Monday, August 03, 2020

Nuking the Moon

This is one of the books where I had no clue where or how to start my review. Vince Houghton, historian and curator of the Spy Museum, encountered many stories, some absurd, some ridiculous and some plain nonsense... or weren’t they?

Many impressive late night stories were told by people from the intelligence community, but Vince knows quite a few of them and, as any serious historian, interviewed experts, researched archives and scrolled through declassified documents to find the truth behind utmost secret World War II and Cold War inventions and operations. Brilliant men, inventors and exceptional innovators created some of the well-known and most advanced technology ever build, but it's not about these inventions...

Because at some point, they were asked to come up with solutions that required exceptional out-of-the-box thinking for problems the government desperately wanted solved. And when a nation is desperate, any solution, I really mean any solution, is justified and approved. A cat, turned into a listening device (yes, I wrote turned into, not wearing), recruiting one-armed trappers with a pilot license as stay-behind forces, swarms with thousands of pebbles with electronic eyes in space, waiting to bump into Soviet ICBM’s, using nuclear power as agricultural machinery or fly around nuclear reactors and many many more stories.

Complete nonsense and awful stories. The book contains many implausible ideas that are just terrible. And the worst of all... they are all true! And they worked, sort of, or not quite. Fortunately, at some point, some guy said nah, too crazy, too dangerous or too mad, and the plan was scrapped. Vince not only found the history, organisations and men behind these unbelievable plans, but also brings these stories in such an entertaining, colourful and sometimes hilarious way, I could actually sue him for more than one torn abdominal muscle.

However, although you might dismiss these awfully stupid ideas at first glance, you cannot turn a blind eye for how desperate these solutions were needed, the era and circumstances that - almost - justified those ideas, and how brilliant and innovative some of those solutions were. This book will make you chuckle at almost every page but will also astonish you with fascinating ideas, far ahead of their time, that would actually work, but for some reason never left the drawing board. Brilliant ideas, brilliantly told by Vince.

To get a taste of the book, listen the interviews with Vince Houghton at the Spy Museum's SpyCast and at Cold War Conversations.

Nuking the Moon by Vince Houghton, ISBN 0525505172

More book reviews on my website.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Murphy's Law at the National Security Agency

Five years ago the National Security Agency (NSA) once again released David Boak's History of U.S. Communications Security, this time almost completely unredacted. A most interesting document with lectures about various crypto topics, but at the very end there's a chapter titled "Murphy’s Law", and it's a fun read.

Communications security compasses extensive technical requirements and procedures that must be followed. It’s an huge challenge for NSA to draw up regulations that cover all possible safety risks. They do their best, but no matter how hard you try, there’s always Murphy's law.

Some security violations, no jokes but actual incidents, ended up in the COMSEC lectures. They even kept records of security violations, publicized them and ran contests to see what organization could go longest without violation. I won't reveal how they end, you'll have to read it yourself, and there are more stories to discover...

They once suspected the unauthorized use of crypto materials, and a TOP SECRET key list was examined for fingerprints in their chemical lab. They placed the key list on a bench underneath a powerful ventilation system and, you guessed, the key list got sucked up and disappeared. They quickly dispatched some people to the roof to inspect the exit of the duct, but no secret key list. Flown away or stuck somewhere in the hundreds of feet of ducting?

NSA, we have a problem! A small step for man, one giant violation for COMSEC.

NSA had a warehouse in Fort Holabird where they stored a lot of crypto material. The warehouse was fenced and protected by armed guards. One evening, a man was detected inside the fence. The guard shouted “Halt!” but the man climbed over the fence and escaped. The guard could not shoot him, and the reason? You won’t believe.

There’s also the story of one-time tapes, produced by NSA. These punched tapes inevitably produced huge amounts of waste product, tiny round pieces of paper. These chads were collected in burn bags. Some genius had the brilliant idea to give that confetti to high school kids for use at football games. That resulted in a school girls’ father emergency destroying and flushing TOP SECRET keys.

A technical team once had to do a sweep of a Naval Security Station to trace suspected wiring. The inspector opened a floor access plate to examine telephone wiring. He saw a wire that was moving, so he quickly grabbed the wire and pulled it out a few feet, but then the wire began to fight back. What the hell was going on?

Want to know how the incidents ended? These and other Murphy stories at History of U.S. COMSEC Volume I and II, from page 55 (pdf p313), hosted on Governmentattic.org. Alternative link for the document here. Don't forget there's also a lot of interesting crypto related information in that document.

If you're in for more fun with crypto equipment, do visit Jerry Proc's Crypto Humour page. with real stories from the fringes of communications security. Jerry hosts the excellent Crypto Machines website with extensive information about countless crypto devices.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Radio Moscow and the Cold War

Radio Moscow
Geopolitics and international conflicts during the Cold War made it important for the United states and the Soviet Union to inform people or influence their political views, and this in many countries around the world. But how did they reach their audience?

Today, we can hardly imagine a world without Internet, cable TV and satellites that brings all the news and information from across the globe in your lap. Yet, during most of the Cold War, people only had newspapers, local TV, FM and AM radio. The only solution to spread ideas was shortwave radio, as these waves travel around the globe and can listened to by everyone with a shortwave radio. You can listen to many broadcast samples further down.

