September 15, 2012
The National Security Agency’s Center for Cryptologic History has released a fascinating 35-page historical monograph detailing how the Soviets for eight years were able to steal American secrets from inside the U.S. embassy in Moscow and the U.S. consulate in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Written by NSA historian Sharon A. Maneki, the monograph, entitled “Learning from the Enemy: The GUNMAN Project,” used interviews and dozens of declassified documents to tell the story of what may very well be one of the most successful KGB espionage operations mounted against the U.S. during the Cold War.
The monograph reveals that beginning in 1976, the KGB successfully installed sophisticated miniaturized electronic eavesdropping equipment and burst transmitters inside 16 IBM Selectric typewriters used by the staffs of the Moscow embassy and Leningrad consulate, which copied everything being typed on the machines, then periodically broadcast their take to KGB engineers manning listening posts just outside.
The KGB bugs were discovered eight years later in 1984 by a NSA operation codenamed Project GUNMAN, which was the brainchild of the NSA deputy director for communications security, Walter J. Deeley. Shortly after President Ronald Reagan approved the project in February 1984, NSA secretly sent a team of electronic eavesdropping and communications security specialists to Moscow to look for the Soviet bugs. NSA did not clear the project with the CIA or the State Department because, according to the monograph, “relations between NSA and State were poor. NSA had been writing critical reports about inadequate security in State Department facilities for several years. Faurer [General Lincoln Faurer, director of NSA] also believed that CIA would mishandle the NSA plan.”
Over the span of just 100 days, the NSA team replaced every piece of communications and encryption equipment, teletype machines, computers, printers, copiers, and typewriters then being used at the U.S. embassy in Moscow and the consulate in Leningrad, and replaced them with new “clean” equipment covertly brought in from the U.S. The old equipment was shipped back to NSA headquarters at Fort George G. Maryland, where every item was visually inspected an x-rayed by NSA specialists.
The first bugged IBM Selectric typewriter was discovered during a routine x-ray inspection at Ft. Meade on July 23/24, 1984. By the time the operation was completed, NSA technicians had found bugs inside 16 IBM Selectric typewriters, all of which had been shipped to Moscow and Leningrad between October 1976 and January 1984.
In the end, NSA concluded that the Soviets eavesdropping operation had most likely compromised every document typed on these 16 electric typewriters over the span of eight years from 1976 to 1984, but NSA and the FBI were not able to provide a more refined and detailed damage assessment because it had gone on for such a long time and because key documents about who in Moscow and Leningrad had used the typewriters had been destroyed by the State Department.
The results of the top secret NSA operation were leaked to CBS News, which broadcast the revelations on the night of March 25, 1985. Furious NSA officials demanded an investigation into how the details of the operation leaked to CBS, but a preliminary inquiry revealed that the perpetrator could not be identified because there were too many people within the White House and Pentagon who knew about the operation.
As I wrote in my history of NSA “The Secret Sentry,” the Reagan White House was notoriously leaky when it came to protecting classified information. Dozens of classified intelligence operations were compromised by press leaks originating from within the West Wing, the Pentagon and the State Department. But nobody was ever prosecuted for these offenses during Ronald Reagan’s tenure in the White House, even though in many cases the intelligence community had a pretty good idea who gave the news media the information. The same issue holds true today. Many of the most strident voices in Congress who have been loudly demanding investigations into leaks of classified information to the press are renown in Washington circles as having been reliable sources of information for the press corps in the past. Hypocrisy rules this town.