with a condenser microphone. The diagram above shows an ‘educated guess’ of the construction of The Thing, based on various reports and publications. The device consists of a copper cylinder with a highly polished silver-plated interior, that acts as a high-Q resonant cavity of the reentrant type. At the center is an adjustable mushroom-shaped disc with a flat surface, acting as a capacitor in combination with a very thin 75µm membrane that closes the open end. An antenna enters the cavity through an insulated hole in the side of the cylinder and is capacitively coupled. The cavity has a diameter of 19.7 mm and is 17.5 mm long. The antenna is ~22.8 cm long (9″). The membrane, or diafragm, at the front of the cylinder is just 75 micrometers thick (3 mil). The tuning post can be adjusted to increase or decrease the capacity of the mushroom. The flat face of the mushroom has machined grooves to reduce the pneumatic damping 1 of the diafragm. According to one report, the distance between the mushroom and the diafragm was 230µm.

The Great Seal Bug (also known as the Thing) was a Soviet mission in which a listening device was implanted within a copy of the Great Seal of the United States which was presented as a plaque to the the United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union W. Averell Harriman.

The Great Seal Bug (also known as the Thing) was a Soviet mission in which a listening device was implanted within a copy of the Great Seal of the United States which was presented as a plaque to the the United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union W. Averell Harriman.

Council of Foreign Ministers in Moscow. Marshall preferred to work undisturbed and liked the casual arrangement of the furniture. The Great Seal bug before its detection, visible to the left on the office wall beyond the Ambassador’s desk.

Council of Foreign Ministers in Moscow. Marshall preferred to work undisturbed and liked the casual arrangement of the furniture. The Great Seal bug before its detection, visible to the left on the office wall beyond the Ambassador’s desk.

George Kennan, former Ambassador to the Soviet Union, in 1966. Photo: Library of Congress.

George Kennan, former Ambassador to the Soviet Union, in 1966. Photo: Library of Congress.

State Department employees were sent to Moscow  to investigate and conducted sweeps of the American, as well as the British and Canadian embassies, also suspected of being bugged.

The CIA then hired a British scientist to run an investigation on the bug, which had an extremely thin membrane, and had actually been damaged during handling by the Americans, who were bewildered by the device. The British scientist’s examination of “The Thing” would later lead to the development of a similar British listening system used throughout the 1950s by the British, Americans, Canadians and Australians.

In 1960, at the United Nations Security Council, the Soviet Union confronted the United States about a spy plane which had entered Russian territory and been shot down. In response to the accusation, the U.S. ambassador essentially proceeded to give a show & tell of the bugging device they had found in the Great Seal gifted to them by the Young Pioneer organization of the Soviet Union. The ambassador successfully pointed out, that it takes two to tango.

The summit was subsequently aborted.

It’s quite the story. And yet it’s only half of an even more intriguing tale– that of the inventor behind the bug which managed to go undetected for six years in the US embassy. But hang on a minute. Shouldn’t the US Ambassador’s office have been regularly swept for bugs even back in 1940’s?

The Thing was very difficult to detect. As mentioned, the technology was borderline sci-fi for its time; extremely small with no power supply, unlimited operational life and no radiated signals. It was made by a somewhat tragic Russian genius, Léon Theremin, who as a high schooler had built a million-volt Tesla coil and by the 1920s was working on wireless television, demonstrating moving images by 1927.

He was most famous for a pretty cool invention, the self-titled theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments. The first to be mass-produced, it’s a very strange but beautiful instrument which involves using a magnetic field to control the pitch in one hand and the volume with the other.

Circa 1961: Director of Security John Reilly (right) holds the cavity resonator 'bug' microphone found inside a carved wooden image of the United States Great Seal, presented by Soviet officials to the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1948. The DS agent at left points to where the bug was placed in the carving. Security technical officer Joseph Bezjian discovered the bug with the aid of Ambassador George Kennan in 1952. (Source: U.S. Department of State Archives)

Circa 1961: Director of Security John Reilly (right) holds the cavity resonator ‘bug’ microphone found inside a carved wooden image of the United States Great Seal, presented by Soviet officials to the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1948. The DS agent at left points to where the bug was placed in the carving. Security technical officer Joseph Bezjian discovered the bug with the aid of Ambassador George Kennan in 1952. (Source: U.S. Department of State Archives)

Hrusciov-dupa-prabusirea-U2-in-URSS-ramasite-aparat-zbor-2

Khrushchev inspects the wreckage from the U-2 spyplane, 1960. Photo: US Government.

