FBI Bugging Embassies in 1940

Old -- but recently released -- document discussing the bugging of the Russian embassy in 1940. The document also mentions bugging the embassies of France, Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Posted on October 27, 2010 at 3:24 PM • 28 Comments

Comments

DarwinOctober 27, 2010 5:34 PM

The FBI is one of the most incompetent and corrupt organizations in the history of this country which is saying something.

DavidOctober 27, 2010 5:43 PM

And anyone who thinks that the FBI (or their cohorts in the spying business) have changed their ways should go shopping for bridges in NYC -- I hear they have great deals right now...

Tangerine BlueOctober 27, 2010 6:25 PM

I care less about spying on foreign embassies suspected of subterfuge, than about spying on American civilians who are suspected of nothing.

GeoffOctober 27, 2010 9:39 PM

Of course, in 1940 Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and France were all heavily involved in a war. While the US hadn't quite joined by then, they were certainly aware of the possibility. I would have been amazed if they weren't bugging those embassies then - and presumably many others as well.

NobodyspecialOctober 27, 2010 11:29 PM

Quite impressed that the FBI actually managed to spy on the countries that WERE involved in WWII.

I assume the CIA were busy bugging Bermuda, Bhutan and Easter island just in case they developed sticks of mass destruction.

Lawrence D’OliveiroOctober 27, 2010 11:53 PM

I remember in the 1982 calendar from the “Not The Nine O’Clock News” comedy team, there was an item about a certain suite in a certain Moscow hotel where, if you found a suspicious-looking brass plate under the carpet, you were NOT to unscrew it, as it was holding up the chandelier in the ballroom downstairs.

wiredogOctober 28, 2010 6:41 AM

@Darwin
What leads you to believe the FBI is all that incompetent? They seem to do a fairly decent job of catching bank robbers and doing counter-intel.

@Nobodyspecial
The CIA didn't exist in 1940. IIRC, the OSS (former employer of Julia Child) didn't exist then either.

YOOctober 28, 2010 8:20 AM

@wiredog, bank robbers are usually stupid people who leave obvious clues, and as for solving 'mysteries' cops of all kinds just wait for the snitch phone calls and they tend to believe anything they hear on that line. read about Richard Jewel and remember "If you see something, keep your mouth shut and move away quickly"

Carlo GrazianiOctober 28, 2010 9:18 AM

The curious thing is that the Roosevelt administration was extremely poorly informed about the rather blatant Soviet espionage activities going on in U.S. territory, often under cover of Lend-Lease. It's rather strange that Soviet intelligence should have succeeded so spectacularly (with respect to obtaining a complete technical picture of the Manhattan Project, for example) if in fact the FBI was engaged in some kind of counterespionage effort against their diplomats.

Perhaps this story should be read as an index of the haplessness and incompetence of the FBI at that time. They were beaten badly by the Soviets on their own turf, despite their best efforts to stay in the game. In fairness, they raised their game after the war, as evidenced by the Venona intercepts.

David ThornleyOctober 28, 2010 10:13 AM

@Carlo Graziani: How much of that intelligence effort went through the embassy system? (This is an honest question, as I really haven't studied this.)

No sort of surveillance of the Japanese embassy would have revealed the Pearl Harbor attack coming. Indeed, we were reading the top secret embassy traffic in real time, and knew they were planning to go to war, just not how and where they would attack.

gregOctober 28, 2010 11:14 AM

@David Thornley

The Japanese assumed the embassy were bugged and that the US was listening.

Clive RobinsonOctober 28, 2010 12:57 PM

First on a historic note in the early 1940's the US where bugging everybody the UK included.

Unofficialy all telex companies where supplying copies of all telex's they carried to the US agencies (this has been documented many times before).

One of the early TEMPEST "war stories" is about the UK Rockex One Time Tape online cipher equipment. It turns out that not only could you strip away the OTT from the plain text by observing the signals on the telex line but also by the sounds the equipment made (Post Office 600 relays make a distinctive clicking noise). It was also later shown that the long PSU leads also radiated a signal that could also be used to strip the OTT. The US informed the UK F&CO staff about this over concernce that data sent back over the UK Diplomatic channel was leaking to amongst others the Russians.

Solving the Rockex's problems fell to a Canadian electrical enginering professor, there are some minutes from UK "Ccabinate Office" memos that provide some details.

@ Tangerine Blue,

"I care less about spying on foreign embassies suspected of subterfuge, than about spying on American civilians who are suspected of nothing."

Effectivly they have been doing it since before the end of WWII. What has changed is they nolonger "out source" it via the likes of the UK to avoid having to lie to the US people.

