Signals Intelligence

(SIGINT)
   The tsarist regime maintained a sophisticated signals intelligence capability. Both the Okhrana and the Foreign Ministry worked to break the codes of radical groups and foreign powers. A British diplomat was warned by a Russian colleague in the late 19th century that all his diplomatic dispatches were read in the Black Chamber of the Russian Foreign Ministry long before they reached London, and he was politely advised to send his messages by surface mail rather than telegraph. The British had a Black Chamber of their own and had been reading Russian diplomatic communications since the Napoleonic Wars.
   In the early years of the Bolshevik regime, the Cheka worked diligently but with mixed success to rebuild sigint capability. Cheka code making was so poor during the Polish–Soviet War of 1920– 1921 that the Poles read all the Soviet military messages they intercepted. The defection of many tsarist sigint professionals following the Revolution made it difficult initially for the Bolshevik regime to maintain the security of its communications and to develop a signal intercept capacity. The British, to name one hostile country, read much of the Soviet diplomatic traffic into the early 1920s. In the early 1930s the signals intelligence sections of the NKVD and the GRU were combined and operated under the direction of Gleb Bokiy. Bokiy’s success largely stemmed from the recruitment of foreign code clerks, who betrayed their countries and provided code books to Moscow. In the 1930s the NKVD was receiving code material from two British code clerks and had access to the British ambassador’s diplomatic codes in Rome. And there was an agent inside the British embassy in Paris. This combination of human and signals intelligence that began in the 1930s lasted through the history of Soviet sigint.
   Soviet code-making and code-breaking developed rapidly during the 1930s and 1940s. While the Soviet Union apparently did not break the codes of the German Enigma machines, they did make codes that were unusually secure. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Soviet security services developed a “one-time pad” as a means of encrypting messages. The pad consisted of a list of random five-digit number groups which when added to already enciphered figures made a totally secure code. For example, if 12345 in the code book meant Moscow, and the five-digit group was 11111, Moscow would be enciphered as 23456. The system was secure as long as Soviet clerks did not use the onetime pads more than once. When code clerks repeatedly used the same one-time pads during World War II, their mistake allowed American and British code breakers to decode messages. During the Cold War, responsibility for Soviet sigint was divided between the Eighth and 16th Chief Directorates of the KGB and the GRU’s Space Intelligence Directorate. Major Soviet successes had to do with recruitment of signals intelligence officers and code clerks of Western powers, such as Bernon Mitchell and William Martin in the 1960s, and Ronald Pelton and John Walker in the 1970s and 1980s. In the late 1960s the KGB scored another major coup against its Western opponents with the recruitment of Geoffrey Prime, who worked for a Royal Air Force sigint station in Berlin. The KGB reportedly was also successful in recruiting code clerks from France and Italy.
   Both the KGB and the GRU collected signals intelligence from installations inside the Soviet Union and abroad as well as from Soviet diplomatic and trade facilities. According to the memoirs of a former KGB archivist, by the early 1980s all KGB rezidenturas possessed an intercept post. The largest foreign installation was located at Lourdes in Cuba, where both of the Soviet services intercepted messages transmitted by satellites. The KGB reportedly forwarded 100,000 intercepted diplomatic and military messages to the Communist Party Central Committee every year between 1960 and 1991.
   The GRU’s sigint program was immense, and it targeted potential adversaries’ military communications. By the end of the 1980s the GRU had 40 sigint regiments and 170 sigint battalions. The GRU also had 130 sigint satellites and made use of 20 different types of aircraft and more than 60 surface ships to collect information from the air, according to a study by an Australian academic. Russia continues to collect sigint. The station at Lourdes apparently has been closed, but the GRU’s signals intelligence component and FAPSI have their own sites on the World Wide Web, which advertise historic successes and present missions.
   See also Constantini, Francesco; Hall, James; King, John.

Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. . 2014.

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