A few weeks before the end of World War II, a delegation of youngsters from the Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization presented Ambassador W. Averell Harriman, the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, with a carved wooden plaque of the Great Seal of the United States.
A sign of friendship in the closing days of the “Great Patriotic War,” as Russian history refers to the struggle against the Axis powers, the carved wooden replica of the great seal was an acknowledgment of American-Soviet friendship, presented by youths from an organization that was somewhat similar to America’s Boy Scouts. It seemed like an important step toward easing the already-rising tensions between the two powerful nations.
Little did the American diplomats know, the gift held a more sinister purpose.
Of course, the carved wooden replica of the Great Seal hadn’t been made by Russian third graders but the KGB, the intelligence service of the Soviet Union, and it contained a resonant cavity microphone that was designed specifically to hear the classified discussions of U.S. diplomats while cleverly hidden in the carving.
The device was comprised of a copper cylinder with a silver-plated interior that acted as a resonant cavity in which the microphone was placed. A soft metal membrane was placed in front of the Coca-Cola can-looking cylinder. Sounds, like moving or talking, in the proximity would cause the membrane to vibrate and transmit a signal that could be captured by a surveillance team outside the building.
The man behind the ingenious device was Léon Theremin, who also invented a musical instrument that bears his name. Appropriately enough, a Theremin is an electronic musical instrument that can be played without any physical contact.
Born in Saint Petersburg, Theremin came to the U.S in the 1920s to work on and invent musical instruments. But in 1938, one year before World War II broke out, financial issues related to his taxes prompted Theremin to leave America suddenly, and he returned to the Soviet Union.
It wasn’t a happy homecoming. Once back in the Soviet Union, Theremin was thrown into the brutal gulag prison system, where he worked in a covert laboratory with other incarcerated engineers and scientists. Nine years later, in 1947, Theremin was released, but he continued working for the Soviet NKVD, and later its successor, the KGB. The Thing wasn’t his only claim to fame during this time. Theremin also developed “Buran,” an infrared microphone that shares its name with the Soviet space shuttle.
A Gift from Us to You
American and British diplomats and intelligence officers working in the Eastern Bloc were always aware that the KGB was tracking their movements and encounters. But at the onset of the Cold War, few could imagine the lengths to which the Russians had already gone to eavesdrop on classified diplomatic correspondence and conversations held behind the embassies’ doors. From 1945 to 1952, no one knew about The Thing; no one other than the KGB and the Soviet leadership, that is.
But luck would have it that the KGB operation was foiled by sheer fortune. In 1951, a British military officer at the British embassy was listening to some open Soviet channels when he overhead voices speaking in English with British accents in the background. He suddenly realized that he was listening to the British air attaché, who was in another part of the same embassy, through Soviet channels.
A few months later, a U.S. military officer had a similar encounter when, while listening to Soviet channels, he overheard a discussion that seemed to come from the Spaso House, which was the U.S. ambassador’s private residence in Moscow. He reported what he heard, and a State Department specialist was able to reproduce the results. To their amazement, they could hear U.S. diplomats having classified discussions by listening in on the Soviets.
The State Department decided to get to the bottom of it and sent two additional security specialists to check for bugs, or listening devices. They found nothing. Then, in 1952, George Kennan became the new U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. Suspicious of the Soviets, he requested additional sweeps for bugs at the embassy and Spaso House. State Department security specialists once more found nothing.
That was until Joseph Bezjian, a creative security specialist, took the initiative and sought to catch the KGB unawares.
Instead of flying to Moscow on an official visit, Bezjian flew as a house guest of Ambassador Kennan and sent his equipment beforehand. Then he and Kennan arranged an ambush to lure the Russians out. Kennan dictated an unclassified memo while Bezjian swept his study for any kind of listening equipment. His equipment honed in on a carved wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States that was hanging on the wall in the ambassador’s study.
Bezjian inspected the replica and, to his surprise, found that he could open it. Inside he found The Thing mounted in a special cavity. Fearing that the Soviets would attempt to steal it and thus save face from the imminent diplomatic embarrassment that was to follow, Bezjian took The Thing with him to bed that night, before sending it back to the U.S. first thing the next day.
When the FBI agents received the device, they found something that resembled a microphone with an attached antenna. What was odd, however, was that there were no cables, wires, batteries, or external power source to be found inside. Dumbfounded by the Soviet bug and unable to officially identify what it was, they called it The Thing and send it to the Naval Research Lab.
“The Great Seal. Remember the Great Seal that some [Russian] third-graders carved for the president? I have seen that great seal. I’ll tell you, third graders did not carve that great seal,” Richard “Dickie” George, a veteran NSA officer and former technical director of the agency’s Information Assurance Directorate (IAD), said in a talk at Dartmouth University.
“That is really nice. It also has a really nice listening device inside it. So, it worked for a little while.,”
The Information Assurance Directorate is the defensive arm of the NSA and is responsible for cyber warfare and defensive programs; it ensures that U.S. communications are safe from foreign intelligence services and criminal hacking groups.
To be sure, intelligence services planting bugs in everyday objects has been common practice throughout the years. For example, during the Cold War, the KGB tried every trick in and out of the book to bug U.S. and British embassies in Moscow and the other capitals of the Eastern Bloc. During one such attempt, they placed a small listening device inside a typewriter so they could listen to what American and British diplomats were writing.
From 1945 to 1952, before it was discovered, The Thing eavesdropped on the classified and confidential discussions of the four U.S. ambassadors and of Secretary of State George Marshall, the man behind the “Marshall Plan,” who visited Moscow in 1947 for a council of foreign ministers.