A replica of the Great Seal which contained the Soviet bugging device, on display at the NSA’s National Cryptologic Museum. How the Thing worked: A radio beam was aimed at the antenna from a source outside the building. A sound that struck the diaphragm caused variations in the amount of space (and the capacitance) between it and the tuning post plate. These variations altered the charge on the antenna, creating modulations in the reflected radio beam. These were picked up and interpreted by the receiver.

A replica of the Great Seal which contained the Soviet bugging device, on display at the NSA’s National Cryptologic Museum. How the Thing worked: A radio beam was aimed at the antenna from a source outside the building. A sound that struck the diaphragm caused variations in the amount of space (and the capacitance) between it and the tuning post plate. These variations altered the charge on the antenna, creating modulations in the reflected radio beam. These were picked up and interpreted by the receiver.

26 May 1960, United Nations, New York, USA --- The United States United Nations Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge shows off a replica of the Great Seal of the United States to the Security Council of the UN. Soviet Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko smiles with amusement behind Lodge. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

26 May 1960, United Nations, New York, USA — The United States United Nations Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge shows off a replica of the Great Seal of the United States to the Security Council of the UN. Soviet Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko smiles with amusement behind Lodge. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Léon toured the world’s concert halls, performing in Europe and then the United States at Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic. He set up a laboratory in New York in the 1930s and his mentors included composer Joseph Schillinger and physicist (and amateur violinist) Albert Einstein. He married a young African-American prima ballerina of the first American Negro Ballet Company, Lavinia Williams, which shocked his social circles.

So here Léon was, enjoying life with his sci-fi musical instruments, giving the town something to talk about, when suddenly, he disappears.

Lavinia said he’d been kidnapped from his studios by some Russians. In 1938, he shows up in the Soviet Union, citing tax and financial difficulties in the United States as his reasons for returning so abruptly. Shortly after his return, Léon was arrested and sent to work in the Far East Russian gold mines. For a while, he went missing again, rumoured to be dead, but the inventor had been sent to the Gulag camp system to work in a secret laboratory.

There, he was put in charge of a team of workers to create eavesdropping systems for the USSR. He created one call the Buran system which the head of secret police used to spy on the British, French and US embassies in Moscow and allegedly, even on Stalin. It’s said Theremin actually kept some of the tapes in his room. In 1947, Theremin was awarded the Stalin prize for inventing this advance in Soviet espionage technology and shortly after, Léon invented The Thing.

The same year, he was released from the gulag and “volunteered” to remain with the KGB for another 20 years. When he finally got back to his music working at the Moscow Conservatory of Music, the chief music critic for The New York Times wrote a glowing article on Theremin’s work. Shortly after the piece was published in the US publication, the Conservatory’s Managing Director declared that “electricity is not good for music; electricity is to be used for electrocution” and had all Léon’s instruments removed and banned from the Conservatory. They fired him too.

Kiev Speccam Detective Camera. The version shown here is a modified 303, gold plated and leather bound case made to resemble a note book, complete with pages and a pen to write notes with. The pen holder opens up the camera ready to shoot and the shutter release is under the note book pages. You can’t set shutter speed, aperture or focus without removing the casing. The casing is fastened by a single screw.There are reports of another version, based upon the Kiev 30, with gold plated cover housing a lipstick case and mascara holder in an art deco case with handle.

Kiev Speccam Detective Camera. The version shown here is a modified 303, gold-plated and leather-bound case made to resemble a note-book, complete with pages and a pen to write notes with. The pen holder opens up the camera ready to shoot and the shutter release is under the note-book pages. You can’t set shutter speed, aperture or focus without removing the casing. The casing is fastened by a single screw.There are reports of another version, based upon the Kiev 30, with gold-plated cover housing a lipstick case and mascara holder in an art deco case with handle.

Spaso House, the U.S. Ambassador's official residence in Moscow and home to "The Thing" for seven years. Photo: US Government.

