Electronic espionage: origins and… some history!


What is electronic espionage? How is it implemented? What are electronic countermeasures? How does electronic warfare take place?

Few would be able to give an acceptable answer to these questions; in truth, the knowledge of the related problems has always been limited to some very restricted categories of people "involved in the work": the technicians of the big defense industries, the officers of the Armed Forces of the telecommunications or broadcasting branch and the specialists ofintelligence.

This last term, with which the English indicate the result of the evaluation, analysis and interpretation of information, does not have in Italian a word that in its fullness can render this meaning, in an all-encompassing way: our phrases "espionage" or "Information service" express only a part of the activities implied by the word intelligence (yet this word clearly derives from the Latin intellegentia whose first and important meaning was knowledge, cognition).

Before the Second World War there was only one way to carry out espionage: the use of secret agents who operated with the means that the rudimentary techniques of the time made available. The technological revolution of the second half of the twentieth century allowed the development, alongside traditional espionage, of a technological intelligence which could make use of very sophisticated equipment such as electronic and infrared sensors, radar emission interceptors, lasers, position locators, etc.

The first time that the general public became aware of these new information investigation techniques was the sensational episode of the downing of the American U-2 plane, on May 1, 1960.

Taken off on April 26, 1960 from the Turkish base of Incirlik to carry out a photographic and electronic reconnaissance mission in the heart of Soviet Russia, it was flown by CIA agent Francis Gary Powers, 30, former captain of the United States Air Force considered, for unanimous recognition, an excellent driver as well as a superb navigator. The Peshawar (Pakistan), Kabul (Afghanistan) Sverdlovsk (Russia) and Bodo (Norway) routes were plotted on his navigation chart. At his side he had a .22 caliber pistol and in a pocket, enclosed in a silver dollar, a tiny syringe full of curare!

It was shot 2500 km inside the then Soviet Union; ejected from the plane, once captured he claimed to be an employee of Lockheed in experimental flight ... .. but the justification did not hold.

At the trial, held in Moscow on May 11, the prosecution presented some artifacts, found among the wreckage of the plane, unequivocal parts of highly secret receivers to intercept radar signals or radio devices picked up in the overflown territories.

It was also the first time that a head of state - then General Dwight D. Eisenhower was US president - publicly admitted that an espionage action had been carried out and justified it as indispensable to the security of the state.

The sentence for Powers was severe; Fortunately for him, after only 17 months in prison, he was released following an exchange that took place exactly on the morning of February 10, 1962 in Berlin with the famous Soviet super spy Rudolph Abel who in the meantime had been discovered and detained in the United States.

The advantages deriving from the use of technical means made available by new technologies were not only qualitative but also quantitative: it was estimated in that circumstance that a U-2 type aircraft could, with a single mission, collect more information than a hundred spies could have collected in a year!

First of all, we observe that the field of espionage research has gradually expanded from the purely military sector to other "voices" that were not subject to investigation before the Second World War; we simply think of the industrial sector and the need to illegally procure highly advanced and secret technological knowledge, useful for achieving superiority on an industrial and military level.

The diagram summarizes some known historical forms of information gathering, with their abbreviations in English which are now part of the common language of the experts; obviously it should not be understood as a rigid classification in the sense that some activities can be conducted simultaneously from a single source or be complementary to each other to give, with a cross-comparison, the confirmation of the certainty of an information.

However, it should be noted that a good percentage of intelligence that one nation wants to lead to another is done simply by analyzing the "open" press that is newspapers, technical magazines, publications, advertising brochures relating to new equipment, promotional brochures, television programs, exhibitions, fairs to which today we can add facebook, instagram, twitter ... etc.

The tasks of the secret services, contrary to what one might think, are neither complicated nor obscure nor are they wrapped up in that air of adventure and recklessness so much praised in cinema films. For example, a secret service can be compared to the meteorological service which collects data on humidity, atmospheric pressure and temperature, analyzes it and then transforms it into forecasts on the weather that will happen in a given region. Similarly, a secret service collects and collects information of political, industrial or military interest, analyzes and interprets it to provide assessments on current events and forecasts on possible future developments.

Obviously, just as the meteorologist does not deal with the interventions that will be adopted to remedy the damage caused by bad weather, so the capture of a terrorist or the arrest of a dishonest government official are not part of the duties of a secret agent, all measures that are ascribed to other competent bodies.

Taking up the aforementioned scheme, Human espionage activities or HUMINT remain the best sources of information on the intentions of other men (for example political leaders); judging also by what happened recently in Italy, it must be recognized that the activity of recruiting generic spies has never stopped and, as the aforementioned Italian news events show us, money has always been a privileged form of "penetration" .

