Operation Ivy Bells
Operation Ivy Bells was a joint United States Navy
United States Navy
The United States Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the seven uniformed services of the United States. The U.S. Navy is the largest in the world; its battle fleet tonnage is greater than that of the next 13 largest navies combined. The U.S...

, CIA and National Security Agency
National Security Agency
The National Security Agency/Central Security Service is a cryptologic intelligence agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the collection and analysis of foreign communications and foreign signals intelligence, as well as protecting U.S...

 (NSA) mission whose objective was to place wire tap
Telephone tapping
Telephone tapping is the monitoring of telephone and Internet conversations by a third party, often by covert means. The wire tap received its name because, historically, the monitoring connection was an actual electrical tap on the telephone line...

s on Soviet
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

 underwater communication lines
Submarine communications cable
A submarine communications cable is a cable laid on the sea bed between land-based stations to carry telecommunication signals across stretches of ocean....

 during the Cold War
Cold War
The Cold War was the continuing state from roughly 1946 to 1991 of political conflict, military tension, proxy wars, and economic competition between the Communist World—primarily the Soviet Union and its satellite states and allies—and the powers of the Western world, primarily the United States...



During the Cold War, the United States wanted to learn more about Soviet submarine
A submarine is a watercraft capable of independent operation below the surface of the water. It differs from a submersible, which has more limited underwater capability...

 and missile technology, specifically ICBM
Intercontinental ballistic missile
An intercontinental ballistic missile is a ballistic missile with a long range typically designed for nuclear weapons delivery...

 test and nuclear first strike capability.

In the early 1970s the U.S. government learned of the existence of an undersea communications cable in the Sea of Okhotsk
Sea of Okhotsk
The Sea of Okhotsk is a marginal sea of the western Pacific Ocean, lying between the Kamchatka Peninsula on the east, the Kuril Islands on the southeast, the island of Hokkaidō to the far south, the island of Sakhalin along the west, and a long stretch of eastern Siberian coast along the west and...

, which connected the major Soviet Pacific Fleet naval base at Petropavlovsk
Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky is the main city and the administrative, industrial, scientific, and cultural center of Kamchatka Krai, Russia. Population: .-History:It was founded by Danish navigator Vitus Bering, in the service of the Russian Navy...

 on the Kamchatka Peninsula
Kamchatka Peninsula
The Kamchatka Peninsula is a peninsula in the Russian Far East, with an area of . It lies between the Pacific Ocean to the east and the Sea of Okhotsk to the west...

 to the Soviet Pacific Fleet's mainland headquarters at Vladivostok
The city is located in the southern extremity of Muravyov-Amursky Peninsula, which is about 30 km long and approximately 12 km wide.The highest point is Mount Kholodilnik, the height of which is 257 m...

. At the time, the Sea of Okhotsk was claimed by the Soviet Union as territorial waters
Territorial waters
Territorial waters, or a territorial sea, as defined by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is a belt of coastal waters extending at most from the baseline of a coastal state...

, and was strictly off limits to foreign vessels, and the Soviet Navy had installed a network of sound detection devices along the seabed to detect intruders. The area also saw numerous surface and subsurface naval exercises.

Despite these obstacles, the potential for an intelligence coup was too great to ignore, and in October 1971 the United States sent the purpose-modified submarine deep into the Sea of Okhotsk. Divers working from the Halibut found the cable in 400 ft (121.9 m) of water and installed a 20 ft (6.1 m) long device, which wrapped around the cable without piercing its casing and recorded all communications made over it. The large recording device was designed to detach if the cable was raised for repair.

Each month, divers retrieved the recordings and installed a new set of tapes. The recordings were then delivered to the NSA for processing and dissemination to other U.S. intelligence agencies. The first tapes recorded revealed that the Soviets were so sure of the cable's security that the majority of the conversations made over it were unencrypted. The eavesdropping on the traffic between senior Soviet officers provided an invaluable view inside naval operations at Petropavlovsk, the Pacific Fleet's primary nuclear submarine base, home to Yankee
Yankee class submarine
The Yankee class is the NATO classification for a type of nuclear-powered submarine that was constructed by the Soviet Union from 1968 onward. 34 units were produced under Project 667A Navaga and Project 667AU Nalim...

 and Delta
Delta class submarine
The Delta class is a class of submarines which formed the backbone of the Soviet and Russian strategic submarine fleet since its introduction in 1973...

 class nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines.

Eventually, more taps were installed on Soviet lines in other parts of the world, with more advanced instruments built by AT&T
AT&T Inc. is an American multinational telecommunications corporation headquartered in Whitacre Tower, Dallas, Texas, United States. It is the largest provider of mobile telephony and fixed telephony in the United States, and is also a provider of broadband and subscription television services...

's Bell Laboratories that were nuclear powered and could store a year's worth of data. Other submarines were used for this role, including , , .

The operation continued until 1981, when surveillance satellites showed Soviet warships, including a salvage vessel, anchored over the site of the tap in the Sea of Okhotsk. USS Parche was dispatched to recover the device, but her divers were unable to find it and it was concluded that the Soviets had discovered the operation and found the recording device.