Spaso House, the U.S. Ambassador’s official residence in Moscow and home to “The Thing” for six years. Photo: US Government.

KEL / Bell & Howell SK-8 Audio Surveillance Briefcase. American recording device in attache case from the 1970’s.

KEL / Bell & Howell SK-8 Audio Surveillance Briefcase. American recording device in attache case from the 1970’s.

Kiev John Player Special. Dating from 1978 this is a Kiev 30 (23mm (f3.5-11); 1/30-1/250. 13x17mm format) concealed inside a package of “John Player cigarettes”. Supposedly, these cameras were designed by the KGB to use in the United Kingdom. It is very unlikely that this was a KGB design as the camera would never pass for a packet of cigarettes except by the most cursory glance and some variations lack the space for a real cigarette. These seem to have been engineered in the Ukraine to sell to gullible westerners and where first sold for 2000USD. Now typically under 100USD they are an interesting addition to the Kiev family of subminiatures.The top of the camera is open, showing the filters of fake cigarettes. One butt sticking out is used to advance the film. The normal aperture and shutter speed setting are at the bottom of the pack.The most common version is shown above. It was sold in a larger, fake, JPS cardboard box with a spare film cartridge.

Kiev John Player Special. Dating from 1978 this is a Kiev 30 (23mm (f3.5-11); 1/30-1/250. 13x17mm format) concealed inside a package of “John Player cigarettes”. Supposedly, these cameras were designed by the KGB to use in the United Kingdom. It is very unlikely that this was a KGB design as the camera would never pass for a packet of cigarettes except by the most cursory glance and some variations lack the space for a real cigarette. These seem to have been engineered in the Ukraine to sell to gullible westerners and where first sold for 2000USD. Now typically under 100USD they are an interesting addition to the Kiev family of subminiatures.The top of the camera is open, showing the filters of fake cigarettes. One butt sticking out is used to advance the film. The normal aperture and shutter speed setting are at the bottom of the pack.The most common version is shown above. It was sold in a larger, fake, JPS cardboard box with a spare film cartridge.

Diplomats and other Americans working in the USSR had long assumed that the walls in Moscow had ears. “Russia’s notoriety for eavesdropping and espionage stretches back even to the czars,” Representative Henry J. Hyde told the House of Representatives toward the end of the Cold War. “James Buchanan, U.S. minister in St. Petersburg during 1832-33 and later U.S. President, recounted that ‘we are continually surrounded by spies both of high and low degree. You can scarcely hire a servant who is not a secret agent of the police.’”

In the early 20th century, human espionage and eavesdropping was augmented by new technology like wiretaps and small, concealable listening and recording devices. Guests at Spaso House were given cards on arrival warning them that all rooms and even the garden were monitored. The Thing was one of the most sophisticated of these bugs.

The triumph of the Great Seal Bug was its simplicity, it had no power pack of its own, no wires that could be discovered, no batteries to wear out, and was active only when the Soviets “illuminated” it with a radio signal, making it nearly impossible to detect.

Te refurbishing of Spaso House by Soviet workers for ambassador George Kennan’s arrival in 1952—a perfect opportunity to plant devices—led to several security sweeps of the house, which turned up nothing.

“The air of innocence presented by the walls of the old building was so bland and bright as to suggest either that there had been a complete change of practice on the part of our Soviet hosts (of which in other respects there was decidedly no evidence) or that our methods of detection were out of date,” Kennan wrote in his memoirs.

In case the latter was true, State Department security technicians John Ford and Joseph Bezjian arrived in Moscow in September to conduct a more thorough search. Bezjian, nicknamed the “the Rug Merchant” by his colleagues, suspected that the Soviets had removed their bugs prior to the other sweeps and replanted them when the coast was clear. To keep them from doing that again, he posed as Kennan’s house guest. He had his equipment sent, well hidden, ahead of his arrival and spent several days hanging out, playing cards and observing the house staff while hunting for bugs at night. When they still couldn’t find anything, Ford and Bezjian suggested that they might have more luck if Kennan gave the eavesdroppers something to listen to.