There have been so many cases of this kind that you are spoiled for choice to tell them.

The history of the modern HUMINT activity in the field of electronics is made to begin, immediately at the end of the Second World War, with the gift to the United States Ambassador in Moscow William Averell Harriman (October 1943 - January 1946) of an inlaid wood reproduction of the coat of arms heraldic of the United States (photo). The ambassador had him hang in his office where he remained for 7 years. Only in 1952 it was discovered that inside that artistic object a rudimentary spy microphone had been cleverly hidden, consisting of a U-shaped metal sheet that vibrated due to the sound waves produced by the voices of the people in the room. On the opposite side of the street, in a room overlooking the ambassador's office window, the Soviet secret services had installed a very sensitive continuous wave radar which, pointed exactly on the U-shaped plate, picked up the vibrations which were then converted into words!

A few years later, in the spring of 1964, another singular case of much more elaborate electronic infiltration was discovered, again in the American embassy in Moscow; a capillary network of microphones had been placed inside some walls, the installation of which aroused the amazement of the technical experts of the US security services.

This should not come as a surprise when you consider that all the service personnel who worked in foreign embassies and consulates in Moscow and Leningrad had to be Russian as well as the technicians (electricians, plumbers, telephone installers, etc.): very often they were service agents secrets as workers, drivers, waiters, etc.

Furthermore, in Moscow hotels frequented by Western foreigners of a certain importance there have always been rooms equipped with electronic micro-equipment; in this way the Russian secret services, whenever a distinguished guest arrived, were spoiled for choice in having him assigned a room with services…. special!

A singular case, which contains all the classic ingredients of spy novels, was that of the FBI agent Richard Miller (photo): in 1984 in Los Angeles he had the task of keeping under control the Russian immigrant community in which the KGB drew often to recruit his agents.

On one occasion he met the attractive Russian immigrant Svetlana Ogorodnikova. Miller had several problems: heavy family situation, debts, trouble with superiors who reproached him for neglecting the service. Svetlana, 34, with a model body, loved to talk with an open heart and on top of that she had a strange husband - Nikolai - who made no objection when Miller became his wife's lover. Once the love trap was triggered, he told all his problems to Svetlana who, confidence by confidence, confided to him that she was a "major" of the KGB. At this point Nikolai took action who, to meet his wife's friend, offered Richard $ 65 in exchange for working for The KGB.

As he could not resist Svetlana's charm, Miller could not resist even the money, starting to hand over to his new friends classified FBI documents. The frequent meetings between the beautiful "special guard" and agent Miller obviously did not escape the latter's superiors who intercepted him and discovered everything.

The trial of Miller (even a counterintelligence agent accused of spying!) Was a wake-up call for American security officials and even the common man in the street.

Therefore, a strengthening of the forces dedicated to counter-espionage was requested, taking into account that, as written in a report by the experts, at least four agents were needed to be able to monitor a suspect day and night.

The espionage case cited here also demonstrated to the American public that some of their fellow citizens became accomplices of Soviet spies no longer for ideological reasons but more prosaically for money.

But in recent years, the invasion of spies from Russia has worried not only the US leaders but all the Western and Eastern European countries of the former Soviet bloc.

Although there has not been much hype about it so far, it seems clear that Switzerland has become the center of electronic espionage in Europe as the seat of very important international organizations and consequently of political meetings at the highest level.

The permanent headquarters of the USSR first and then of Russia have been transformed over the years into fortresses bristling with antennas of all kinds.

According to Swiss officials, communications between Geneva and Moscow break all records for which the Soviet mission in Geneva can be considered a gigantic listening center right at the crossroads of international communications in Europe.

But the most disconcerting case in this type of espionage activity was the discovery, in the late seventies, of Soviet bugs in the Vatican, as a consequence of the interest that the Kremlin leaders had been showing for some years in Pope John's foreign policy. Paul II especially for Latin America and the Middle East: from time immemorial discovering the secrets of the “papacy” has been a very coveted but at the same time very difficult objective.

This was only made possible in our electronic age thanks to SIGINT technology combined with the skill of modern secret agents: the trump card is once again in the hands of those who have the most advanced knowledge in electronic and cybernetic technologies.

But about this, if you are interested, you can read it next time.

Giovanni Sulis (General on leave)

Images: (opening) film frame "From Russia With Love" (1963) / US Air Force / web / author / NASA / NSA / Bundesarchiv