That Time the Soviets Bugged Congress, and Other Spy Tales

During a private meeting in the Oval Office earlier this month, President Donald Trump is understood to have disclosed highly classified intelligence to two senior Russian diplomats. U.S. reporters and photographers were excluded the White House meeting, but bizarrely, a photographer from the Russian state-run media agency, TASS, was admitted. Soon, commentators were asking an obvious question: whether it was smart to allow a Russian government photographer, with his electronic equipment, into the Oval Office. Responding to that point, a former deputy director of the CIA, David Cohen, replied: “No, it was not.”

In the days that followed, Vladimir Putin helpfully offered to provide a “recording” of the Russian meeting in the Oval Office, leading to howls of laughter on Twitter at the Kremlin leader’s puckishness. It turns out this was a mistranslation from Russian: He meant a written “record.” However, though it may seem like a story line from The Americans, fears that the TASS photographer may have planted an electronic monitoring device in the Oval Office are not as far-fetched as they first seem. In fact, the Kremlin is a past master of planting hidden listening devices in America’s most sensitive government buildings. During the Cold War, Soviet intelligence used TASS as cover for espionage, and in one operation, used it to plant a bug at the center of Capitol Hill.

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Despite struggling to compete with Western technology throughout the Cold War, the Soviets were masters at electronic bugging. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow was one of the KGB’s most remarkable targets; it was riddled with Soviet microphones. It was penetrated virtually continuously from the beginning of Soviet–American diplomatic relations in 1933 until at least the mid-1960s. Inexplicably, however, almost all historical studies of American relations with the Soviet Union, even those recently published, overlook the hemorrhage of diplomatic secrets from the U.S. Moscow embassy for more than 30 years.

At the end of the Second World War, an electronic sweep of the Embassy revealed a staggering 120 hidden microphones. According to a member of its staff, they “kept turning up, in the legs of any new tables and chairs that were delivered, in the plaster of the walls, any and everywhere.”

One of the most extraordinary bugging discoveries at the U.S. embassy in Moscow occurred in 1952, when an electronic sweeper heard the voice of the American ambassador, the legendary George Kennan, but nobody could find from where it was being transmitted. After a painstaking search, it was eventually traced to a wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States, which the Soviets had given to the U.S. government as a present at the end of the war, and was proudly on display in Kennan’s embassy study. When a security expert smashed open the seal with a mason’s hammer, a pencil-shaped bug was found in it, housed in a metal chamber about 10 inches long. The microphone bug had been relaying Kennan’s every word in his study to Soviet eavesdroppers—and presumably those of previous ambassadors. Its sophistication stunned Western security observers: It was a resonating device, requiring no external power supply, so could remain operational indefinitely. It transmitted when Soviet technicians in a building nearby bombarded it with microwaves. U.S. sweepers discovered it by getting Kennan to pretend to dictate a telegram, which persuaded the Soviets to activate the device and enabled the Americans to home in on it. Kennan later recalled he felt “acutely conscious of the unseen presence” in his office. The morning after its discovery, Kennan noted in his memoirs, there was a “new grimness” among locally employed embassy guards and staff: “So dense was the atmosphere of anger and hostility that one could have cut it with a knife.”

The KGB also successfully bugged the Moscow embassies of America’s Cold War allies. In 1983, for example, the French embassy in Moscow discovered that bugs in its teleprinters had been relaying all incoming and outgoing telegrams to the KGB for the past six years. Soviet intelligence also penetrated the Italian embassy in Moscow. Although evidence from Soviet archives is incomplete, the world’s leading intelligence historian, Christopher Andrew, has suggested that thanks to bugging, at key periods during the Cold War, France and Italy were conducting something akin to open diplomacy toward the Soviet Union.

