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3 April 2004. One of the Eyeball
Maps from Mapquest.com
Source of photo: http://seamless.usgs.gov
Embassy of the Russian Federation:
New York Times, March 4, 2001
By JAMES RISEN with LOWELL BERGMAN
WASHINGTON, March 3 The United States government constructed a secret tunnel under the Soviet Union's embassy in Washington to eavesdrop, but federal investigators now believe the operation was betrayed by the F.B.I. agent who was arrested last month on charges of spying for Moscow, current and former United States intelligence and law enforcement officials say.
The secret tunnel operation, which officials indicated was run jointly by the F.B.I. and the National Security Agency, was part of a broad United States effort to eavesdrop on and track Soviet later Russian facilities and personnel operating in the United States.
Spokesmen at the F.B.I. and the White House declined to comment on the tunnel operation today.
Current and former United States officials estimated that the tunnel construction and related intelligence-gathering activities cost several hundred million dollars, apparently making it the most expensive clandestine intelligence operation that the agent, Robert Philip Hanssen, is accused of betraying. The tunnel was designed to aid in a sophisticated operation to eavesdrop on communications and conversations in the Soviet Embassy complex, which was built in the 1970's and 1980's but was not fully occupied until the 1990's.
In the 1980's, at about the time the tunnel operation was under way, the United States and the Soviet Union argued bitterly over their respective embassies in Moscow and Washington, with the United States accusing Moscow of spying at both locations.
The government has never publicly disclosed the existence of the tunnel operation. But in an F.B.I. affidavit in the Hanssen case, the government stated that Mr. Hanssen "compromised an entire technical program of enormous value, expense and importance to the United States government." Officials said that was a reference to the tunnel operation and related intelligence activities.
The government charges that Mr. Hanssen, a 25-year veteran of the F.B.I. and a counterintelligence expert, volunteered to spy for Moscow in October 1985. He was arrested on Feb. 18 in a Virginia park after leaving a package containing classified documents for his Russian handlers, according to the affidavit.
It could not be determined when the government believes Mr. Hanssen betrayed the tunnel operation and related intelligence-gathering activities targeting the embassy complex. Nor are many details known about how and when the operation was mounted, or whether it ever succeeded in collecting useful intelligence.
But the emerging belief that the tunnel program had been compromised was a factor in the government's decision to keep looking for additional spies after the 1994 arrest of the C.I.A. officer Aldrich H. Ames, according to current and former officials.
A secret investigative team was established to identify the source of a series of damaging intelligence losses, including the tunnel and related activities against the embassy, that could not be explained by Mr. Ames. Other unexplained intelligence losses including other technical intelligence programs, as well as the 1989 disclosure to Moscow that the F.B.I. was conducting an espionage investigation of a State Department official, Felix S. Bloch also prompted officials to begin a new mole hunt, officials added.
That mole-hunt team played a critical role in the counterespionage probe that led to Mr. Hanssen's arrest, United States officials said. It was a successor to an earlier C.I.A. mole-hunt team that helped uncover Mr. Ames. The tunnel was built under Moscow's embassy complex on Washington's Wisconsin Avenue, a hilltop location known as Mount Alto, officials said.
The Soviets were prevented for years from fully occupying the embassy complex as a result of a long- running dispute with the United States about charges that the American Embassy in Moscow had been thoroughly bugged. Soviet diplomats occupied apartments there in 1979, and Congressional critics charged that they were using those buildings as espionage outposts. In the mid- 1980's, some American lawmakers claimed that the hilltop location would give the Soviets an edge in intelligence gathering against United States government buildings in Washington. The new embassy complex was not fully occupied until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, the American intelligence offensive against the embassy remained hidden from public view even as the United States publicly protested a Soviet campaign to lace the new United States Embassy in Moscow with listening devices. Construction on the new American Embassy in Moscow was halted in 1985 after the Reagan administration protested that Soviet construction crews were imbedding eavesdropping equipment within the walls of the new chancery building. The disclosure that the United States believed that the new embassy was bugged sparked Congressional hearings and criticism of the handling of the matter by the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Ultimately, after considering tearing the embassy down, the United States flew in American construction workers and lopped off the top two floors and replaced them with two new secure floors before finally occupying the new facility.
The United States operation against the new Soviet Embassy in Washington, like the Soviet bugging of the United States Embassy complex, was designed to eavesdrop on electronic communications and conversations inside the facility. F.B.I. agents were secretly placed in critical jobs in some of the key contractors hired by the Soviets, according to an individual knowledegable about the planning of the operation. That individual said that bugging the building involved the use of secret technology developed by the intelligence community to pick up sounds inside a large building.
The tunnel operation against the Soviet complex, designed to tap into electronic communications inside the embassy facility, is just one of many similar clandestine technical operations run by the United States intelligence community, both during and since the cold war. And, like the embassy operation, many of those other operations were eventually compromised by spies.
In the 1950's, the C.I.A. dug a tunnel into East Berlin in order to tap into Soviet telephone lines. But George Blake, a British intelligence officer who was then a spy for Moscow, is believed to have betrayed the operation to the Soviets.
In the 1970's, the United States Navy used submarines to tap into Soviet undersea communications cables. In 1972, the Navy tapped into an undersea cable used by the Soviet Navy in the Pacific, largely in hopes of gaining intelligence about the locations of Soviet ballistic missile submarines. In 1979, the Navy began a similar operation in the Barents Sea to tap into a communications line that went to and from the headquarters of the Soviet Union's biggest fleet.
In 1980, Ronald Pelton, a former National Security Agency employee, compromised the Pacific cable tap operation by alerting the Soviets to the operation. But Mr. Pelton, who was arrested in 1985 on espionage charges, is not believed to have known about the Barents Sea operation, which continued for years afterward.
The C.I.A. also conducted a secret operation to tap into a communications line outside Moscow. Code- named TAW, that cable-tapping operation continued for several years in the early 1980's. But it is believed to have been compromised by Edward Lee Howard, a C.I.A. case officer who was fired from his job in 1983 and later began to spy for Moscow. Mr. Howard defected to Moscow in 1985. Mr. Ames may also have betrayed the TAW operation. He also apparently compromised a technical operation code-named Absorb, in which the C.I.A. hid sophisticated nuclear detection equipment on a rail car crossing the Soviet Union in an attempt to identify the locations of Soviet nuclear warheads.
Indeed, the record on the value of the intelligence gleaned from many of these high-cost technical intelligence programs is mixed, current and former officials say.
In fact, a former United States intelligence official said he was not certain that the Soviet Embassy tunnel operation ever actually produced any intelligence.
Another official suggested that technical problems prevented the operation from becoming productive. That official suggested that the tunnel was both compromised by a spy, and also failed on technical grounds.
This view of the embassy is from the red dot in the large image.