Microwave Spying — How does it work anyway?

“Theremin did some of his best scientific work while imprisoned by one of the most repressive regimes of the 20th century. This brilliant scientist crossed path with the CIA more than once — to our detriment.”

Benjamin R. Fisher — CIA History staff

Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov (left), with Donald Trump and Russia’s ambassador to the US Sergei Kislyak in the Oval Office — May 10 2017

In a recent interview, John McLaughlin — former acting director of the CIA and a veteran of that agency for 32 years — made an oblique reference to the “microwave spying” on the US ambassador’s residential office in Moscow during the late 40s and early 50s. Follow us on Twitter: @INTEL_TODAY

The White House is facing criticism for a possible security breach after it allowed a Russian news service photographer into the Oval Office to snap photos of Donald Trump with Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Russia’s ambassador to the US Sergei Kislyak.

[NOTE: Contact with Kislyak led Michael Flynn to be dismissed from his post as national security adviser and attorney general Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the probe.

Related POST: Sean Spicer just told a whopper about Foreign Agent Mike Flynn — UPDATE: NYT Confirmed ]

The Russian photographer is employed by Tass, a Russian state-run news agency.

Officials dismissed any security concerns, saying that Lavrov’s entourage went through the typical visitor screening process and that the White House is routinely swept for listening devices. But security experts said that the risk was real, if remote.

“Deadly serious Q: Was it a good idea to let a Russian gov photographer & all their equipment into the Oval Office?” Colin Kahl, who served as former vice-president Joe Biden’s national security adviser, wrote on Twitter.

“No, it was not,” David S Cohen, the former deputy director of the CIA, replied.

Microwave Spying

Former CIA Director John McLaughlin has no reason to doubt that the equipment of the Russian photographer was professionally “swept” before he had access to the Oval Office. And, of course, the Oval Office is regularly checked for spying devices. However, McLaughlin points out that one can never be carefull enough and reminds the audience of a famous case where the Russians had relied for many years on a technology unknown to the Americans to spy on the US ambassador in Moscow.

RELATED POST: DARPA to Resurrect Top-Secret “PANDORA Project”

Leon Theremin & “The Thing”

Lev Sergeyevich Termen (27 August [O.S. 15 August] 1896 – 3 November 1993), or Léon Theremin in the United States, was a Russian and Soviet inventor, most famous for his invention of the theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments and the first to be mass-produced. He also devised the interlace technique for improving the quality of a video signal, still widely used in video and television technology. His listening device, “The Thing”, hung for seven years in plain view in the United States Ambassador’s Moscow office and enabled Soviet agents to eavesdrop on secret conversations. [Wikipedia]

The Thing, also known as the Great Seal bug, was one of the first covert listening devices (or “bugs”) to use passive techniques to transmit an audio signal. It was concealed inside a gift given by the Soviets to the US Ambassador to Moscow on August 4, 1945. Because it was passive, being energized and activated by electromagnetic energy from an outside source, it is considered a predecessor of RFID technology.

The Great Seal bug hung in the ambassador’s residential office in Moscow and intercepted confidential conversations there during the first seven years of the Cold War, until it was accidentally discovered in 1952.

Operating principlesThe Thing consisted of a tiny capacitive membrane connected to a small quarter-wavelength antenna; it had no power supply or active electronic components.

The device, a passive cavity resonator, became active only when a radio signal of the correct frequency was sent to the device from an external transmitter.

This is currently referred in NSA parlance as “illuminating” a passive device. Sound waves (from voices inside the ambassador’s office) passed through the thin wood case, striking the membrane and causing it to vibrate.

The movement of the membrane varied the capacitance “seen” by the antenna, which in turn modulated the radio waves that struck and were re-transmitted by the Thing.

A receiver demodulated the signal so that sound picked up by the microphone could be heard, just as an ordinary radio receiver demodulates radio signals and outputs sound.

About John E. McLaughlin

John Edward McLaughlin (born June 15, 1942) is the former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence and former Acting Director of Central Intelligence. His CIA career lasted more than 30 years starting in 1972 with a focus on European, Russian, and Eurasian issues in the Directorate of Intelligence. From 1984 to 1985, he served a rotational tour at the State Department in the Bureau of European and Canadian Affairs, where he was responsible for following European relations with the Middle East, Central America, and Africa.

He served as Deputy Director and Director of the Office of European Analysis from 1985 to 1989; Director of Slavic and Eurasian Analysis from 1989 to 1995; Deputy Director for Intelligence, Vice Chairman for Estimates of the National Intelligence Council, and Acting Chairman of the National Intelligence Council from 1995 to 1997; and Deputy Director for Intelligence from 1997 to 2000 – heading up the Agency’s analytical corps. [Wikipedia]

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Former CIA Director: ‘The Problem Begins With The President Himself’

REFERENCES

Leon Theremin – CIA NEMESIS — CIA official website

White House faces criticism over Russian photographer in Oval Office — Guardian

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Microwave Spying — How does it work anyway?

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