When Britain under BRUSA (later UKUSA) agrement spied on US citizens for the US, members of the various US Intel three leter agencies could stand infront of various US house commities and honestly say "The XXX does not spy on US citizens" because it was sort of true the British did it for them and likewise the US did it for Britain. Later BRUSA included nearly all the WASP nations in the cosy little deal.

All the Bush administration did was bring it "back in house" and ramp up the funding to make it that much more pervasive.

Clive RobinsonOctober 28, 2010 1:11 PM

@ greg,

"The Japanese assumed the embassy were bugged and that the US was listening"

Is that documented anywhere?

I'd be interested in seeing it if it is (for historical reasons).

As far as I'm aware Japan had concernces about the fact that it knew the US Govenment where getting copies of all it's encrypted telexes and also that the secretarial staff etc in their Embassy where unreliable (they had previously caught somebody spying "red handed").

From what historians have said the reason the Japanese broke their declaration of war down into so many pieces was to keep the "message size down" for telexes, and the first part gave instructions that all subsiquent parts where to be done by the ambassador himself.

It was due to this that the actual declaration was not presented to the US Government untill some time after Perl Harbour had been attacked.

Saddly even though the US Intel people did know about the declaration and had decrypted it in time the "chain of command" and "sunday leasure" got in the way, as well as weather conditions stopping long distance radio, so it was sent late as an ordinary telex with a commercial carrier and for security reasons it was not sent "flash" and thus did not arrive untill after the attack had been launched.

SpookMeisterOctober 28, 2010 2:08 PM

@Shane,

I believe you have to promise to not reveal US Govt secrets you are entrusted with for 70 years ... seriously.

NobodySpecialOctober 28, 2010 2:31 PM

@Clive Robinson
"The Japanese assumed the embassy were bugged and that the US was listening"

I think you would have to be pretty naive to assume it wasn't. Of all the things you could accuse the Japanese military of in 1940 I don't think naiveté was one of them.

Carlo GrazianiOctober 28, 2010 3:27 PM

@David Thornley

What struck me had very little to do with the (rather tiring) argument over the missing War Warning that should have attended the interception and decryption of the Purple messages. In fact this has nothing to do with Japan at all.

What I marvel at has to do with the well-documented fact that the Soviet Union had a pervasive and highly successful espionage operation in the U.S. during the war, one that the Roosevelt administration appears to either have known very little about or was disposed to ignore (the Russians were our "Gallant Allies" at the time). Much valuable military, diplomatic, strategic, and industrial intelligence was collected and shipped to Moscow, some under Lend-Lease cover. This included nuclear weapons data: essentially complete blueprints, engineering and scientific data, manufacturing processes, and so on. (One secondary source for this is Richard Rhodes' "Dark Sun", on the making of the thermonuclear bomb).

Some of the agent controllers were Soviet "diplomatic" personnel. What is new to me is the fact that the FBI was at the time attempting serious counter-intelligence ops against Soviet diplomats, apparently including bugging their embassy. This, it seems to me, would have to count as one of the Bureau's most spectacular failures. The Soviets spirited the crown jewels out of the country directly under their noses, despite the fact that the FBI believed it had Soviet diplomats under surveillance. I wouldn't mind knowing a great deal more about what exactly the FBI believed it was accomplishing at the time.

Amanda in the South BayOctober 28, 2010 4:16 PM

@NobodySpecial-

The Japanese military wasn't naive? How about the whole "lets sorta ignore the whole industrial potential of the US and hope our super duper divine spark of tough guy warriorism beats them quickly?"

Not to sound facetious, okay, I mean to sound facetious, but thinking they had any chance fighting the US was the height of naivete.

Clive RobinsonOctober 28, 2010 4:43 PM

@ NobbodySpecial,

"I think you would have to be pretty naive to assume it wasn't. Of all the things you could accuse the Japanese military of in 1940 I don' think naiveté was one of them."

I was actually asking if there was documentry evidence for the assumption, as other historical documentation sugests otherwise.

But as it happens the Japanese where not particularly adept at certain types of engineering at the time of WWII. Although they had certainly come along a great deal from the "Great War", But as the Battle of Medway showed they could be very naive at times (the Japanese Admiral alowing the pilots to have a meal rather than go back to check they had actually dealt with all the US carrriers).