As well as bugging the Moscow embassies of its Cold War enemies, Soviet intelligence also tried to plant bugs at the heart of U.S. government in Washington: Congress. An influential head of KGB operations in America, Oleg Kalugin, who worked in the KGB for 32 years and was one of its youngest-ever generals, later described the KGB’s scheme to bug Congress as one of its most audacious operations. In his published exposé, Kalugin described that in the 1960s, the KGB first considered installing a microphone in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, hoping to listen to its closed sessions. However, on advice from a TASS reporter, who spent a lot of time on Capital Hill, it concluded the Senate committee’s security was too tight. Instead, the KGB decided to target the House of Representatives’ Committee on Armed Services, which in closed sessions also discussed all aspects of top-secret American military issues. The KGB’s plan was to use a TASS reporter to smuggle a bug into the committee’s hearing room in an open session and leave it there, transmitting, for closed sessions. The bug was devised by KGB technical services in Moscow, who, as Kalugin recalled, “could do anything from installing poison darts in umbrellas to spying on someone from a satellite”. They constructed a small battery-powered wireless bug, concealed in a thin wooden panel, with sharp metal spikes on its top, that could be used to fix it to the underside of a table.

Throughout the Cold War, U.S. and British intelligence suspected that TASS was used as cover for Soviet intelligence. Their fears have since been proved justified by Kalugin’s revelations and by previously secret Soviet intelligence (KGB) archives. At least one KGB “resident” (head of station) in America worked under cover as TASS bureau chief in New York. A colonel in Soviet military intelligence (GRU) in America worked undercover as TASS bureau chief in Washington. For Soviet intelligence, an obvious benefit of using TASS for espionage was that, as an official organ of the Soviet state, it enjoyed diplomatic immunity. A head of the KGB’s department of Special Tasks (what Western countries would call “covert action”) noted that Moscow required TASS to support his intelligence operations. Kalugin put it more succinctly, noting that TASS was “heavily staffed by KGB officers.”

In the summer of 1967, the KGB decided to put its bugging plan for Congress into action. A TASS reporter successfully smuggled the bug into an open hearing of the House Committee on Armed Services. After milling around for a while at the end of the hearing, he stealthily removed it from his pocket, fixed it under a table, and left. However, waiting in a car a few blocks away from the Capitol, KGB technicians failed to pick-up a signal from the bug. Unknown to them at the time, U.S. authorities had discovered it, disarmed it, and left it in place. Years later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Kalugin visited the United States, a member of the U.S. intelligence community told him that the FBI had been waiting for the KGB to fetch the bug.

Bugging was part of the Cold War intelligence game, in which both sides, Soviet intelligence and its Western counterparts, undertook progressively more complex eavesdropping operations. The renegade British MI5 “spy-catcher,” Peter Wright, who worked in MI5’s technical section—perhaps the inspiration for James Bond’s Q-Branch— recalled probably accurately that he and his colleagues “bugged and burgled our way across London at the state’s behest.” In one operation, in 1956, Wright, disguised as a telephone technician, gained entry to the Egyptian embassy in London and installed a hidden microphone that allowed British intelligence to attack the embassy’s secure cypher machine. The microphone was so sensitive that it could pick up keyboard strokes and clicks from the device, which could then be used to figure out its settings. The Egyptian embassy’s cypher machine was soon easy prey for British code-breakers—useful because that year, 1956, Britain launched an attack on Egypt in what became known as the Suez Crisis.

Britain’s intelligence services were as good at electronic eavesdropping as their Soviet counterparts. During the Cold War, MI5 installed microphones in the London headquarters of the British Communist Party (CPGB) with the aim of detecting Soviet espionage. Termed “special facilities,” these bugs provided MI5 with the CPGB’s inner secrets and a rolling commentary on how its leadership viewed world events. They provided incidental intelligence collection on those visiting the CPGB’s headquarters, who in some instances went on to have political careers that at the time were unimaginable to the CPGB—and MI5’s listeners. The bugs picked up leaders of various anti-colonial movements who visited the CPGB’s headquarters, often as students in London, some of whom in the postwar years went on to lead their countries to national independence from Britain. MI5 bugs revealed that the CPGB viewed many colonial independence leaders as disappointments, “busted flushes” who failed to toe the Communist Party line.

