Oshkosh b’ Gosh

The Cold War really was an amazingly strange time. I was alive during that time, but I was too young to really understand what was going on. If I was older and I was aware of some of the things that are now known about that time, I’m not sure how I would have reacted. A while back I read a book about submarine espionage called Blind Man’s Bluff, and I was shocked by the daring and audacity of our submarine forces.

One story in particular caught my eye. Operation Ivy Bells was a 1970s U.S. Navy and NSA plot to bug Soviet underwater communications cables in the Sea of Okhotsk*. Submarines periodically serviced the device and recovered tapes from it, providing U.S. Intelligence with tons of valuable data. Its an utterly fascinating story, and it demonstrates yet again America’s reliance on technology. (There is much more to the story than I will go into here, but I wrote a more detailed summary at E2. Read the whole thing, as they say… but if you really want to get into details, you should check out the book)

The wildly successful cable tapping operations in the Okhotsk was eventually discovered by the Soviets in the early 1980s. It was originally thought that the discovery was caused by a U.S. submarine mishap in which a sub fell on the cable (*ahem*), but when all the intelligence was analyzed, that explanation just didn’t fit. In 1985, U.S. authorities arrested Ronald W. Pelton, a former NSA employee who had sold out the Okhotsk cable tapping operation to the Soviets for $35,000. Yes, the Soviets were able to uncover one of our most important secrets for a paltry $35,000. Another spy named John Walker (and a ring of friends and family members whom he had recruited) was also caught in 1985. Between the two of them, the Soviets were able to get just as good a look at our communications as we were of theirs, and they didn’t need to spend years of research, millions of dollars in investments in technology, and risk their submariners’ lives.

Now, the contrast between the ways the Soviets went about information gathering and the way we did is an interesting one. The Soviets used a low-tech, inexspensive methodology that was very successful (a defecting KGB agent referred to the Walker ring as “the most important espionage victory in KGB history.”) The U.S. spent millions of dollars in technology and research, then daringly entered Soviet waters to place the taps. The U.S. method was just as successful, but more costly. Then again, the research and technology that enabled the cable tapping operations weren’t exclusive to these missions.

Its an interesting example of how a secure system can be undone by simple human interactions, isn’t it?

* Okhotsk was typically mispronounced as “Oshkosh” by those who partook on these missions (hence the title of this post and a chapter in the book)