A U.S. Navy
plot to bug Soviet
underwater communications cables in the Sea of Okhotsk
s periodically serviced the device and recovered tapes from it, providing U.S. Intelligence
with tons of valuable data. One intelligence officer
noted that they were engaging in the world's "second-oldest profession
," one with "even fewer morals than the first."
Underwater cables play a dominant role in international telecommunications since they offer a much larger capacity than the limited bandwidth
available for space systems. Soviet defense
officials insisted on constant reports from the field, but to transmit that information safely over the air would require a painstaking and intensive encryption
effort. Submarine cables also appear to be intrinsically secure because of the nature of the ocean environment. Or, so the Soviets thought.
Captain James F. Bradley
knew this, and thus surmised that there would be a communications cable system running from the Soviet Union
's missile submarine base at Petropavlovsk
(located on the Kamchatka Peninsula
, northeast of Japan1
) under the Sea of Okhotsk to join land cables going to Pacific Fleet
headquarters near Vladivostok
(north of Japan1
) and then on to Moscow
In late 1970, sitting in his Pentagon
office at 3 a.m.2
, Bradley could just imagine the intelligence windfall
that would occur if one of his subs was able to find the underwater communications cable and tap
it. It would provide a window to the heart
of Soviet leaders, including technical analysis free from propaganda
, reports on the abilities and problems with Soviet submarines, tactical patrol
plans, and maybe even assessments of ICBM
test flights that were known to occur in the area (and which the U.S. knew frustratingly little about).
There were a few tiny little problems with Bradley's grand plan, of course. To start, Bradley had no proof
that this cable even existed at all, and even if he did there was no way to really tell where it lay beneath the 611,000-square-mile expanse of the Okhotsk. He couldn't very comfortably justify the risk of sending a U.S. submarine into Soviet waters (if the sub got caught, the Soviets would probably see the intrusion as an act of piracy
, and try to sink or destroy her, forcing a dangerous international incident
) on a hunch
that a cable, which couldn't be more than 5 inches wide, might be somewhere in the general area.
Sitting in his office at 3 a.m., Bradley cleared his mind of the stress
of the business of Naval intelligence, thought back to his childhood, and came up with a solution so simple and strange that it might just be true. He remembered the riverboat
rides along the Mississippi
that his mother used to take him on in the 1930s. He grew up on riverboats, passing the time with the steamer captains in the pilothouse
. From there he had a clear view of the river, and he could see a series of signs placed discreetly along the shore. Most of these signs marked mileage
, but there were a few that were different. These signs, he remembered now, said something like "Cable Crossing. Do Not Anchor." They were meant to keep idiot boaters from snaring and severing a phone
cable in the shallows. Bradley snapped back to reality, and wondered to himself: Could what was true of the Mississippi also be true of the Okhotsk? This was how his sub would find the cable!
Funding and Politics
The idea of tapping Soviet underwater communications was nothing new. Bradley and his team had been dreaming up these types of operations for years, but the technology
to do so was only just becoming available (this included not only deep sea diving
, but also the physical ability to tap the lines without being detected). If he wanted this to succeed, he would need to secure funding
and political support
. Bradley had earned the respect and trust of most of the field personnel
, so it wouldn't be hard to field a crew for the daring mission (indeed, the daring of the cable-tapping
mission would make it easier to sell). Garnering Washington
's support would be a little trickier. The very idea of the cable-tapping mission was still a shaky one, so it wasn't easy. In the end, Bradley was able to meet with Henry Kissinger
and his top deputy, General Alexander Haig
, and won approval for the mission.
USS Halibut and the First Mission
The mission wasn't explicitly planned to find a submarine cable, but rather, to find and recover pieces of a new and deadly Soviet ship-to-ship missile
, known to be tested in the Okhotsk. The ship chosen to carry out the mission was the USS Halibut
, a truly goofy
looking sub that was converted to a "special projects" boat. It had a huge hump
(referred to as the "Bat Cave
") that housed all sorts of advanced equipment, including mobile underwater camera devices (called Fish
) and a huge Univac
computer (a rarity at the time).
Halibut and its Fish had enjoyed a moderate degree of success (and its share of frustrations), which allowed Bradley to again refit
it for the cable-tapping operation. This new refit added yet another ugly hump to the boat, a secret and crucial piece of equipment that was so well hidden that the Navy proudly advertised its presence. In fact, the media even praised the Navy for relaxing the secrets surrounding Halibut. The extra hump was a deep-submergence rescue vehicle
) - at least, that's what it looked like. In reality, the hump wasn't a DSRV at all, but a divers' decompression
chamber that was welded to the hull.
