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​Photo of Great Seal by National Security Agency

A Trojan Seal

The Cold War is over but many of its stories have yet to be fully told. One such story is that of Ambassador George Kennan and Joe Bezjian. Ambassador Kennan is a Cold War legend who helped define the U.S. Cold War strategy of containment. A lifelong Foreign Service Officer and diplomat, he authored the famous “X” cable that modified the U.S.’s original economic containment ideas to a broad-based strategic philosophy. He was a man well worth listening to and the KGB did its best to listen to his every word. Joe Bezjian, on the other hand, was a real shadow Cold Warrior. Not like the protagonist of novels and movies but rather a real security engineering officer protecting the U.S from its Soviet foe through the use of science and technology. He was one of a handful of original engineers hired in the late 40’s to help the State Department fight technical espionage. He always worked in the shadows, as such a career choice dictates. Although his impact is not as broadly felt as Ambassador Kennan’s, he helped change Cold War history as well. 

The Cold War and the accompanying explosive growth of electronics brought new techniques and technologies to the collection and analysis of intelligence. Superpower needs often caused tactics to intertwine with that rapid advance of technology. Secret research on both sides of the Iron Curtain created new technologies for collecting intelligence data. Organizations such as the U.S. National Security Agency and the 8th and 16th divisions of the KGB were created to deal with the dual-edged weapons of technology. National laboratory systems in both the East and the West, populated by some of the most brilliant minds on both sides, contributed their expertise to these new technologies.

Silent Avenues

Building upon WWII advances, the intelligence and security forces of each side developed innovative techniques to gain a subtle edge on the opposing side. The fall of the Soviet Union clearly established the U.S. as the victor in both the Cold War and the development of surveillance technology. However, the former Soviet Union proved quite crafty and capable in developing advanced surveillance and espionage technologies to support their vast intelligence network both domestically and abroad. The Cold War strategies and battles were waged in the silent avenues of classified message traffic and high-tech laboratories and are among the best kept secrets of that shadowy time. The Soviets began forays into the collection of espionage-utilizing technology far ahead of the U.S. Well before WWII, the Soviets utilized technology to further their intelligence collection capabilities and in the early parts of the Cold War they held a distinct technical espionage advantage.  

The first such evidence of Soviet Cold War technical guile was found in the official residence of the American ambassador to the Soviet Union – Spaso House – a large mansion located not far from the Old Arbat street in Moscow. Early in the Cold War, Ambassador George Kennan lived there while he represented the U.S. to the Soviet government. Built by a wealthy Russian merchant just prior to the Bolshevik revolution, the Spaso House has served as the American Ambassador’s official residence since the arrival of the first ambassador to the Soviet Union established diplomatic ties in 1933 and still does so today. The mansion was designed by architects Adamovich and Mayat for Nikolay Aleksandrovich Vtorov in 1914 and was built in the ostentatious New Empire Style.

However, by 1953 several U.S. ambassadors and their wives had made structural changes to the residence. The ground floor of the mansion contained a large reception hall and ballroom, reception rooms, a large state dining room, a billiard room, and many pantries. The second floor held the two primary bedrooms and a number of smaller bedrooms, one of which doubled as the ambassador’s study. The kitchens, a laundry, and the servants’ dining room and quarters were in the basement. Chief among the servants was Sergei, the apparent KGB operative who occupied a room in the basement, separate from the other servants.

The U.S. and the Soviet alliance against the common Nazi foe through WWII caused a tremendous increase in communications and diplomatic discourse between the two countries. The tremendous growth in the U.S. official presence in the Soviet Union forced then Ambassador Harriman (1943-1946) to convert Spaso House into a combination of billets and offices for embassy employees. Like everyone devoted to winning the war, people assigned to American Embassy Moscow worked long, hard wartime hours. Ambassador Harriman’s study became the center of embassy operations for everyone working and living in the house. The age and pre-modern techniques utilized to construct Spaso House caused rapid deterioration due to the heavy traffic. The Russian staff performed continuous maintenance on the structure during and well after the war. This work probably created many opportunities for intelligence collection from the many meetings held within its walls. The Soviets targeted their allies for technical penetration as well.

