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Operation Ivy Bells
September 23, 2010 3:56 PM   Subscribe

Operation Ivy Bells was a joint US Navy/NSA effort to tap into a Soviet communications cable deep under water and bring back recordings of military communications traffic.

This blog post by Dirk Rijmenants has more about the huge cable tap pod that was used, including a picture of it. There's also an article on Military.com about this, telling the story of how the Navy managed to locate the cable. And here's a little bit about the cover story used to keep the true mission a secret from most personnel involved in it.
posted by FishBike (37 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
A nuclear powered undersea phone tap. HELL YES.
posted by GuyZero at 4:00 PM on September 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


Wow. Nifty.

Such an awesome idea too. I would have loved to have been at that planning meeting. "So guys, what if we..."
posted by strixus at 4:05 PM on September 23, 2010


A nuclear powered undersea phone tap. HELL YES.

Maybe an RTG?

Also were I a 1970's naval spy I would be unable to prevent myself from referring to this as Operation Itchy Balls. I would probably be ejected from Spy Club because of this.
posted by Artw at 4:06 PM on September 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


They had to go dive in the frigid, Soviet-infested sea every 4-6 weeks to change the tapes? And I thought cycling my old backups was too much work.
posted by Nelson at 4:07 PM on September 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


Interesting. I had a relative who was on the Halibut during that time, doing that stuff.
posted by smcameron at 4:08 PM on September 23, 2010


Whew, not about the ska band.
posted by sciurus at 4:18 PM on September 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


G.I. Joe approved.
posted by clavdivs at 4:19 PM on September 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Fiber optic cables have to be spliced, if I understand correctly.

/tinfoilhat
posted by Xoebe at 4:29 PM on September 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


The US government saw that military communications traffic and right away wanted to pick it up, pick it up, pick it up.
posted by orme at 4:37 PM on September 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


One of my co-workers was on those subs and has discussed the operation with me. I forwarded him this page and he said this book was "Mostly accurate. Probably the best book available." - Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage
posted by Argyle at 4:43 PM on September 23, 2010 [5 favorites]


I read Blind Mans Bluff a while ago and the thing I most remember is that the US Government stupidly left a 'Property of US' tag on one of these taps that the Soviets eventually found. F'ing bureaucrats...
posted by Confess, Fletch at 4:56 PM on September 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


Xoebe wrote: "Fiber optic cables have to be spliced, if I understand correctly."

Most just have to be bent. However, it's supposedly detectable because the only reason that works is that bending the fiber causes some of the light to leak out, and the decrease in intensity at the receiving end can be detected. Also, this requires damaging the cable itself to get at the individual strands of glass.
posted by wierdo at 5:05 PM on September 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


One of the things that constantly amazes me about cold war espionage is the sheer audacity and ingenuity both sides displayed in some of their shenanigans. Sneaking into Soviet territorial waters monthly to change the tapes on your giant, nuclear-powered undersea cable tap ranks right up there.

Thanks for the link to Blind Man's Bluff, Argyle. Have to check that out....
posted by richyoung at 5:08 PM on September 23, 2010


Maybe an RTG?

I'm pretty sure it was, yeah, because it was while reading an old newsgroup message about RTGs that I ran across a mention of this operation and decided to look for more information about it.
posted by FishBike at 5:13 PM on September 23, 2010


The lengths (and depths) people go to for covert ops - that deep sea diving is not the sexy sort of spy stuff:
Nearly 400 feet beneath the frigid waters of the Sea of Okhotsk, deep inside Soviet territorial waters, the divers stayed alive only by the umbilical cords that pumped warm water into their dive suits.

In an effort to alter the balance of Cold War, these men scoured the ocean floor for a five-inch diameter cable carry secret Soviet communications between military bases.

Captain James Bradley conceived the mission and firmly believed that he could find the tiny Soviet cable under the immense expanse of the ocean. Bradley remembered the signs that he saw during his childhood along the Mississippi River warning boaters not to anchor near cables. He rationalized that the Soviet's would use similar signs and lead him right to his target. Bradley's theory proved correct when the Halibut located a series of such signs in the Northern part of the Sea of Okhotsk, after an arduous search. Ah, USS Halibut was involved! (self-linking prev) I, too, read Blind Man's Bluff, and thought this sounded familiar.

Fiber optic cables have to be spliced, if I understand correctly.

Apparently not. From the first link: This "wrap around" device, developed by the NSA, could eavesdrop on - and record - all communications passing through the line without the need for actually penetrating the wires inside.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:16 PM on September 23, 2010


Quite a few of these operations were cooked up by John Craven, who was thought by many as a pedantic and rather silly bureaucrat. He invented the cover story for the Glomar Explorer: that it was checking commercial viability of harvesting manganese nodules from the ocean floor (it was really built to pick up Russian submarine bits), and the subsequent quibbling about whose nodules they were was instrumental in promoting the Convention on the Law of the Sea - of whose institute he was managing director. PJ O'Rourke descants on what a bore Craven was in one of his snarks, talking about the Law of the Sea.

Craven, hiding in plain sight and hiding his special equipment the same way, was very successful at this game.
posted by jet_silver at 5:43 PM on September 23, 2010 [6 favorites]


filthy light thief, the Soviets would not have been using fiber optics back then. It was plain old copper cable. Induction tapping devices were very straightforward, at least theoretically. Optical cable was still 10-20 years away at that point.
posted by GuyZero at 5:51 PM on September 23, 2010


and right away wanted to pick it up, pick it up, pick it up

their daddy's taught them well
posted by archivist at 5:52 PM on September 23, 2010


Did they have a satisfactory logo?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:04 PM on September 23, 2010


Whew, not about the ska band.

