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Operation Ivy Bells (wikipedia.org)
98 points by montrose on May 7, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 31 comments

Years ago, I wrote software for what was to be the next generation of Ivy Bells. I was responsible for the real-time operating system and the time/scheduling software. The previous systems had all been coded in 68000 assembler. We were using what was a relatively new language at the time called C. After my tasks were completed, I moved on to a new job and lost contact with the program. It was some years later that I heard about the disclosure but I've always wondered what happened to the system we were building. I imagine it's in that big warehouse where the ark of the covenant is kept.

How did you know it was for Ivy Bells though? The Wiki article describes the huge amount of secrecy around the project; so why did they trust you/your co-workers?

It's called need to know: If you read "Taking of K-129" - about a related - but even more secret op, you'll find countless examples of individual contractors who had to be fully cleared into the program because they were smart enough to "connect the dots".

The result there is they get briefed/cleared in, rather than kept on the outside where their curiosity might blow things up.

And this is why I love Hacker news

Some of these missions are described (in a very suspenseful way) in the book Blind Man's Bluff. What was interesting to me is that the DSRV[1] program provided both a cover story, equipment, and funds that could be secretly appropriated for these missions. According to the author, the DSRV was created by the Navy to salvage (heh) its reputation after the loss of the USS Thresher.[2]

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deep-submergence_rescue_vehicl...

[2]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Thresher_(SSN-593)

Ah, you beat me to referencing the book! The Soviets discovered one of these Sea of Okhotsk tap pods, and interestingly enough it had printed on it "Property of the United States Government".

More info here for those that don't want to read the book: https://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/08/us/a-tale-of-daring-ameri...

Edit: The pod ended up on display in the Ministry of Security's museum in Moscow.

Good article. And of course the obligatory Glomar[1] response from the Navy when asked for comment—“we can neither confirm nor deny.” That legal phrase has an interesting undersea pedigree as well.[2]

[1]: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glomar_response

[2]: https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/09/18/549535352/...

A tip of the hat is necessary to John Piña Craven (deceased), the Chief Scientist of the US Navy Special Project Office at the time.

He made mention of his days on the Mississippi River and the occasional "Underwater cable - Do not drag anchor" signs that dot the riverside. When asked, "What? You mean we should look for signs that say 'Underwater cable - Do not drag anchor' written in Russian?"

His answer was pretty much "Yes, that's exactly what we should do."

Craven was a colorful character and worth anyone's time to look up more on his contributions. I'll second the recommendation to the book "Blind Man's Bluff."

> He [Pelton] reportedly received $35,000 from the KGB for the intelligence he provided from 1980 to 1983, and for the intelligence on the Operation Ivy Bells, the KGB gave him $5,000.

Spend $40k to blow a multi million (billion?) dollar operation. That's a pretty good return on investment for the KGB.

> It remains unclear why it took the Soviets so long, although a plausible explanation is that it was used to feed disinformation to U.S. defense intelligence.[original research?]

Reading one of the memoirs of Victor Cherkashin, an ex-KGB officer they were certainly fond of running double agents and feeding disinformation in the process. Well I guess that's a standard spy tactic I suppose. Another reason was probably to not betray Pelton.

Also Cherkashin was working in the Russian Embassy in DC at the time and he recalls the story in his book. After Pelton walked in and was debriefed, they suspected he was probably followed. So they dressed him as a delivery/service person, shoved him into a van and drove away. Apparently it worked because FBI was unable to follow and discover him. He was found later, when he was betrayed by a defector.

Remember that was $40k... but presumably not in Soviet rubles.

For closed economies (e.g. the Soviet Bloc), foreign reserves were non-trivial to acquire.

That said, it's still a bargain. But that's why every country has spies!

They had oil and diamonds. I don't think lack of foreign currency in those amounts ever really limited what Soviet intelligence could do.

What has always amazed me is how trivially cheaply most treason is paid for; it's almost always ego driven or blackmail driven, not outright "cash for secrets".

See "The Psychology of Espionage and Leaking in the Digital Age" [0] from the CIA for more on this. From the paper:

> What Causes Someone to Spy or Leak?

> "Crises and vulnerability together intensify emotions, undermine already compromised judgment, and galvanize impulses to seize opportunities to obtain escape or relief through ill-judged negative conduct. People in this state are ready targets for manipulation and recruitment for espionage. They are also primed for behavior such as leaking, if they believe it will bring them respite and reward."

[0] [PDF] https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intellig...

It wasn't even enough money for him to pay off his debts. I can't imagine my selling out my country, and still owing money. You're not really in a better position than when you started.

> They had oil and diamonds

And titanium, lots of which they inadvertently sold to CIA front-companies for use on the A-12 / SR-71.

When NASA started to scrap a warehouseful of 71 spares, that included many tons of Soviet titanium bar stock which the Air Force whisked off to Tinker AFB for future use.

Cherkashin does talk about that. KGB had no problem coming up with dollars and had a specific method for getting the money to the right place: diplomatic pouches I believe and through Aeroflot, the state run airline.

60 years earlier, at the outbreak of WWI, Britain cut all of Germany's undersea cables [0], except one that went through Britain. So the Germans had to use radio or route through Britain, which could be intercepted and decrypted [1, 2]. Less subtle than tapping, but effective.

[0] http://blogs.mhs.ox.ac.uk/innovatingincombat/files/2013/03/I...

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Room_40

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Submarine_communications_cable...

One thing I've wondered about history: There are dozens of stories of the brilliance of allied decryption efforts, but very few about the German or Japanese. Were they that far behind us?

We assumed they read a bunch of our lower tier codes, and the Germans (specifically Deutsche Afrika Korps) completely dominated in radio direction finding and traffic analysis, which was in many ways more important than decrypts (and largely considered more sensitive from an ongoing security perspective after the war, so not as publicized.)

Nachrichten-Fern-Aufkl-Kp 621 and Hauptmann Alfred Seebohm were pivotal for DAK actions. There were some similar units on other fronts, but this one was particularly well documented.

The US used "code talkers" in both world wars. Code talkers were Native Americans recruited to pass messages in their ancestral languages. The Germans became aware of code talkers during WWI and afterwards sent people to the US to learn the native languages. This proved to be difficult as there too many dialects to learn them all. During WWII, code talkers were used much more against the Japanese and less in Europe.


Do you speak German? There are stories, but they may not be in your native tongue.

See also the story about the Zimmermann Telegram for more cable tapping shenanigans. ( https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zimmermann_Telegram )

> Eventually, more taps were installed on Soviet lines in other parts of the world, with more advanced instruments built by AT&T's Bell Laboratories that were nuclear-powered and could store a year's worth of data.

I assume they're referring to an RTG[1], where heat is generated by natural decay.

Earlier the article specifically mentions the storage medium being tape, and that they were replaced on a monthly basis. Perhaps the larger capacity versions were also tape? Was that the only realistic option at the time in such a situation, deep underwater with a requirement for large storage capacity?

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioisotope_thermoelectric_ge...

And the legacy of those days continues with the USS Jimmy Carter... very interesting things that boat's "multi-mission platform" can achieve. :-)


Apparently Ronald Pelton (the man who spilled the beans to the Soviets) "was tried and convicted of espionage in 1986 and sentenced to three concurrent life sentences[3] and a $100 fine".

My question is, who fines you a hundred bucks after sentencing you for life 3 times over (plus 10 years on the top of that, as was the case) :)

Also it seems like a bargain if the NSA or CIA would monitor their employees bank accounts and, if someone is running low on money, give them some cash and then ease them into a role where they no longer have access to secrets, and can be watched.

That would be socialist of the USA ;)

"The Seawolf was almost lost during one of these missions—it was stranded on the bottom after a storm and almost had to use its self-destruct charges to scuttle the ship with her crew."

Does this imply that they made the whole crew commit suicide via the charges?

It seems to imply that they would have... I suppose it's just like the risk of getting shot and dying for one's country.

This is the kind of risk that submariners willingly accept...they're a special group.

Did knowledge of the leaks in cables lead to advances in cryptography?

It certainly did in the latter half of 2013.

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