The Great Seal bug: How the Soviet Union Spied on the US Embassy

US Representative to the United Nations Henry Cabot Lodge shows Soviet “bug”, 1960, USA

The amazing story behind the picture began in February 1945, when the leaders of the anti-Hitler coalition countries: the USSR, the United States and Great Britain met in Yalta to discuss the post-war world order. After the conference, the American and British ambassadors, who accompanied Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were taken to the Soviet children’s camp Artek to meet Pioneers.

“For the occasion, despite the winter, a military aircraft brought freshly cut roses from Abkhazia” Igor Atamanenko, retired lieutenant colonel of the KGB recalls. US Ambassador Averell Harriman gave the children a gift from his government: a ten thousand dollars check. And Sir Archibald Kerr: the Ambassador of England presented a check for five thousand pounds sterling. The orchestra played the American anthem and the children’s choir sang it in English.

Then, four pioneers brought a huge, shiny wooden the Great Seal of the United States. Under stormy applause the ambassador was handed a passport-gift certificate. Valentin Berezhkov: Stalin’s personal translator, read the contents of the certificate. It stated, that the unusual product is made from very valuable materials: sandalwood, boxwood, sequoia, elephant palm, Parrotia persica, red wood, ebony and black alder. Harriman, perhaps for the first time in his diplomatic practice, said what he thought: “Where can I put it? Where to keep? I can not take my eyes off it!”. Berezhkov casually replied: “Just, hang it in your office and let the English be jealous.”

The most interesting thing is, that the US ambassador followed his advice. After proper check for the “bugs”, he hang the Great Seal on the opposite wall from his desktop. Thus, an unprecedented operation under the code name “Confession” has begun. It completed many years of domestic intelligence efforts to penetrate into the holy of holies of the American embassy: the office of its master. In the Great Seal of the United States a special transmitter “Zlatoust” (chrysostom/eloquent) was mounted. Since then, for a long time, the highest political leadership of the USSR had a wonderful opportunity to get acquainted with the reports of American ambassadors, even before they reached the president of the United States.

How did the Soviet intelligence officers manage to put in and leave the microphone unseen? It involved a group of highly qualified employees, from the operational and technical directorate of state security. The team was led by an academic scientists: Aksel Berg and Abram Ioffe, who invented and manufactured this unique microphone. It was an strictly passive eavesdropping device, that did not require any batteries, no metal parts, no electrical current generation: nothing at all, that could be detected by the world’s technical experts of that time. The device, looking like a tadpole with a small tail, was activated by an external microwave radiation source, which caused the “tadpole” receptors to resonate. The voices of people influenced the character of resonance oscillations of the device, allowing for a distinct interception of words. Microwave pulses were fed to the “tadpole”, by an extremely power-hungry generator from a distance of about 900 feet. Reception, decoding and recording on the magnetic tape of the returning oscillations were carried out by another unique device located on the same line, with the transmitting oscillator. So, the transmitted and received impulses were not superimposed, the whole geometric figure should have the shape of an isosceles triangle.

In other words, the microphone worked only, when the necessary radiation was applied to it, from both sides, from strictly verified points. To ensure the uninterrupted operation of the unit, special generators and batteries were installed on the upper floors of the residential buildings around the American diplomatic mission. Residents, of course, were evicted. The apartments were occupied by officers of the operational and technical management of the NKVD.

During the work of Zlatoust, four ambassadors were replaced in the American Embassy in Moscow. At the top of everyone’s list was removing his predecessor’s belongings. A major repairs were done in the office and the walls were carefully monitored for bugs. The Great Seal, too, was always removed from the wall and sent for examination. But, it always returned back to its place. The “Trojan” gift magically influenced ambassadors.They even matched the color of the curtains, to the color of the Great Seal.

Of course, the Americans conducted numerous studies on possible leaks of information. Only in 1952, an American radio technician at the embassy, accidentally stumbled upon some unknown frequency and the embassy staff began to systematically check the equipment of the offices. To their horror, inside the beautifully carved Great Seal, they found some incomprehensible device, that having no power supply unit, managed to collect and transmit information.

At first, the Americans could not understand, that whole device was hidden inside the Great Seal. Was the real bug hidden somewhere else? Metal wire length of 9 inches, hollow chamber-resonator, elastic membrane, no batteries: this could not possibly be the bug.

To understand the principles of the work of Zlatoust, the Americans were helped by the British scientist Peter Wright. The acquaintance, with Theremin’s microwave resonator was shocked by Western special services. The experts themselves admitted, that if it had not been for the case, the “eternal bug” could still “undermine” the symbol of American statehood in the US Embassy to Moscow.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *