"How The Soviets Are Bugging America"
By Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan
From Popular Mechanics, April 1987
Soviet agents may be listening to your personal telephone
conversations. If you're involved in the government, in the
defense industry or in sensitive scientific activity, there
is a good chance they are.
In fact, a recent unclassified Senate Intelligence
Committee report on counterintelligence indicates more than
half of all telephone calls in the United States made over
any distance are vulnerable to interception. Every American
has a right to know this.
You should also know that the Reagan administration has
recognized this threat for a long time now, but so far, the
bureaucratic response has been piecemeal, and at times
Consider this as background: In 1975, when I was named
permanent U.S. representative to the United Nations, Vice
President Nelson Rockefeller summoned me to his office in the
Old Executive Office Building. There was something urgent he
had to tell me. The first thing I must know about the United
Nations, he said, is that the Soviets would be listening to
every call I made from our mission and from the ambassador's
suite in the Waldorf Towers. I thought this a very deep
secret, and treated it as such. Only later did I learn that
Rockefeller had publicly reported this intelligence breach to
the president in June 1975. The Rockefeller "Report to the
President on CIA Activities Within the United States" notes:
"We believe these countries (communist bloc) can monitor
and record thousands of private telephone conversations.
Americans have the right to be uneasy if not seriously
disturbed at the real possibility that their personal and
business activities, which they discuss freely over the
telephone, could be recorded and analyzed by agents of
The Soviets conduct this eavesdropping from their
"diplomatic" facilities in New York City; Glen Cove, Long
Island; San Francisco; and Washington. By some estimates,
they have been doing so since 1958. President Reagan knows
this well. He sat on the Rockefeller Commission and signed
its final report concluding that such covert activities
If we had any doubts about this eavesdropping effort,
Arkady Schevchenko dispelled them when he came over in 1975
and subsequently defected in 1978. As you will recall,
Schevchenko was, at the time, the second-ranking Soviet at
the United Nations and an up-and-comer in the Soviet
hierarchy. He describes the listening operation in New York
City in his book "Breaking With Moscow": "The rooftops at
Glen Cove, the apartment building in Riverdale, and the
Mission are bristled with antennas for listening to American
But we have to worry about more than just parabolic dish
antennas tucked behind the curtains in the Soviet "apartment"
building in Riverdale, New York.
There are also those Russian trawlers that travel up and
down our coast. They are fishing, but fishing for what?
Communications. And now the Soviets have taken their
eavesdropping a step further and have built two new classes
of AGI, or Auxiliary Gathering Intelligence, vessels. From
the hull up, these new vessels are floating antennas, I
Most dangerous of all, perhaps, is the Soviet listening
complex in Lourdes, Cuba, just outside of Havana. This
facility is the largest such Soviet listening facility
outside its national territory. According to the president,
it "has grown by more than 60 percent in size and capability
during the past decade."
Lourdes allows instant communications with Moscow, and is
manned by 2100 Soviet technicians. 2100!
By comparison, our Department of State numbers some 4400
Foreign Service Officers - total.
Again, to cite the recent Senate Intelligence Committee
report: "The massive Soviet surveillance efforts from Cuba
and elsewhere demonstrate ... that the Soviet intelligence
payoff from the interception of unsecured communications is
immense." Intelligence specialists are not prone to
exaggeration, they do not last long that way. You can be
assured that "massive" and "immense" are not subtle words as
used in this context.
There are, however, two things you should know.
First, our most secret government messages are now
protected from interception or are scrambled, and all
classified message and data communications are secure. In
addition, protected communications zones are being
established in Washington, San Francisco and New York by
rerouting most government circuits and by encrypting
microwave links which continue to be vulnerable to intercept.
But there are still communications links which carry
unclassified, but sensitive, information that we need to
Second, it is a truism in the intelligence field that
while bits of information may be unclassified, in aggregate
they can present a classified whole. The Senate Intelligence
Committee informs us, "Due to inherent human weakness,
government and contractor officials, at all levels,
inevitable fail to follow strict security rules ... Security
briefings and penalties were simply not adequate to prevent
discussion of classified information on open lines." If the
Soviets CAN piece it together, you must assume they WILL
given the resources they invest toward this effort.
But the intelligence community needs no reminder that we
are up against a determined and crafty opponent. In 1983, for
example, a delegation of Soviet scientists were invited to
tour a Grumman plant on Long Island. No cameras. No notes.
All secure, right? Wrong. The delegation had attached
adhesive tape to the soles of their shoes to gather metal
fragments from the plant floor for further study at home. The
Soviets are pretty good at metallurgy - probably the best in
the world - and we don't need to help them any further.
But concern is not always translated into budgetary
action, at least not in the realm of communications security.
Let us take a look at the technical problem confronting us.
As you know, there are two basic ways voice can be
transmitted over telephone media: digital and analog. Analog
refers to voice waves which are modulated (amplified) up to a
very high frequency (HF). That is, they are increased in
speed from hundreds of cycles per second to thousands of
cycles per second. This facilitates their passage over
Nevertheless, because analog radio waves diminish rapidly
over distance, it's necessary to periodically amplify, or
boost, the signal either at a microwave relay tower repeater
or satellite transponder. (Actually, the signals are
diminished in frequency to voice quality and then brought
back up to high frequency.)