MI5’s bugs in the CPGB were codenamed source “Table,” perhaps a reference to where they were located. An insider to the British secret state has suggested they may have been desktop telephones, whose handsets were modified to be always on and listening—foreshadowing later techniques allegedly used by America’s NSA and Britain’s GCHQ to use mobile phones as listening devices. Transcripts of bugged conversations were typed up by MI5 assistants, in scenes probably similar to those depicted by John Le Carré in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and are now publicly available in declassified MI5 records. Transcribers sometimes spared the embarrassment of MI5 officers by writing swear words they heard in Latin. Audio transcripts also captured ironic moments. On one occasion in the postwar years, a leading CPGB member, John Gollan, was heard to warn his Party comrades not to use the telephone because the “bloody secret service” had probably tapped it. He went on, warning them that all would be revealed when “‘we’ve cracked the archives one day. Then you’ll know what was going on!” Indeed: MI5’s microphones picked up his entire conversation and its transcript is now publicly available at the UK National Archives.

British intelligence also seems to have bugged the confidential diplomatic negotiations of British colonies seeking independence, talks that took place in the grand setting of Lancaster House, in St James’s district, London. As I have shown, Britain and the United States needed to know what side of the Cold War former British colonies were moving on independence, and eavesdropping played an important role in this. British intelligence even seems to have wired microphones in the toilets at Lancaster House, where colonial delegations discussed negotiation tactics supposedly in private. Although it has been overlooked in almost all the vast historical literature of Britain’s end of empire, one senior former British colonial official has told me that having transcripts of bugged private conversations of colonial delegations at Lancaster House was the equivalent of playing a game of poker and knowing an opponent’s hand.


It is arguably one matter to spy on colonial delegations, but quite another to bug the president of the United States. Could the Russians have done it? The Trump administration’s confusion about whether the TASS reporter in the Oval Office was photographing for private use, as the White House thought but apparently did not check, or acting officially for publication, as the Russian Foreign Ministry claimed, does not inspire confidence. Placing a monitoring device in the Oval Office would be an obvious and prized target for the Kremlin under Putin, a former KGB officer.

Of course, the White House has long had stringent security measures to protect the president’s secrets. The TASS photographer had his equipment screened, the White House said, and the Oval Office is also equipped anti-eavesdropping measures. Alarmingly, however, the U.S. agency with arguably the greatest expertise in detecting clandestine electronic devices, the National Security Agency, was not consulted beforehand about Trump’s Russian meeting in the Oval Office. When asked whether the White House had asked his agency for advice, “in terms of the risk of some kind of cyberpenetration or communications in that incident,” the NSA director, Admiral Mike Rogers, said he had not been consulted, adding, “I’ll be honest, I wasn’t aware of where the images [of the meeting] came from.”

If Trump has not ordered every inch and crevice of the Oval Office swept for bugs, he needs to do so now. Russia’s intelligence services today, the FSB and SVR, consider themselves the proud heirs of the KGB and to be waging a resurgent Cold War with the West—whatever the president may say to the contrary. Since the end of the Cold War, it appears that Russia’s SVR has continued to use TASS as cover for its operations in America and in 1998 a highly sophisticated Russian listening device was discovered in a key conference room at the State Department. Unlike the past, however, today’s White House does not seem to recognise Russia’s intelligence services as hostile. On the contrary, Trump appears to regard them as allies, judging from the top-secret Israeli intelligence he is said to have disclosed during that now-infamous meeting. Perhaps Putin does not need to install a bug under the Resolute Desk after all—he already has a source there.

Calder Walton (@calder_walton) is an Ernest May fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he is a member of the Applied History Project, and is writing a book on the history of British and U.S. intelligence.

Cummings: Flynn appears to have lied to security clearance investigators

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Rep. Elijah Cummings speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill on May 17. | AP Photo

Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said Monday his panel has obtained documents “that appear to indicate” that Michael Flynn “lied to the investigators who interviewed him in 2016 as part of his security clearance renewal.”

Flynn told security clearance investigators he was paid by “U.S. companies” for his 2015 trip to Moscow for an event celebrating the Russian propaganda outlet RT, where he sat at a table with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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Flynn was paid $45,000 by RT for a speech he gave at the event. The money was routed through Flynn’s speakers’ bureau, Leading Authorities. But Cummings notes that RT paid “directly” for airfare, lodging and other expenses for Flynn and his son.