Ambassador Kirk (1950-1952) was Ambassador Kennan’s predecessor. As is commonly done around the world, the administrative section of the embassy performed a renovation in preparation for Ambassador Kennan’s arrival to the post. Kennan was well aware of the Soviets’ tendency to listen to conversations from his earlier assignment to Moscow as a junior officer under the first U.S. Ambassador to the Soviets, William Bullitt (1933-1936). Kennan thought the Soviets might have used the construction as an opportunity to put listening devices into the walls of Spaso House. 

We had long since taught ourselves to assume that in Moscow most walls – at least in the rooms that diplomats were apt to frequent – had ears. Still, we had supposed in earlier years that one did not want to make it easier for curious people than it needed to be made. Yet this was precisely what, in redecorating the building, we had contrived to do. (Kennan Vol. II 153)

Ambassador Kennan requested technical security teams from the State Department in Washington, D.C., and the regional security center in Paris, France, to perform several technical inspections. They came and searched repeatedly but found nothing. They always left with a nagging feeling that Ambassador Kennan was correct.

In that same time frame, on the other side of Moscow, at another western embassy, a U.S. ally had an unsettling occurrence. The Air Attaché had toyed with the receiver he used to monitor Russian military traffic and overheard the Naval Attaché conversing in another office. Alarmed, he immediately notified the embassy’s security officials of his suspicions about a technical penetration of their embassy. They immediately called for help and their security services dispatched a team to investigate. The team performed an extensive destructive search tearing the office down to its framing members but discovered nothing.

The Professionals

Washington apprised American security officers John Ford and Joe Bezjian of the situation at their base of operations at the American Embassy in Paris, France. Both gentlemen were security professionals but Joe was the technical expert. The embassy invited them to come to Moscow to see if they could solve the mystery. Like the allied search team, they turned up nothing and determined that the Soviets had removed the device. This occurrence added fuel to the concern that the Soviets possessed a new technology that could effectively evade western search equipment and techniques. This was further compounded when an American military attaché, Major Van Latham, stationed at the Mohkavaya building (the American Embassy Chancery building at that time) overheard the ambassador’s voice while monitoring his radio. A frantic search ensued but once again, nothing was found.   

In September, Joe and John returned to Moscow to perform another search of U.S. facilities. They searched U.S. Embassy facilities thoroughly and turned up nothing. Joe suspected that his search may have been compromised but decided to make one last effort. As with Ambassador Kennan, he was aware that the renovation of Spaso House presented an opportunity for the KGB to introduce something technical – he just didn’t know what. Discussing the matter with the Ambassador they worked out a plan. The plan included surreptitious delivery of Joe’s search equipment to the house and a bogus classified dictation session by the Ambassador in his study. Joe moved all of his personal effects into a guest room at Spaso House and took up the life of a house guest for several days. He invited people over for dinner, played bridge in the evening, and quietly watched the normal routines of the house and its occupants.

On September 12, the embassy personnel officer, Sam Janey, brought Joe’s disguised search equipment to the house. The two men hid the equipment in a residence safe. According to plan, Ambassador Kennan called his longtime secretary, Ms. Dorothy Hessman, to perform dictation in the ambassador’s study. The ambassador dictated from an old embassy dispatch. The dispatch consisted of an unclassified portion of published diplomatic correspondence and to the uninformed ear could well sound worth collecting.

Soon after Ms. Hessman arrived, Joe and Sam carried the equipment from the safe to the attic. Almost as soon as the equipment warmed up Joe spun his dial and heard Ambassador Kennan’s voice and Ms. Hessman’s typing. Joe’s attentions snapped onto his receiver and a surge of adrenalin sharpened his focus, but he controlled his excitement and continued his quiet hunt using the radio strapped to his chest like a concessionaire at a ball game. Hearing the ambassador’s voice “on the air” Joe sent Sam down to the study with a note to the ambassador. Sam passed the note to Ambassador Kennan and then implored him, via sub-vocal whispers, to “keep on, keep on.” The room charged with an unknown presence lurking beyond the shadows.

Joe carried his equipment slowly down the stairs, entered the study, and started parsing the room, searching for the signal’s origin. He lowered his whip antenna, diminishing the receiver’s sensitivity, and quietly treaded from corner to corner. Ambassador Kennan continued dictating but held his eyes riveted on Joe as he fiddled with his dials and antenna. Using the meter on his receiver and the shifting audio in his headset, Joe tracked the signal to the study’s left rear corner. A corner table displayed many small things including a Zenith radio. Joe pointed to Sam to remove the radio and then in turn pointed at different items for him to remove from the table. Joe heard no effect on the device’s audio as the ambassador continued to read. Above the table hung a large wooden replica of the U.S. Great Seal. After Sam removed all the items from the table Joe’s eyes fixed on the Seal. He approached it delicately, suspecting that it might be covering up something planted in the wall.