One evening, the ambassador sat in the study with his secretary, going through the motions of dictating a classified diplomatic dispatch (actually one that had already been sent years ago, declassified and printed in a volume of the Department of State’s Foreign Relations of the United States series), while Ford and Bezjian went around the house with their detection instruments.

Kennan recounts in his memoirs that as he “droned on with the dictation,” Bezjian picked up Kennan’s voice on his radio receiver and followed the signal to its source. Bezjian went to the study and implored Kennan, “by signs and whispers, to ‘keep on, keep on.’” He left to grab Ford and the two men returned to work their way around the room. The signal carrying Kennan’s voice appeared to be coming from the wall behind the seal. Bezjian removed the wood carving, Kennan wrote, “took up a mason’s hammer, and began, to my bewilderment and consternation, to hack to pieces the brick wall where the seal had been.” As he did this, the signal cut out. Bezjian realized that the bug wasn’t in the wall but in the seal, and took his hammer to the Soviets’ gift.

“I, continuing to mumble my dispatch, remained a fascinated but passive spectator of this extraordinary procedure,” Kennan wrote. “In a few moments, however, it was over. Quivering with excitement, the technician extracted from the shattered depths of the seal a small device, not much larger than a pencil.”

At this revelation, wrote Kennan, “one was acutely conscious of the unseen presence in the room of a third person: our attentive monitor. It seemed that one could almost hear his breathing. All were aware that a strange and sinister drama was in progress.”

That night, Bezjian slept with the bug under his pillow so that Soviet agents couldn’t retrieve it. The next day, it was sent to Washington to be studied and replicated by American intelligence agencies, kicking off an arms race between the Soviets and Americans to develop similar and improved versions of the bug and countermeasures against them.

In the years The Thing hung on the wall, Spaso House was full of activity, high-level guests — including General Eisenhower, White House staffers and a dozen congressmen — and information. A member of the Soviet team that monitored the house via The Thing later revealed that it allowed them to “get specific and very important information which gave us certain advantages in the prediction and performance of world politics in the difficult period of the cold war.”

The Hound Dog Bug Detector And Phone Sweep was state of the art portable countermeasures for the 1960’s. If you owned a set, almost every detective agency in town wanted to see it and “barrow them.” They were made by R. B. Clifton and cost what would be about $2000.00 for the set by today’s standards. The Hound Dog was a portable RF bug detector which is shown on the left. The Phone Sweep was a tone sweeper that would let you remotely sweep a phone to turn on any hidden microphones which the unit could then detect. This was state-of-the-art countermeasures for the 1960’s. There were many countermeasures services that offered remote tone sweeping of telephone lines in these days. There were some agencies that even offered monthly remote tone phone sweeping services for a monthly fee.

The Hound Dog Bug Detector And Phone Sweep was state of the art portable countermeasures for the 1960’s. If you owned a set, almost every detective agency in town wanted to see it and “barrow them.” They were made by R. B. Clifton and cost what would be about $2000.00 for the set by today’s standards. The Hound Dog was a portable RF bug detector which is shown on the left. The Phone Sweep was a tone sweeper that would let you remotely sweep a phone to turn on any hidden microphones which the unit could then detect. This was state-of-the-art countermeasures for the 1960’s. There were many countermeasures services that offered remote tone sweeping of telephone lines in these days. There were some agencies that even offered monthly remote tone phone sweeping services for a monthly fee.

Microdot Camera. The secret transfer of documents became very difficult during the Cold War. Agents relied on the microdot camera to photograph and reduce whole pages of information onto a single tiny piece of film. This piece of film could be embedded into the text of a letter as small as a period at the end of this sentence. Microdots were also hidden in other things such as rings, hollow coins, or other mailed items. The recipient would read the microdot with the aid of a special viewer, often cleverly concealed as well.

Microdot Camera. The secret transfer of documents became very difficult during the Cold War. Agents relied on the microdot camera to photograph and reduce whole pages of information onto a single tiny piece of film. This piece of film could be embedded into the text of a letter as small as a period at the end of this sentence. Microdots were also hidden in other things such as rings, hollow coins, or other mailed items. The recipient would read the microdot with the aid of a special viewer, often cleverly concealed as well.