In the fall of 1971, Halibut set out on its new mission. It took nearly a month to even reach the Okhotsk, and several hours to get inside the sea. The way in was shallow
, but Halibut's crew managed. They were in. Still, they took elaborate
precautions to make sure they weren't being followed, and they were careful not to expose
themselves on the surface for too long.
After about a week of searching, they found it. The Russian
equivalent to Bradley's "Cable Here. Do Not Anchor." signs. So they sent some Fish swimming out of the Bat Cave... they watched the video feed
from the Fish as they navigated the murky
waters. Several hours later, they found what looked like a bump in the sand. After closer examination, they were convinced they had found the cable.
A diving crew was readied in the fake DSRV, and sent out with the tapping device. The device was about 3 feet long, and it contained a recorder
filled with big rolls of tape. It worked through induction
, so there was no need to cut into the cable (risking an electrical short
from the seeping seawater). They remained there for some time, collecting an adequate sample of Soviet voice and data transmissions. Eventually the diving crew returned and the Halibut set off for a Soviet test range
to look for those ship-to-ship missiles.
Though it sounds tedious
, the mission went unbelievably smoothly. The Halibut had enjoyed some moderate success in the past, but it was also rife with frustrations and failures. The Fish that had worked so well in finding the cable, were much more painful on previous missions, their towing lines constantly getting snagged or cut, and their picture was infamously poor. In fact, the mission went so well that Halibut was able to go to a Soviet test range to look for pieces of the new missile (which made use of a new kind of infrared guidance system
that the U.S. wasn't able to counter). Other spy subs were able to locate where the tests occurred, but only the Halibut could send divers out to retrieve the pieces, which they did.
Upon their return, the tapes from the cable tap
were immediately transported to the National Security Agency
complex at Fort Meade
. This is where some of the nation's top mathematicians
worked to break Soviet codes. There were also thousands of Russian linguists
and analysts looking over decoded communications. They immediately got to work on the tapes from the cable tap.
Meanwhile, the missile fragments that were recovered from the Soviet test range were also being analyzed. They never did manage to find the new infrared guidance system (it was assumed that the devices must not have survived impact), but they did find other crucial
parts of the Soviet missile, giving U.S. engineer
s some help in building a countermeasure
Eventually, word came from the NSA
that Bradley's guess had been correct. The recordings were pure military gold: conversations between the submarine base and high level Soviet Navy officials, some of them unencrypted or coded only in simplistic ways. Nothing like this existed in U.S. intelligence. For the first time ever, the U.S. was getting a look at the Soviet Navy's fears and frustrations, its assessments of its own successes and failures, and its intentions. Not only that, but the potential
for the tap had yet to be fully realized. The first tap was merely a test, conducted over only a few days worth of communications.
The next step was clear. Bradley wanted to tap as many of the lines as possible, and he wanted a device that could record for several months at a time. Halibut would place the tap one year, then retrieve the tap the next year. Bell Laboratories
developed a new recorder for Bradley's mission. Nearly 20 feet long and more than 3 feet wide, it weighed about 6 tons and utilized a form of nuclear power
. Leaving the device behind was risky, so Bradley's group wrote up some highly classified papers that argued that the use of an induction device was legal
At this point, Bradley was able to secure a more formal declaration of political support from Washington, and the Halibut was off again. Halibut was again successful, though she was beginning to show signs of her age.
The intelligence gained from the recordings was invaluable. No human agent or standard spy
boat could have collected the wealth of information that Halibut brought home. Eventually, some close calls prompted her retirement, but Bradley would plan more of these missions, and other submarines would be refitted to follow in Halibut's footsteps. The NSA bestowed a code-name on what was now an ongoing operation: "Ivy Bells
Indeed, the Okhotsk operations were so successful that the Navy later took the opportunity to tap underwater communications cables in the Barents sea
, gaining even more crucial insight into the Soviet Navy. Such a tap was not possible with the Halibut, she was too old and too noisy, and though her special modifications got the job done, they were far from ideal. The Barents wasn't as desolate as Okhotsk, and it was difficult water to navigate. The USS Parche
was just the boat for the job. She was quieter, faster, and much newer than anything that had ever been used for "special projects" like cable tapping ops before. In the late 1970s, her crew successfully placed a tap on an underwater communications cable in the Barents.
All throughout the 1970s, the cable tapping operations in the Okhotsk continued. The Halibut's replacement, the USS Seawolf
, handled the job until the early 1980s, when she was actually detected limping back home after sustaining some damage
in an accident caused by bad weather and some equipment failures. The boat had actually fallen onto the sea's floor, landing right on top of the communications wire. She was able to make it back home, but satellite
s uncovered evidence that the Soviets had found the cable tap in Okhotsk. Nobody knew how, of course. The operation may have been compromised by Seawolf's drop onto the cable or by a mole
within the crew, or, as unthinkable as it might be, among the few intelligence officers who knew about the taps in the first place.