Cover story and success

The tapping of the Soviet naval cable was so secret that most sailors involved did not have the security clearance
Security clearance
A security clearance is a status granted to individuals allowing them access to classified information, i.e., state secrets, or to restricted areas after completion of a thorough background check. The term "security clearance" is also sometimes used in private organizations that have a formal...

 needed to know about it. A cover story was thus created to disguise the actual mission: It was claimed that the spy submarines were sent to the Soviet naval range in the Sea of Okhotsk to recover the Soviet SS-N-12 Sandbox
The P-500 Bazalt is a liquid-fueled, rocket-powered, supersonic cruise missile used by the Soviet and Russian navies. Developed by OKB-52 MAP , its GRAU designation is 4K80. Its NATO reporting name is SS-N-12 Sandbox. It entered service in 1973 to replace the SS-N-3 Shaddock...

 supersonic anti-ship missile (AShM) debris so that countermeasures could be developed.

Although created as a cover story, this mission was actually carried out with great success: U.S. Navy divers recovered all of the SS-N-12 debris, with the largest debris no larger than 6 inches, and a total of more than 2 million pieces. The debris were taken back to the U.S. and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory reconstructed the AShM based on these pieces, and at least one sample was also reverse engineered. They discovered that the SS-N-12 AShM was guided by radar
Radar is an object-detection system which uses radio waves to determine the range, altitude, direction, or speed of objects. It can be used to detect aircraft, ships, spacecraft, guided missiles, motor vehicles, weather formations, and terrain. The radar dish or antenna transmits pulses of radio...

 only, and the infrared
Infrared light is electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength longer than that of visible light, measured from the nominal edge of visible red light at 0.74 micrometres , and extending conventionally to 300 µm...

 (IR) guidance previously suspected did not exist. From the samples built, countermeasures were successfully developed and deployed.

Compromise of the operation

Ronald William Pelton, a 44-year-old veteran of the NSA, was fluent in Russian and considered to be a highly skilled communications analyst/specialist, but very bad at personal finance. Hostile toward the agency and dissatisfied with his position, Pelton was $65,000 in debt and filed for personal bankruptcy
Personal bankruptcy
Personal bankruptcy is a procedure which, in certain jurisdictions, allows an individual to declare bankruptcy. In other jurisdictions, bankruptcies are reserved for corporations.-Canada:...

 just three months before he resigned. With only a few hundred dollars in the bank, Pelton walked into the Soviet embassy in Washington, DC in January 1980 and offered to sell what he knew to the KGB
The KGB was the commonly used acronym for the . It was the national security agency of the Soviet Union from 1954 until 1991, and was the premier internal security, intelligence, and secret police organization during that time.The State Security Agency of the Republic of Belarus currently uses the...

 for money.

No documents were passed from Pelton to the Soviets, as he had an extremely good memory. He reportedly received $35,000 from the KGB for the intelligence he provided from 1980 to 1983, and for the intelligence on the Operation Ivy Bells, the KGB gave him $5,000. The Soviets did not take any action upon receiving the details of these operations from Pelton. However, the tap was removed from the Cables in 1981 as a direct result of the intelligence acquired from Mr. Pelton.

In July 1985, Vitaly Yurchenko
Vitaly Yurchenko
Vitaly Yurchenko is a former high-ranking KGB officer in the Soviet Union. In 1985, after 25 years of service in the KGB, he made a fake defection to the United States during an assignment in Rome. After providing the names of two U.S. intelligence officers who were KGB agents, Yurchenko slipped...

, a KGB colonel who was Pelton's initial contact in Washington D.C., defected to the U.S. and provided the information that eventually led to Pelton's arrest; only after Pelton reported the operation in 1980 did the Soviets act. To this day, it remains unclear why it took the Soviets so long, although a plausible explanation is that it was used to feed disinformation to U.S. defense intelligence. The recording device captured by the Soviets was on public display in a museum in Moscow
Moscow is the capital, the most populous city, and the most populous federal subject of Russia. The city is a major political, economic, cultural, scientific, religious, financial, educational, and transportation centre of Russia and the continent...


See also

  • Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage
    Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage
    Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage , published in 1998 by Sherry Sontag, Christopher Drew, and Annette Lawrence Drew, is a non-fiction book about U.S. Navy submarine operations during the Cold War...

    — a book that covers this incident. It also includes a description of the Walker spy ring role in its dangerous compromise of technical secrets of some of the tactical capabilities of U.S. Navy nuclear submarines and critical covert intelligence gathering operations during the Cold War.

  • Roger C. Dunham. "Spy Sub - Top Secret Mission To The Bottom Of The Pacific". Penguin Books, USA; New York, NY, 1996. ISBN 0-451-40797-0

  • Espionage Act of 1917
    Espionage Act of 1917
    The Espionage Act of 1917 is a United States federal law passed on June 15, 1917, shortly after the U.S. entry into World War I. It has been amended numerous times over the years. It was originally found in Title 50 of the U.S. Code but is now found under Title 18, Crime...

     - The law under which Pelton was prosecuted.

Red November, Inside the Secret U.S. Soviet Submarine War

External links

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