Digital transmissions are voice or data vibration signals
which are converted into a series of on-and-off pulses, zeros
and ones, as in a computer. Like analog telephone calls,
digital calls go through a process of modulation and
For the purposes of this discussion, we need only
remember two things about analog and digital telephony.
First, analog telephony is fast being replaced by digital
telephony because it better translates computer language.
But, more importantly, after a high initial overhaul cost,
it's possible to send thousands of digital calls (bundles)
over a single conduit. Therefore, as we expand our digital
capacity, we must ensure that both our analog and digital
communications are protected from Soviet eavesdropping.
Second, sending bundles over a single conduit is the base
block at which we introduce the encryption I am talking
When you place a long-distance telephone call from point
A to point B, there are three communications paths, or
circuits, over which your call might travel: microwave,
satellite or cable.
Cable is the most secure. However, it is the least
practical and economical method for bulk transmission over
long distances. As a result, 90 percent of our long-distance
telephone traffic is sent by microwave or satellite, and that
which is in the air can be readily intercepted.
As your signal travels along the cable from your home to
the local switching station and then on to a long-haul
switching station, it is combined (stacked and bundled might
better describe the process) with as many as 1200 other
signals trying to get to the same region of the country.
This system of stacking and bundling signals is called
multiplexing and it's how the telecommunications industry
gets around the problem of 7 million New Yorkers all trying
to call their senator at the same time on the same copper
wire or radio frequency.
If you use a common carrier, that is, if you have not
rented a dedicated channel from a telecommunications company,
a computer at the long-haul switching station will select the
first available route to establish a circuit over which your
call signals may travel.
Therefore, calls that the caller believes to be on less
vulnerable circuits may be automatically switched to more
vulnerable ones. All this takes place in 1 to 3 seconds.
So let's follow your call as it goes by either microwave
If your call goes via microwave, it will be relayed
across the country as a radio wave in about 25-mile intervals
from tower to tower (watch for the towers the next time you
drive on an interstate route) until it eventually reaches a
distant switching station where it is unlinked from the other
signals, passed over cable to your friend's telephone, and
converted back into voice.
The problem with this system: Along these microwave paths
there is what we call "spill". This measures about 12.5
meters in width and the full 25 miles between towers. This is
where the microwave signal is most at risk. Using a well-
aimed parabolic dish antenna (located, let's say, on the top
of Mount Alto, one of the highest hills in the District of
Columbia, and the site of the new Soviet embassy) you can
intercept this signal and pull it in. And that is just what
the Soviets are doing.
My solution: Throw the bastards out if they are listening
to our microwave signals. Nothing technical about it. On
three occasions I have introduced legislation requiring the
president to do just that, unless in doing so, he might
compromise an intelligence source. On June 7, 1985, this
measure was adopted by the Senate as Title VII to the Foreign
Relations Authorization Bill, but it was dropped in
conference with the House of Representatives at the urging of
Nevertheless, I think the administration accepted the
simple logic behind the proposal when at the end of October,
55 Soviet diplomats were ordered to leave the country,
including, The New York Times tells us, "operatives for
intercepting communications." Now, let's not let the Soviets
just replace one agent with another.
The process is much the same for a satellite telephone
call. Today, approximately eight telecommunications carriers
offer satellite service using something like 25 satellites.
Let's suppose your signal has traveled to a long-haul
switching station and all microwave paths are filled. The
carrier's computer searches for an alternative path to send
the signal and picks out a satellite connection. At the
ground station, your call is sent by a transponder up to a
satellite and then down again to a distant ground station.
Using an array of satellite dishes at Lourdes, the
Soviets can seize these signals from the sky just as a
backyard satellite dish can pull in television (and
telephone) signals. High speed computers then sort through
the calls and identify topics and numbers of particular
interest. And if the information provided is real time
intelligence, the Soviets have the ability to transmit it
instantaneously to Moscow. And yes, the Soviets have the
range at Lourdes to grasp our satellite transmissions as they
travel from New York to Los Angeles or Washington to Omaha.
Here, too, there is a solution: Develop and procure
cryptographic hardware for use at the common-carrier long-
haul switching stations. This hardware will encrypt the
multiplexed telephone signals (that is, approximately 1200
calls at a time) before they are transmitted as radio waves
from ground station to ground station, a technique analogous
to the cable networks scrambling their signals. This can be
done for under $1 billion. If we start by encrypting just
those unclassified signals we categorize as sensitive, those
having greatest impact on the national defense or foreign
relations of the U.S. government, it would cost us about half
as much. It would cost us so much more not to do so.
Communications security has no constituency. There is no
tangible product and the public can never really be sure that
we have done anything. But National Security Decision
Directive 145 says it is a national policy and the national
responsibility to offer assistance to the private sector in
protecting communications. It's time to make communications
security (ComSec in the lingo) a true national security
priority supported with resources as well as rhetoric. This
was certainly the conclusion of the comprehensive
Intelligence Committee report.
I agree, and have suggested a way to get on with it. If
someone has a better idea - if you have another idea - I
would be happy to know it. The important thing is that we
stop this massive leak of sensitive information and protect