“Belly Buster” Hand-Crank Audio Drill. CIA used the “Belly Buster” drill during the late 1950s and early 1960s. It would drill holes into masonry for implanting audio devices. After assembly, the base of the drill was held firmly against the stomach while the handle was cranked manually. This kit came with several drill bits and accessories.

“Belly Buster” Hand-Crank Audio Drill. CIA used the “Belly Buster” drill during the late 1950s and early 1960s. It would drill holes into masonry for implanting audio devices. After assembly, the base of the drill was held firmly against the stomach while the handle was cranked manually. This kit came with several drill bits and accessories.

The Central Intelligence Agency set about to analyze the device, and hired people from the British Marconi Company to help with the analysis. Marconi technician Peter Wright, a British scientist and later MI5 counterintelligence officer, ran the investigation.He was able to get The Thing working reliably with an illuminating frequency of 800 MHz. (The generator which had discovered the device was tuned to 1800 MHz.)

The membrane of the Thing was extremely thin, and was damaged during handling by the Americans; Wright had to replace it.

The simplicity of the device caused some initial confusion during its analysis; the antenna and resonator had several resonant frequencies in addition to its main one, and the modulation was partially both amplitude modulated and frequency modulated. The team also lost some time on an assumption that the distance between the membrane and the tuning post needed to be increased to increase resonance.

Wright’s examination led to development of a similar British system codenamed SATYR, used throughout the 1950s by the British, Americans, Canadians and Australians.

There were later models of the device, some with more complex internal structure (the center post under the membrane attached to a helix, probably to increase Q), and some American models with dipole antennas. Maximizing the Q-factor was one of the engineering priorities, as this allowed higher selectivity to the illuminating signal frequency, and therefore higher operating distance and also higher acoustic sensitivity.

Whatever information the Soviets may have gained from The Thing, the wooden eagle would ultimately come back to bite them. In May 1, 1960, the Soviets shot down an American U-2 plane over Soviet airspace. At a meeting of the United Nations Security Council later that month, they accused the United States of spying and drafted a resolution to condemn the U-2 flights as aggressive acts and stop them. After sitting through several days of verbal attacks from the Soviets, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, countered by displaying the replica seal and the bug inside for the Security Council and the press as proof that the Soviets were also spying on Americans. The next day, the Soviet resolution was defeated 7-2.

As tense and weird as the discovery of The Thing was, George Kennan said that having the listening device in his home also provided some amusement in hindsight. He recalled that when he first moved into Spaso House, he often practiced his Russian by reading aloud to himself in the bugged study. He looked for material that covered events and people relevant to world politics and diplomacy, and the scripts for Voice of America broadcasts, full of “vigorous and eloquent polemics against Soviet policies,” fit the bill.

“I have often wondered what was the effect on my unseen monitors, and on those who read their tapes, when they heard these perfectly phrased anti-Soviet diatribes issuing in purest Russian from what was unquestionably my mouth, in my own study, in the depths of the night,” Kennan wrote. “Who, I wonder, did they think was with me? Or did they conclude I was trying to make fun of them?”

The Soviets were undeterred and continued planting bugs throughout the rest of the Cold War.

Russia’s notoriety for eavesdropping and espionage stretches back even to the czars. James Buchanan, U.S. minister in St. Petersburg during 1832-33 and later U.S. President, recounted that ‘we are continually surrounded by spies both of high and low degree. You can scarcely hire a servant who is not a secret agent of the police.’

An 1850-53 successor, Neil S. Brown, reconfirmed that ‘the opinion prevails that ministers are constantly subjected to a system of espionage, and that even their servants are made to disclose what passed in their households, their conversations, associations, etc.’ Otto von Bismarck, who represented Prussia from 1859 to 1862, stated ‘it was especially difficult to keep a cypher secure at St. Petersburg, because all the embassies were of necessity obliged to employ Russian servants and subordinates in their households, and it was easy for Russian police to procure agents among these.’ The tradition intensified and became more sophisticated under the Bolsheviks and their successors. The wife of the Italian ambassador in Moscow during 1927-30 said: ‘Spying on the part of the authorities was so common as not even to be thought of as spying.’