As time passed, and all the available intelligence was gathered and analyzed, it became clear that the Seawolf's misadventures didn't line up with other intelligence reports. At the time, it had been easy to blame
Seawolf and her crew for compromising the operation - after all, she had slammed several tons of steel down on the Soviet cable. But the facts didn't line up. The Soviet survey
team that found the cable taps was well on its way even before Seawolf fell on the cable. Some U.S. investigators thought that the search for the cable taps looked deliberate. Too deliberate. The Soviets must have been tipped off by a spy in U.S. intelligence. Rich Haver
, a civilian Naval intelligence department head, wrote a report dated January 30, 1982 which suggested this, but the report, which was only seen by a few, was readily dismissed and his warnings were given little thought. Haver didn't have much traction when it came to possible intelligence leaks, as he had already tried to convince admiral
s to investigate a possible communications leak in the late 1970s.
At the time, there was a great deal of political wrangling between the Soviets and the U.S. The Soviets were deploying their nuclear subs to the Arctic, a brilliant move that could give them a slight edge in the nuclear
balance. During this time (and indeed, all throughout the cable tapping operations) the recordings brought back from the Barents helped in convincing U.S. officials that the Soviet move to the Arctic
and other Naval moves were not signs of aggression.
By March of 1985, when Konstantin Chernenko
died and the more tolerant Mikhail Gorbachev
was appointed, tensions were no longer quite so high. Gorbachev seemed more willing to negotiate and consider major changes. Despite the progress being made on these fronts, U.S. authorities made some startling discoveries that underscored that the days of the old-style cold warrior
s and spies were not over.
In May of 1985, John A. Walker Jr.
was arrested. Walker was a retired Navy submariner and communications specialist, and he had given all sorts of Naval communications secrets to the Soviets. He continued his espionage
even after he retired, recruiting his brother and son, among others. He was only caught because his ex-wife turned him in when he tried to recruit their daughter.
In July, a high-ranking KGB
officer defected, and confessed that the Walker ring was the "most important espionage victory in KGB history." And it didn't end there. Vitaly Yurchenko
, the defecting KGB agent offered up evidence of the Navy's second spy. The evidence was sparse, but it was enough. Ronald W. Pelton
, a former NSA employee, was arrested on November 25, 1985. Among the intelligence he had offered the Soviets was information regarding a certain top-secret
cable tapping operation in the Sea of Okhotsk.
Pelton had sold out the Okhotsk taps for $35,0003
Cable tapping operations continued throughout the 1980s. After the unsettling news of the two spies in 1985, there were a lot of questions being asked by Congress and the media. The Navy managed to keep the focus away from the USS Parche and the the tapping operations in the Barents and other places.
As you might be able to figure out, the Navy has not exactly been forthcoming when it comes to its precious cable tapping operations. Much of what is known has come out only after the Soviet Union fell, and its not exactly clear just how much surveillance went on during the 1990s, though it is suspected that President Clinton
agreed to continue the special projects submarine spy program, albeit with less of a focus on Russia
. Parche came back from extensive overhauls in the mid 90s and is suspected to have continued its cable tapping operations. It is scheduled to be retired sometime in 2003, when it will be replaced by the USS Jimmy Carter
, which has been undergoing a refitting of its own so that she can carry Parche's unique gear.
- These locations are just rough approximations that I derived from looking at a map
, just to give you an idea of where it was that I was talking about.
- I can't decide whether or not to be comfort
ed or creeped out
by the fact that there are people that are so dedicated to this country that they spend their twilight hours in the Pentagon
dreaming up new and wierd ways to spy on our enemies. But that's another discussion for another node.
- Pelton was attempting to mask his bankruptcy
and sold one of our nation's most important secrets for $35,000. U.S. cable tapping operations took years of research
, millions of dollars in investments in technology
, and risked our submariners' lives. Of course, Soviets had a somewhat more restrictive
society, so a simple human spy might not have been as easy for us to find as it was for them (not to mention the fact that Aldrich Ames
would later sell out all
of our Soviet spies), but its worth noting that this is an example of the U.S. reliance on technology. Its an amazing feat and the research and technology were not exclusive
to the cable tapping operations, to be sure, but the simple Soviet spy rings provide an interesting contrast
90% of the above information was gleened from the book Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage
, edited by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew. Its an excellent book, with much more than just cable-tapping information (though there is also a lot more on cable tapping there as well). I found out about the book from some History Channel program that featured the Ivy Bells story...
The following are some online sources:
Special thanks to Professor Pi
of the Typo Death Squad
for pointing out my many typos.