Title: Learning from the Enemy
Author: Sharon A. Maneki
Maneki, Sharon A. (2012). Learning from the Enemy: The GUNMAN Project. Fort George G. Meade, MD: Center for Cryptologic History, National Security Agency
Date Updated: March 31, 2017
This document was prepared for the Center for Cryptologic History at NSA. It may be viewed or downloaded from their site.
Introduction On 25 March 1985, CBS television nightly news broke the following shocking story:
Dan Rather: “In another U.S.-Soviet development, Pentagon correspondent David Martin has been told how Soviet secret police in Moscow have been getting the latest word on sensitive U.S. embassy documents even before U.S. officials read them.”
David Martin: “Informed sources tell CBS News that for at least one year, and probably longer, the American embassy in Moscow was the victim of a sophisticated electronic spy operation which gave Soviet leaders an inside look at what U.S. diplomats were doing and planning. Soviet agents secretly installed tiny sensing devices in about a dozen embassy typewriters. The devices picked up the contents of documents typed by embassy secretaries and transmitted them by antennas hidden in the embassy walls. The antennas, in turn, relayed the signals to a listening post outside the embassy.
“Depending on the location of the bugged typewriters, the Soviets were able to receive copies of everything from routine administrative memos to highly classified documents.
“One intelligence officer said the potential compromise of sensitive information should be viewed with ‘considerable seriousness’.
“Another intelligence expert said no one knows for sure how many or what secrets were compromised. A third official called the entire affair a fiasco.”
How accurate was the CBS report? This paper (35 pages, pdf) examines the nature of the Soviet electronic penetration and the damage assessment of Soviet access to typewriters at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. This history of Project GUNMAN also answers such questions as how the typewriter bugs were discovered and how they worked.
Countries have spied on each other by gathering information from embassies for centuries. The United States and the Soviet Union were of course archenemies during the Cold War (1945 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991), and there is a long history of attempts by the Soviets to gain access to information from the U.S. embassy and its diplomatic apparatus. Perhaps the most famous incident of Soviet espionage was the Great Seal implant. On 4 August 1945, Soviet schoolchildren presented a carving of the Great Seal of the U.S. to Averell Harriman, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. The carving hung in Spaso house, the ambassador’s residential office in Moscow, until 1952, when the U.S. State Department discovered that there was a microphone hidden inside the carving that the Soviets turned on at will. This bug was not a standard microphone and could not be detected unless it was in use. For six years the Soviets were able to eavesdrop on the conversations of the U.S. ambassador.
The Soviet threat to U.S. embassy security was both well documented and real. The typewriter bugs marked a new level of sophistication because they were electromechanical. For the first time, the Soviets gathered information from a piece of equipment that held written plain text information. Prior to the discovery of these bugs, the U.S. believed that the Russians had only used room audio bugs with microphones or listening devices to eavesdrop on American embassy activities. As a totalitarian society, the Soviet Union valued eavesdropping and thus developed ingenious methods to accomplish it.The 1980s were a period of strained relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. One manifestation of those strains was Project GUNMAN, which involved the replacement of U.S. embassy equipment in Moscow and the discovery and evaluation of typewriter bugs. GUNMAN was not the only threat to the U.S. embassy in Moscow. The U.S. began to build a new office for its Moscow embassy in 1979. The building, however, was riddled with bugs, and the U.S. eventually rejected it. That story is a subject for another study.
This study is the story of the GUNMAN attack and the role of NSA in its discovery.