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.