Both East and West had, and still have, shortwave radio stations with a world service. The best known are Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty on one side, and Radio Moscow, Radio Havana Cuba and Radio Peking on the other side. Everyone had their own truth and accused the other side of expansion drift, disinformation and inciting across the world. See also Cold War Signals.

One truly iconic station was Radio Moscow World Service. Their foreign service broadcasting started in 1929 with transmitters in Moscow and Leningrad, and later also relay stations in Vladivostok and Magadan. Radio Moscow reached whole Eurasia, Africa and North and South America. During the Cold War, their broadcasts reached across the world with transmitters in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Cuba, and this in more than 70 languages.

Joe Adamov
Their most popular program was without doubt Moscow Mailbag with Joe Adamov answering letters from Americans. They dared to asked a wild range of questions, some critical and some truly hilarious, but Joe handled them all.

The iconic radio host started working for Radio Moscow in 1942, began hosting Moscow Mailbag in the 1950’s and did this for more than forty years. Raised in England and fluent in English, Adamov interviewed many important western politicians and was official translator at the trial of downed U-2 pilot Gary Powers. There's a  CBS audio interview with Joe Adamov at Expo 67 in Canada (alternative link) and one at PBS Red Files. Moscow Mailbag clearly intended to disprove claims that circulated in the western world, but also gave an interesting view on the Soviet mindset.

Unfortunately, few broadcast recordings survived the pre-digital Cold War era, and sometimes you need a stroke of luck, like studio recordings of Radio Moscow that surfaced in New York.


It all started in the 1960s, when New York Public Radio WNYC tried to bridge the cultural and political gap between the Soviet Union and the United States. They broadcast recordings on reels they received from Radio Moscow. Their content and sometimes obvious propaganda eventually caught the attention of the FBI, ending the propaganda party. Fortunately, many tapes survived and are now available at the New York Municipal Archives and you can listen to many audio samples that immerse you in the Cold War atmosphere.

The WNYC archive has some hundred recordings, so I selected some gems for you to get a taste of the collection. In 1960, Joe Adamov explained in one of the many Moscow Mailbag episodes that there are no shortages in the USSR. In 1965, he countered rumours about the ousted Nikita Khrushchev and explains life in the USSR.

Vladimir Pozner, another well known journalist, discussed bread and its historic and cultural significance in Moscow Meridian. Nina Petrovna Khrushcheva, the wife of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, addressed in 1962 the concerns in letters of American women and explained the good intentions of the Soviets.

Radio Moscow discussed in 1960 the automation of Soviet industries and benefits for the workers. Moscow Radio wasn't always in the defensive, they also attacked the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and western propaganda in 1960. The Weekly Press Review (there are many episodes) are another gem that leaks the Soviets sentiment.

The complete archive is available at WNYC's New York Municipal Archives. They also explain how the tapes ended up in New York and the stir they eventually caused. Whether the broadcasts of Radio Moscow actually influenced the opinion of people remains a question. Mark Winek examined this in Radio Moscow and the Early Cold War.


Shortwave and DX enthusiasts also recorded many shortwave stations on reel-to-reel tapes or cassettes, and these are preserved in the fascinating digital Shortwave Radio Audio Archive (SRAA). They have recordings of Radio Moscow and their American counterparts Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe (RFE), Radio Liberty (RL) and many other stations.

There are quite a few interesting VOA recordings. The 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan, a 1979 news broadcast that covers the 10th anniversary Apollo 11 moonlanding and four news reports on the 1970 Palestinian aircraft hijacking in Jordan, to name a few. Over the years, RFE and RL have broadcast in 54 languages of the targeted countries and regions, such as Russian, Turkmen, Belorussian and many more.

Some fascinating recordings of Radio Moscow are the 1968 crisis in Czechoslovakia with the invasion of Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces and the 1981 Polish crisis with declaration of martial law and the Soviet view on the situation in Poland.

SRAA also has various Radio Havana Cuba recordings, such as the 1974 speech by Fidel Castra, both in Spanish and English, and the 2016 commemoration on Castro's death. They also have many Radio Peking recordings, like China's First Satellite in 1970. You can also listen to the 1990 final broadcast of Radio Berlin International, marking the end of both the station and the existence of East germany.

You can search the SRAA database for any broadcast station, or search all Radio Moscow recordings or all Voice of America recordings. If “no results found” is returned, simply refresh their page to find the stations anyway..

More about the battle over radio waves on Cold War Signals. Interested in shortwave listening? The SWL Shortwave Listening page gives you an introduction. SWLing.com has a ton of information and the great SWLing Post blog about shortwave, receivers and broadcast stations. Radio Moscow is still in the air, but changed its name in 1993 into Voice of Russia and renamed it again in 2014 into Radio Sputnik.

Side note: The archived historical recordings are not intended to promote any point of view. Bear in mind that these stations had specific propaganda purposes in the Cold War era, and might not portrait the facts accurately. In hindsight it's easy to dismiss presented facts, but back then, people had far less means to fact-check. Still, influence through news and social media remains a problem to this day, despite an abundance of news, albeit with varying accuracy.

Happy listening... and don't believe everything you hear!