No, but they both may have gotten their names from the same place. (Operation Ivy was the first H-bomb test shot.)
posted by Lazlo at 6:47 PM on September 23, 2010


If anyone wants to read more about what the submarine force did in the cold war Blind Mans Bluff is an excellant book detaily what the US Navy Submarine force did up to the end of the cold war. I was on a submarine at the end of the cold war, the old timers told me several storys about what the had done. I served aboard a ballistic missile sub(I was a Missile tech) and some of the stories I was told are unbelievable. Fast attack subs were the place to be at the time, stealthy and quiet, they can get anywhere. Read the book, then think about the guys that actually pulled this off.
posted by ionized at 7:04 PM on September 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


and thats what I get for not previewing the comments, sorry I see Blind Mans Bluff was mentioned several times already, always late to the party I guess.............
posted by ionized at 7:14 PM on September 23, 2010


I just recently saw a show on (I think) the Military channel that told this story. It was ultimately Ames who leaked the information to the Soviets that blew the cover.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:38 PM on September 23, 2010


Sorta funny I guess

I went into Naval Intelligence right as this program was winding down. We knew about it, knew it was ending. Our classes were taught in an underground facility where you needed boo scary badges even to walk through the door. They told us about the next project, that it would blow our minds. About 70% of the class was still waiting on their clearances to come though.

They never said who did and didnt, just the next Monday there were people gone. We marched into the classrom, and they said, Gentleman, congratulations, you have all been upgraded to a to a Top Security clearance, All off a sudden, my roomate aint next to me no more, and him and everything he owned, was gone before I got back.

My passport was held for 7 years by the State Dept. No travel outside the US. I had to postpone my wedding abit to accomodate that.

After 9/11, I would have went back in a heartbeat. I knew the inside baseball on this shit.

Eh, I was too old.
posted by timsteil at 8:41 PM on September 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


You can tap fiber optic cables without splicing.

I expect the precise method depends on the type of cable, but essentially if you cut away the sheathing down to the actual fiber and then bend it, you can cause some of the light to leak out. If you amplify this light sufficiently, you can recover the signal. You'd have to do it for each individual fiber in the cable that you wanted to tap.

It must be a ridiculously delicate operation (I've only seen it demonstrated in a lab using a plastic fiber and an LED, so a pretty crude simulation), but is probably very difficult to detect, unlike a splice which you could conceivably detect using a optical TDR.

Anyway, Wikipedia tells me that the first undersea cable to use optical fiber was TAT-8 in 1988, so the cables involved in Ivy Bells wouldn't have been optical. Though I think you can do a very similar thing with coax ... if you bend coax you can get it to leak RF at the bend (typically regarded as a bad thing). If you did it very carefully you might be able to tap it without creating enough of a discontinuity for a TDR to notice.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:07 PM on September 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also were I a 1970's naval spy I would be unable to prevent myself from referring to this as Operation Itchy Balls. I would probably be ejected from Spy Club because of this.

Given the precarious, expensive and technical nature of the operation I'd like to think at least someone called it Ivory Balls.
posted by protorp at 11:03 PM on September 23, 2010


Fiber optic cables have to be spliced, if I understand correctly.

Apparently not. From the first link: This "wrap around" device, developed by the NSA, could eavesdrop on - and record - all communications passing through the line without the need for actually penetrating the wires inside.


posted by filthy light thief at 2:16 AM on September 24 [+] [!]

So so eponysterical!
posted by CautionToTheWind at 1:43 AM on September 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also were I a 1970's naval spy I would be unable to prevent myself from referring to this as Operation Itchy Balls

Diving at 400 ft in cold Russian waters, you'd be more likely to call it Operation Where's My Balls.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:54 AM on September 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Take a look at this rebreather site. Same people I think.
posted by Aspie at 4:57 AM on September 24, 2010


Operation Ivy BELLS. Oh, I see. Nevermind.
posted by Splunge at 6:52 AM on September 24, 2010


Confess, Fletch: "I read Blind Mans Bluff a while ago and the thing I most remember is that the US Government stupidly left a 'Property of US' tag on one of these taps that the Soviets eventually found. F'ing bureaucrats..."

If the Russians found a nuclear powered tapping device attached to one of their undersea military communications cables, I think they'd know who made it even without the tag.
posted by Reverend John at 7:35 AM on September 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


Craven's book The Silent War is almost as good as Blind Man's Bluff.

Also, no, Artw, you'd fit right in.
posted by ctmf at 11:23 AM on September 24, 2010


I'll bring my tux.
posted by Artw at 11:30 AM on September 24, 2010


I too came in here to recommend Blind Man's Bluff. I'm not normally a big military-history fan, but the book's a frickin amazing read.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 2:53 PM on September 24, 2010


It was ultimately Ames who leaked the information to the Soviets that blew the cover.

Nope, it was an NSA analyst named Ron Pelton.
posted by scalefree at 3:10 PM on September 24, 2010


Couldn't have been Ames, in any case, as his recruitment came after Pelton's arrest, which only came after Yurchenko's defection -- years after the tap was discovered.

And as Reverend John notes, putting "Property of the United States Government" (apparently the words are visible on one of the pods displayed in a Russian museum) was probably as much a thumb in the eye as anything. Part of the point was that the US was asserting rights to the "open" sea beyond the 12-mile limit. It was a dangerous, and often cheeky, game, played as much for psychology as for intelligence. (For the same reason POWs are obligated to escape, to tie up as many of the enemy's resources as possible, intelligence is largely about misdirection and redirection of investment and energy, not just the raw information.)
posted by dhartung at 3:29 PM on September 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


MY god. What a WASTE of resources and time!
posted by SpaceJazz at 1:45 PM on September 25, 2010


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