It is a crime to falsify or conceal information on a security clearance application.

Cummings’ allegations are in a letter sent Monday to the Oversight Committee’s chairman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). Cummings notes that the White House has rejected a March request from the committee for documents on the process it used to vet Flynn before he was named as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser.

“We need to know what the president, vice president, White House counsel, and other top officials knew about General Flynn — and when they knew it,” Cummings writes.

Flynn’s lawyer on Monday alerted the Senate Intelligence Committee Flynn would not comply with its subpoena for a list of his contacts with Russian officials during the presidential campaign.

Sessions’ Senate testimony canceled this week

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 12: U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions arrives for an event at the Justice Department May 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. Sessions was presented with an award Òhonoring his support of law enforcementÓ by the Sergeants Benevolent Association of New York City during the event, but did not comment on recent events surrounding the firing of FBI Director James Comey. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Senate Appropriations Committee had announced Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ appearance last week. | Getty

Attorney General Jeff Sessions will no longer testify before the Senate this week on funding for the Justice Department, aides said Monday — a hearing that would likely have been overtaken by questions about the federal probe into potential collusion between Russian officials and the Trump campaign.

DOJ spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said the canceled testimony, which has been planned for Thursday, was due to a scheduling conflict. The Senate Appropriations Committee had announced Sessions’ appearance last week, although the testimony was not included in the weekly guidance from the Justice Department.

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“We expect this will be rescheduled shortly,” Flores said in an e-mail.

Other Cabinet officials are traveling to Capitol Hill this week to discuss details of President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal, which will be formally unveiled on Tuesday. But with Sessions, Democrats are sure to raise questions about the controversy swirling around the Trump White House and the Russia investigation, as well as Trump’s surprise firing of former FBI Director James Comey earlier this month.

For instance, Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Patrick Leahy of Vermont have written letters to DOJ, asking for more information on reported requests from Comey for more resources for the Russia probe shortly before he was dismissed. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told lawmakers in closed-door briefings last week that he is not aware of any requests from Comey for more resources for the Russia investigation.

Flynn defies subpoena, invokes Fifth Amendment

Michael Flynn is pictured.

The Senate Intelligence panel is investigating Michael Flynn as part of its larger probe of Russia’s meddling in November’s election. | Getty

Michael Flynn informed the Senate Intelligence Committee Monday that he will not comply with the committee’s subpoena for a list of his communications with Russian officials ahead of last year’s presidential election.

The Senate Intelligence panel is investigating Flynn, President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, and other Trump campaign aides as part of its larger probe of Russia’s meddling in November’s election. Flynn had previously signaled he was not cooperating with the committee’s May 10 request for documents.

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Flynn’s lawyer, Robert Kelner, asserted in a letter Monday that his client has a Fifth Amendment right not to produce the documents, as doing so would amount to a “testimonial act.”

The letter noted Flynn previously told the committee he would testify only if he got “assurances against unfair prosecution” and that his demand for immunity is unchanged.

“The context in which the committee has called for General Flynn’s testimonial production of documents makes clear that he has more than a reasonable apprehension that any testimony he provides could be used against him,” Kelner wrote. “Multiple members of Congress have demanded that he be investigated and even prosecuted.”

It’s unclear whether the Senate will vote to hold Flynn in contempt and refer his case to the Justice Department for criminal charges or to federal district court for civil enforcement. These routes are long and complicated, and there’s no guarantee they would succeed.

Turkey tests Trump’s patience after protesters roughed up

Turkish officials, under pressure to prove loyalty to their autocratic president, are casting fresh blame on the United States over a violent clash last week between Turkish security guards and protesters in Washington.

And there’s not a whole lot the Trump administration can do about it.

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Turkey’s Foreign Ministry on Monday summoned the U.S. ambassador in Ankara to lodge a formal protest days after Washington police intervened to stop Turkish security officials from beating up protesters. The violence near the embassy came soon after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with President Donald Trump at the White House, and video caught Erdogan watching some of the skirmish.

The May 16 melee was an astonishing glimpse into the growing hostility between America and Turkey, two NATO allies at odds over how best to fight Islamic State terrorists, among other disputes.

The State Department summoned Turkey’s ambassador for a dressing down and publicly condemned the brawl last week, but the White House stayed quiet. A senior administration official wouldn’t rule out future action by Trump but acknowledged Monday that Turkey is such a critical anti-terrorism partner that the U.S. is limited in how much it can retaliate.

“This is the hand we’ve been dealt,” the official said, noting that the fissures date to former President Barack Obama’s tenure. “It is not surprising for Turkey to demonstrate some behavior that we would not expect from one of our closest allies. There are just frictions within the relationship.”

The fallout also shows the lengths Turkish officials will go to maintain their standing with Erdogan amid a crackdown at home. News of Turkey’s protest Monday came as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley landed in the Turkish capital.

“The Foreign Ministry and the diplomatic corps is increasingly focused on Turkey’s domestic politics rather than improving relationships with other countries,” said Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations. “What matters is them demonstrating loyalty to the point of absurdity. Everybody is absolutely going out of their way and is super sensitive to any potential slight to Erdogan’s or Turkey’s honor.”

In a statement Monday, the Turkish Foreign Ministry alleged that U.S. security personnel—presumably the D.C. police—had taken “aggressive and unprofessional actions” and that American officials were responsible for “lapses of security” during Erdogan’s visit. The statement came days after the Turkish Embassy claimed that the anti-Erdogan protesters were affiliated with terrorists, and that the people who attacked them outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence were “Turkish-Americans” who “responded in self-defense.”

“It has been formally requested that the U.S. authorities conduct a full investigation of this diplomatic incident and provide the necessary explanation,” the Foreign Ministry said.

Tensions have heated up between the two nations on several key matters. The Turks are angry that the Trump administration has decided to directly arm Kurds battling the Islamic State in Syria. Turkey argues that those Kurdish forces are affiliated with the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group in Turkey labeled as a terrorist outfit by Washington and Ankara. But the Trump administration considers the Kurds in Syria vital soldiers in the mission to destroy the Islamic State.

Turkey also is upset that the United States has not handed over Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Muslim preacher that Erdogan blames for a failed coup attempt in Turkey nearly a year ago.

At the same time, some corners of the U.S. government have expressed alarm about Erdogan’s increasing power as well as his crackdown on opposition leaders, journalists and others whom he has deemed a threat.

Last week’s brawl wasn’t the first time Turkish security officials resorted to violence in Washington — they did so last year when an Erdogan appearance at the Brookings Institution drew protesters. The Turkish security officials involved in the melees have legal immunity under international diplomatic conventions, so they can’t be prosecuted by U.S. authorities.

Months after the Brookings incident, after Erdogan survived the coup attempt, some of his aides suggested that the United States may have had a role in trying to overthrow him—claims that drew a sharp retort from the Obama administration.

Turkish society is highly polarized now, and Erdogan has resorted more and more to violence against his opponents, said Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The Turkish president “does not want to be seen as being pushed around by the U.S. because that makes him look weak domestically,” said Cagaptay, whose book, The New Sultan, chronicles Erdogan’s rise.

For its part, the Trump administration has sent mixed messages about where it stands on Turkey and Erdogan in particular. In April, Trump congratulated Erdogan after Turkish voters approved a much-disputed referendum expanding the powers of the presidency, but the State Department chose to highlight alleged discrepancies in the vote and urged Erdogan to respect Turkish citizens’ human rights.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert confirmed that U.S. Ambassador John Bass had been summoned by the Turkish Foreign Ministry, but she said the State Department has made its concerns about the incident with the protesters known as well.

“The conduct of Turkish security personnel last week was deeply disturbing,” Nauert said. “The State Department has raised its concerns about those events at the highest levels.”

Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said that when it comes to Turkey, it’s important for the Trump administration to be as public as possible in its denouncements of unacceptable behavior. So long as Erdogan keeps jailing anyone he believes insufficiently loyal, however, it’s possible his subordinates will keep lashing out against the United States.

“I would put this in the category of trolling,” Cook said. “It’s all geared toward domestic public consumption.”