Placing his receiver down, Joe picked the Great Seal off the wall gingerly and placed it on an overstuffed chair at the room’s center. The signal dropped off and just as suddenly returned. Joe returned to examine the wall. He slowly scanned back and forth with his eyes and ran his finger tips across the plaster surface seeing and feeling nothing. He slowly turned and fixed his gaze on the Great Seal. He went back to the chair where it sat and began examining it closely. He ran his receiver back and forth across where the Great Seal lay on the chair confirming that the signal emanated from behind the bald eagle’s head. In his excitement, he bumped the wooden Seal and the signal disappeared once again. Fearing that his search had been discovered, Joe told Ambassador Kennan that he had lost the signal but it undoubtedly came from inside the Great Seal. The signal suddenly returned a few moments later but then went off the air – forever.

Go Deeper

The ambassador looked at Joe and quietly asked about leaving the device in place to feed prepared information back to the Soviets in a misinformation campaign. Joe assured the ambassador that the Russian operator undoubtedly knew that the search effort was compromised. He felt sure they were listening to his activities and quite probably knew of his discovery of their intelligence operation. Joe advised the ambassador that the device needed to be studied to determine its capabilities. Further, Joe contended, the considerable U.S. effort to discover the device required that it be secured to keep the Soviets from “recovering” it, denying western governments the opportunity to understand and protect themselves from the new technology.

Joe, eager to examine the device, remained uneasy because of the possibility that the device contained a booby trap that might explode and destroy its secrets as well as hurt the person opening the device or the people standing nearby. Joe instructed Ambassador Kennan, Sam, and Ms. Hessman to leave the study. But he was also driven by his curiosity to see what was inside of the wooden carving, enough curiosity to overrule his caution. He carefully examined the Seal and noted a seam in the edge. With a sharp-edged masonry hammer he slowly, deliberately cracked the seal open, splitting the plaster circumference ring and having the seal fall into its front and back pieces. Nothing self-destructed. Hidden within a large carved cavity inside the seal the disassembly revealed a cleverly hidden device called a cavity resonator. The device required no internal power source and uses the basic physical principles of resonance to steal audio from its surroundings. It had no electronic components, just a nonferrous microphone and an antenna crafted to resonate at the appropriate frequency. Much as a diva can explode a piece of glass with her voice resonating until the excess energy causes it to shatter, a cavity resonator can modulate (change) an externally supplied radio signal and use its clever combination of radio-frequency resonance and audio modulation to eavesdrop on nearby conversations. The resonator gave the Soviets a tactical and strategic edge in the battle for Cold War supremacy. 

Trojan Gift

An anonymous Russian had given the wooden replica to Ambassador Averell Harriman as a personal gift sometime in 1945. Initially, Ambassador Harriman did nothing with the seal. It was during the war and his time was limited. After several months in storage, someone hung the seal in the Ambassador’s study. Ambassador Harriman did not remember when, nor who hung the seal. When asked some 15 years later, all Ambassador Harriman remembered was that when leaving his assignment in the USSR the large size of the seal prevented it from being packed into his personal effects. He left it hanging on the wall of the house’s study for his successor.

Following Ambassador Harriman was Ambassador Walter Bedell Smith, soon-to-be director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He remembered the seal quite well. The ambassador remembered only one time throughout his entire Moscow tenure when the seal did not hang in the study. He noticed that a crack had appeared in the Seal’s rim and ordered it repaired prior to the arrival of the Secretary of State, George Marshall, who used the study as his bedroom. Ambassador and Mrs. Smith wanted the room to be as tidy as possible for the Secretary. A Russian handyman took the seal and kept it for approximately a week. The seal reappeared in excellent shape with no indication of a crack on any of its edges, well before Secretary Marshall’s arrival to negotiate with the USSR.