As for "bugging" you have to remember the state of the art in sensitive microphones at that time was the "ribbon mic" these where fairly large and quite fragile and needed almost constant adjustment. The most common and robust microphone of the 1940's era was still the "carbon granual" telephone microphone it was fairly easy to interface to the likes of valve based transmitter circuits (in the cathode circuit). But it was fairly insensitve and would have required a lot of amplification to be used for bugging a room and valve amps in 1940 where not exactly small, the all glass pressed based acorn valve was only perfected in 1939 which later became the famous EF50 used in 200MHz radar and it was quite big. It was not untill after 1940 that the miniture or thumb nail acorn valves where developed. This lack of small amplifier or long microphone cable would have made both noise and sensitivity quite an issue.

The newish (for then) replacment for the carbon granual microphone was the diaphragm induction microphone, however this was quite low impeadance and did not come into it's own for a number of years, and in the early designs it was about as sensitive as the carbon granual microphone (it became better as the design of the diaphragm improved).

As for "bugs" in the sense we know them today they where invented in New York by the mafia back in the early 1960's and used the likes of the OC71 germanium transistor and were a follow on from the harmonica or hook switch bug. The mafia actually used them against the police and FBI quite successfully for a number of years.

The harmonica bug was an electromechanical device consisting of a "reed actuator" and a small relay. when the correct tone was played down the line the reed actuator responded and pulled in the relay. One set of relay contacts where across the hook switch the other across the reed actuator so that when the relay had "pulled in" it remained held. The way to "kill" the harmonica bug was to dial a number the rotary dial put a short directly across the telephone pair, thus with no power to hold the relay in it droped out. In some of the better informed spy and crime thrillers you would see the "hero" dial a couple of numbers and then jam a pencil or some such into the rotary dial to hold the dial switch closed thus putting a dead short on the whole phone.

Andre LePlumeOctober 28, 2010 4:52 PM

@ Tangerine Blue

"I care less about spying on foreign embassies suspected of subterfuge, than about spying on American civilians who are suspected of nothing."

Unfortunately, I think the attitude sometimes is to suspect *everyone*. The bar for suspicion seems to be so low as to effectively not be there at all.

David ThornleyOctober 28, 2010 4:55 PM

@Carlo: Thanks, that's what I wanted to know.

@Clive: Mostly correct, but the Fourteen-Part Message was not a declaration of war. It was a bombastic and mendacious document breaking off negotiations. Still worth warning the outposts about.

@Amanda: Some of them did have a clear idea of what was going to happen. Yamamoto promised to run wild for six months to a year, and was only off by three days on the short side. Nagano, his superior or Navy minister (can't remember which) said he could hold the US off for about two years, roughly two years before the Central Pacific offensive started.

Anonymous CowardOctober 28, 2010 5:26 PM

This should not surprise anyone. Everyone spied on everyone else. The British had a team of spies in the US during WWII to keep track on what their "allies" were thinking and planing. The British Security Coordination (BSC) organization included such later-to-be-famous people as Roald Dahl and Ian Flemming. Interesting stuff.

NobodySpecialOctober 29, 2010 6:59 PM

@Amanda
Or they could have thought - if we knock out their navy for long enough for us to capture all the British possessions on our side of the pacific. Is the US going to sacrifice millions of lives to mount a beach landing over 5,000 miles of ocean to help the Brits regain their empire?

TonyGOctober 30, 2010 8:09 PM

Comments about Japanese abilities and their Pacific campaigns are interesting. There are many resources available which might be of interest. If not already researched I recommend Cryptolog, which is maintained by former Naval Cryptanalysts. From firsthand comments it is clear Cmdr. Safford, and his enlisted navy communications specialist, Ralph Briggs, decoded the 'Winds' message on 12-4-41, in Washington, DC. The information concerning the attacks to begin on 12-7-41 was passed up the chain and nothing was done with it. Later the innocent were punished to make sure the 'official story' could be maintained. Another resource is the National Cryptologic Museum, located next to NSA at Ft. Meade, MD. They have a small reference library, not online, and their displays are unique. Sometime during 2005, I can't recall the exact date, I visited the Museum (which I did about two times a month). On display was the original copy of the intercept operator's report of the intercept of the 'Winds' message, typed with handwritten notations of the message meaning above the typed text, clearly stating that action was to begin 12-7-41. I was stunned to see the display. When I returned two weeks later the display was gone. When I asked a docent about it I was told no such message was ever displayed. I did not pursue my inquiry. More later.

SnallaBolagetNovember 1, 2010 2:25 PM

@wiredog;
You're absolutely right. The OSS was established in 1942. Before that it was all a mess... ;)

Anyway, I seem to remember that the Russians actually got to the contractors that were building a US embassy (not sure if it was in Russia / Soviet), making sure that bugging equipment was actually installed in the walls, wires installed as part of the original setup, etc.

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