The Thing: When The Soviets Spied and Got Caught

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In 1945, a wooden plaque of the “Great Seal” was given to the United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union. It hung on the wall by his desk for years until it was discovered in 1951 to be a secret Soviet listening device. In this episode, we tell the story of “The Thing” or “The Great Seal Bug” and how it came to be. Then we chat with musician Daniel Malone!

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The theremin is a strange musical instrument. It’s essentially a wooden box with a large metal antennas sticking out of the top and side. The box has knobs which alter the sound, but the instrument is played by holding your hands in proximity to the antennas without touching them. As you move your hands in the air, the pitch of the instrument changes.

You’ve probably heard a theremin as a classic sci-fi sound, but its use is far more widespread than that. It was invented by Leon Theremin in 1919. Leon Theremin was his American name. His real name was Lev Sergeyevich Termin and he created the device at the behest of the Soviet Government, who was conducting research on proximity sensors. He patented the invention in 1929 in the U.S., but was kidnapped by the precursor to the KGB of the Soviet Government and brought back to the Soviet Union in 1938. Although some accounts state that he left the U.S. to escape crippling debt. Whichever is true, his invention, the Theremin, was not a huge success. It gained a cult following and is still treated as a novelty instrument. So what does this have to do with spy stuff? Well you heard me mention the KGB, right?

One of the precursors to the KGB was the NKVB, The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. That’s the group that supposedly kidnapped Theremin to bring him back to the Soviet Union in 1938. He was placed into a forced work camp, then transferred to a sharashka, a secret lab within the Gulag. It was there that he was forced to use his electronic knowledge to create clandestine devices for the Soviet Union. 

Let’s cut to 1945 and the Young Pioneers. It’s full name was the Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization and it was a mass youth group in the Soviet Union for kids age 9-15. It was kind of like the Soviet Union’s version of the Boycotts, but with WAY more involvement from the state. During a meeting with the United States Ambassador to Russia, Averell Harriman, the Young Pioneers presented him with a large wooden hand-carved wall plaque. It was of The Great Seal of the United States, an Eagle with a shield holding olive branches in one claw and arrows in the other. It was presented under the premise of friendship and ally ship after the close of World War II. Ambassador Harriman gladly accepted the gift and put it on the wall of his residential study. None of the Americans knew at the time that it was a secret listening device.

One time back in 2018, President Trump accepted a gift from Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. As the Russian President spoke the “ball is in your court” pun, he handed Trump a soccer ball from the World Cup, which Russia had recently hosted. Rumors swirled that maybe the soccer ball was bugged. Even Senator Lindsay Graham expressed concern that there might be listening devices and said there’s no way that it should be in the White House. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats ensured that the ball had been checked very carefully. Well it turned out the ball did have a microchip and transmitter inside. But it was determined that it was just part of the standard Adidas AG smart soccer ball that can passively send and receive data for competition.

There was good reason for concern. Our story, which takes place 70 years prior, was exactly that same type of trojan horse. A listening device in the form of a gift. It’s not a dumb idea.

Spy agencies have been using clandestine methods of spying since their inception. The CIA once had a transmitter made to look like dog poop. They used it to keep an eye on enemy troop movements and activity during the Korean War. In the 1970s, U.S. Intelligence built a listening device into a tree stump and put it in a wooded area near Moscow to pick up radar and radio communications from a nearby air base.

But pre-dating those was The Thing. They called it “The Thing” because when they discovered it, they had no idea how it worked or what it did exactly. So let’s go back to 1951. 

A radio operator for the British government was monitoring Russian air force radio traffic and all of sudden, hears the voice of the British air attaché – an advisor to the British Ambassador to Russia. He didn’t know where it was coming from, but there definitely shouldn’t have been a British voice coming through the airwaves he was monitoring. So they did a thorough sweep of the British Embassy and didn’t find anything. A few additional state department employees were sent to investigate. They checked out the British and Canadian Embassy buildings and didn’t find anything. But then they used a signal generator to conduct a counter surveillance sweep in the American Embassy. It was a good time to do it, because George F. Kennan was coming in for his tenure as the new Ambassador to the Soviet Union. When they reached the Spaso House, the Ambassador’s residence at the compound, the signal generator produced loud feedback when it got near the wall behind the Ambassador’s personal desk. That’s when their attention was brought to the Great Seal of the United States, carved in wood, hanging on the wall.

They removed the seal, and the FBI started analyzing it. But there was no power, and no external connections, so they had no idea how the thing worked. They enlisted help from the British Marconi company and scientist Peter Wright discovered that inside the seal, there was a 9” long monopole antenna and a cavity with a capacitor and extremely thin membrane.  It essentially acted like a condenser microphone and the way it worked was that the device had to receive a radio signal of the correct frequency  and it would sort of activate the device. Sound waves would pass through the wooden case and cause the thin membrane to vibrate and retransmit the signal out of the building. It was an incredibly simple device using applied electronics. It was able to monitor any conversation within range. And had been doing so for nearly seven years. 

Now we don’t know for sure what all the Soviets heard during that time. Of course, they claim that they obtained “specific and very important information which gave them certain advantages in the prediction and performance of world politics in the difficult period of the cold war.”

But during that time, it was pretty much assumed that both sides were always listening to each other. Guests to the American Embassy were even handed cards upon entering that told them their conversations would likely be monitored anywhere on the compound. This was happening before the Great Seal bug was ever discovered. 

One of the interesting developments from the Great Seal bug is that it inspired further spyycraft. Britain’s MI5 fashioned their SATYR device on the technology from the bug, which was a pair of umbrellas with hidden electronics to transmit audio.

But as far as the public was concerned, they didn’t know the bug had been found. They sat on the discovery and didn’t let the world know until an international incident forced their hand. On May 1st, 1960, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down by Soviet Air Defence Forces while conducting a secret recon mission in Soviet Airspace. The pilot, Gary Powers, was imprisoned and the American government covered the mission up, claiming Powers was  piloting a NASA aircraft that went off course. Khrushchev was able to expose the cover-up to the whole world because he had Powers alive. A summit between America, The Soviet Union, France and Britain was called and they met in Helsinki just two weeks after the U-2 incident. It was short, and tensions between The Americans and The Soviets resulted in little being done.

On May 23rd of 1960, The Soviet Union was granted a 4-day meeting of the United Nations Security Council. Their aim was to have the council condemn the United States for spying. The Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs railed against the Americans for their spying. When U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr, had a chance to address the council, his arguments didn’t deny the U-2 spy plane incident, nor did he deny that the U.S. was spying on the Soviet Union. His argument was that both sides do it. And just in case that fact was denied, he brought with him a visual aid – a large wooden hand carved Great Seal – The Thing itself. He opened it and described to the council how it worked. The Soviet’s resolution to condemn The United States was voted down the next day 7 to 2.

So that’s the story of the time the Soviets got caught bugging the United States through a gift from school children. The Internet Says it’s True!

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.

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