Nonetheless, Western laxity in the face of these dangers also has deep roots. A confidential 1940 memo to the White House from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover related the results of an investigation triggered by British complaints that shared intelligence was being leaked to the Soviets through the Moscow embassy. The memo revealed that single U.S. employees in Moscow frequented a prostitution ring linked to Soviet intelligence and that classified documents were handled improperly and may have been obtained by Soviet workers. The code room was found open at night, with safes unlocked and code books lying on the table.

By the 1930’s, technical eavesdropping supplemented human espionage. Guests at Spaso House, the U.S. ambassador’s residence, at one point were given cards welcoming and warning them: ‘Every room is monitored by the KGB and all of the staff are employees of the KGB. We believe the garden also may be monitored. Your luggage may be searched two or three times a day. Nothing is ever stolen and they hardly disturb things.’

Such Soviet monitoring techniques have been regularly discovered and occasionally publicized during the postwar period. Incidents revealed during the 1980’s alone are alarming in their scope and seriousness. In 1982, it was verified that the new embassy building had been penetrated. In 1984, it was found that an unsecured shipment of typewriters for the Moscow Embassy had been bugged and had been transmitting intelligence data for years. In 1985, newspapers revealed that the Soviets were using invisible ‘spydust’ to facilitate tracking and monitoring of US diplomats. In December 1986, Clayton Lonetree’s confession revealed that the Soviets had recruited espionage agents among Marine Guards at the embassy. Recently, we found microphones that had been operating in the Leningrad consulate for many years.

Although Moscow had developed over centuries a reputation for severe counterintelligence risks, and although the postwar period was replete with examples of this, U.S. State Department and embassy personnel continued to act like babes in the KBG woods.

“Electronic eavesdropping was not new. But until the Watergate incident, the general public knew little about it. This innocence was first challenged in 1960, when the now infamous Seal bug was displayed to the United Nations as an example of Soviet spying in the USA. With this dramatic revelation, bugging first became almost a household word, and widespread public interest has persisted ever since.

The triumph of the Great Seal bug, which was hung over the desk of the Ambassador to Moscow, was its simplicity. It was simply a resonate chamber, with a flexible front wall that acted as a diaphragm, changing the dimensions of the chamber when sound waves struck it. It had no power pack of its own, no wires that could be discovered, no batteries to wear out. An ultra-high frequency signal beamed to it from a van parked near the building was reflected from the bug, after being modulated by sound waves from conversations striking the bug’s diaphragm.

The Great Seal launched electronic snooping as no other incident could. The feeling in many circles seems to be that if such appalling tactics are employed by major world powers, lesser applications would hardly be as startling, if indeed not justifiable.”

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from John W. Ford’s unfinished memoirs…

“The year was 1951 the month of March aboard a train from Helsinki to Leningrad to Moscow. The view from our closely guarded train window, a 1900 wooden polished brass decorated Belgian passenger car was total uter (sic) sameness. As far as we could see across the Russian countryside, there was snow interrupted occasionally at station stops by the scene of heavily clad Russian women hoisting huge railway tires (sic).

My companion was an Armenian Joseph Beschian (also spelled Bezjian), an electronics technician.

I was thirty-one years of age only four years in the American Foreign Service. In this particular mission to Moscow, and in during this particular mission to Moscow there was ample time for reflection on the interesting and varied life one encounters in the American Foreign Service.

Our mission was secret at the time and our pouch bags were chuck full of electronic gear which hopefully would locate what the Soviets were using against the British, the Canadians and the U.S. Embassies in Moscow in the way of highly advanced electronic listening equipment.

Aboard that Moscow train and on many other occasions since, I have vowed that I would never encourage any of my six boys, three of whom were born in the American Foreign Service, to take up this gypsy life as a career.

As my own career nears the final chapter, I can honestly say with broad perspective of twenty-five years behind me I know of no career which would offer the adventures, travails as well as the rewards that does the American Foreign Service.” – John W. Ford

John W. Ford had a long and very illustrious career in the United States government.

Léon Theremin

Lev Sergeivitch Termen: The Inventor of The Great Seal Bug, aka The Thing

The Great Seal Bug – Part I

The Great Seal Bug – Part III

The Great Seal Bug – Part IV

The Great Seal Bug – Part V

 


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  • zotaccore

    A fascinating article, thanks for posting it, enjoyed reading the whole piece. I wondered if anyone was watching me tho :)

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