The Seal, apparently, had hung in the study from 1945 until Joe discovered it on September 12, 1953. State Department Security Engineers had examined the Seal twice in 1951 with a metal detector. The detector indicated the presence of the obvious metal screws and studs on the reverse side but nothing in the middle – fooled by the nonferrous brass construction of the resonant cavity. After Joe’s successful technical search, he continued his inspection with hand tools. He and Sam performed a destructive search destroying the wall on which the Seal had hung for so long. They found nothing: no cables, no power source, no indications at all. After they demolished the wall and finished searching for any associated devices at 3 A.M., they posted a Marine Guard in the study.

Joe placed the cavity resonator under his pillow and placed the Great Seal under the bed and settled in for a couple of hours of restless sleep. The next morning he accompanied Ambassador Kennan in his limousine to the Chancery heading directly towards the Kremlin on the way to the embassy. At the chancery, Joe photographed multiple angles of the cavity resonator and the Seal. He carefully packed the seal and resonator in boxes and hand carried them to the communications vault and packaged them in a diplomatic pouch. The next pouch shipment sent them to the Department’s Regional Security headquarters in Paris. Once the pouch reached Paris, Security Engineer Fred Snyder repacked the pouch and hand carried the Seal and the resonator to Washington, D.C. In D.C., it rapidly made its way to Secretary Acheson’s office, who immediately arranged to show it to President Truman. The President ordered the Seal given to the FBI lab for reverse engineering. State Department Security Officer Robert Eckert hand carried the seal and device to the FBI lab for analysis.

President Truman tasked the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) to develop countermeasures for cavity resonators. The NRL developed several passive and active devices for revealing resonant cavity devices and sent them to Moscow to be used. Despite diligent searches, no further devices utilizing this technology were discovered. It’s likely the Soviets removed any other devices after Joe made his discovery in order to maintain operations security over their other successes. The U.S. made several copies of both the cavity resonator and the Great Seal for various briefings to Congress and other Agencies.

Counterespionage Paradigm Shift

While this was not the first such technical penetration that the U.S. Government had come across, it came about at the beginning of the Cold War with McCarthyism running rampant and anti-communism reaching a pitched fever. This atmosphere amplified the effect of this discovery making it a spark that caused the creation of new security companies and specialized industries to start development. It showed that the use of technology to collect information was not limited to simple operations but that the USSR had applied some of their best scientists to exploit technology in ways that western governments had not anticipated.  

Joe’s discovery led to significant changes in the way the West perceived security. Joe continued searching for intelligence attacks exploiting technology and fulfilled a career in that shadowy world, never revealing his work. Ambassador Kennan was soon declared "persona non grata" by the Soviet government and returned to the U.S. Purportedly, he made statements linking the USSR to Nazi Germany, but it is difficult to not speculate that his link to the discovery of the Great Seal and the cavity resonator contained therein did not play some part in Soviet thinking. He went on to lead the State Department as Undersecretary for Policy and to win two Pulitzer Prizes and teach at Princeton.

Tu Quoque

But the Great Seal story did not stop here. The Great Seal device graced the world stage one more time. Some seven years later, in 1960, the Soviets shot down Gary Powers’ U2 reconnaissance plane after months of trying to hit one of the high-flying spy planes. The Soviets paraded the pieces of the plane and showed the captured pilot to the world. In New York, on the world stage at the U.N., Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko accused the U.S. of:

…bringing mankind to the brink of war. Hour after hour Gromyko pressed his attack charging the U.S. with ‘irresponsibility’ and ‘perfidy’ and with pursuing a ‘piratical’ and ‘provocative policy. (Special Section, TiJng 6 June 1960 32.3, TiJing 32).

After three days of suffering through the Soviet verbal attack, American Ambassador to the U.N., Henry Cabot Lodge counterattacked by holding up the Trojan Great Seal for the world to see:

The world’s more persistent spy, Lodge said, was the Soviet Union. To prove the point Lodge brought out a large wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States…As delegates looked on with intrigued amusement Ambassador lodge opened the wooden carving and pointed out the tiny microphone deftly concealed inside the gift…On the day after Lodge offered his exhibit the Security Council was ready to vote on Gromyko’s resolution [that the Security Council brand the U.S. as an aggressor]. It lost 7-2 with only Poland supporting the Soviet stand. (Time Magazine, 1960, 32)

After its display in the UN general assembly the Great Seal replica led a more prosaic existence. It now adorns the wall of the Director of the Diplomatic Security Service – and it now bears only silent witness to the inner workings of the State Department’s security mission.

♦ Ken Stanley served as the chief technology officer at the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service from 2006 to 2008.