The Cold War is over but many of its stories have yet to be fully told. One such story is that of Ambassador George Kennan and Joe Bezjian. Ambassador Kennan is a Cold War legend who helped define the U.S. Cold War strategy of containment. A lifelong Foreign Service Officer and diplomat, he authored the famous “X” cable that modified the U.S.’s original economic containment ideas to a broad-based strategic philosophy. He was a man well worth listening to and the KGB did its best to listen to his every word. Joe Bezjian, on the other hand, was a real shadow Cold Warrior. Not like the protagonist of novels and movies but rather a real security engineering officer protecting the U.S from its Soviet foe through the use of science and technology. He was one of a handful of original engineers hired in the late 40’s to help the State Department fight technical espionage. He always worked in the shadows, as such a career choice dictates. Although his impact is not as broadly felt as Ambassador Kennan’s, he helped change Cold War history as well.
The Cold War and the accompanying explosive growth of electronics brought new techniques and technologies to the collection and analysis of intelligence. Superpower needs often caused tactics to intertwine with that rapid advance of technology. Secret research on both sides of the Iron Curtain created new technologies for collecting intelligence data. Organizations such as the U.S. National Security Agency and the 8th and 16th divisions of the KGB were created to deal with the dual-edged weapons of technology. National laboratory systems in both the East and the West, populated by some of the most brilliant minds on both sides, contributed their expertise to these new technologies.
Building upon WWII advances, the intelligence and security forces of each side developed innovative techniques to gain a subtle edge on the opposing side. The fall of the Soviet Union clearly established the U.S. as the victor in both the Cold War and the development of surveillance technology. However, the former Soviet Union proved quite crafty and capable in developing advanced surveillance and espionage technologies to support their vast intelligence network both domestically and abroad. The Cold War strategies and battles were waged in the silent avenues of classified message traffic and high-tech laboratories and are among the best kept secrets of that shadowy time. The Soviets began forays into the collection of espionage-utilizing technology far ahead of the U.S. Well before WWII, the Soviets utilized technology to further their intelligence collection capabilities and in the early parts of the Cold War they held a distinct technical espionage advantage.
The first such evidence of Soviet Cold War technical guile was found in the official residence of the American ambassador to the Soviet Union – Spaso House – a large mansion located not far from the Old Arbat street in Moscow. Early in the Cold War, Ambassador George Kennan lived there while he represented the U.S. to the Soviet government. Built by a wealthy Russian merchant just prior to the Bolshevik revolution, the Spaso House has served as the American Ambassador’s official residence since the arrival of the first ambassador to the Soviet Union established diplomatic ties in 1933 and still does so today. The mansion was designed by architects Adamovich and Mayat for Nikolay Aleksandrovich Vtorov in 1914 and was built in the ostentatious New Empire Style.
However, by 1953 several U.S. ambassadors and their wives had made structural changes to the residence. The ground floor of the mansion contained a large reception hall and ballroom, reception rooms, a large state dining room, a billiard room, and many pantries. The second floor held the two primary bedrooms and a number of smaller bedrooms, one of which doubled as the ambassador’s study. The kitchens, a laundry, and the servants’ dining room and quarters were in the basement. Chief among the servants was Sergei, the apparent KGB operative who occupied a room in the basement, separate from the other servants.
The U.S. and the Soviet alliance against the common Nazi foe through WWII caused a tremendous increase in communications and diplomatic discourse between the two countries. The tremendous growth in the U.S. official presence in the Soviet Union forced then Ambassador Harriman (1943-1946) to convert Spaso House into a combination of billets and offices for embassy employees. Like everyone devoted to winning the war, people assigned to American Embassy Moscow worked long, hard wartime hours. Ambassador Harriman’s study became the center of embassy operations for everyone working and living in the house. The age and pre-modern techniques utilized to construct Spaso House caused rapid deterioration due to the heavy traffic. The Russian staff performed continuous maintenance on the structure during and well after the war. This work probably created many opportunities for intelligence collection from the many meetings held within its walls. The Soviets targeted their allies for technical penetration as well.
Ambassador Kirk (1950-1952) was Ambassador Kennan’s predecessor. As is commonly done around the world, the administrative section of the embassy performed a renovation in preparation for Ambassador Kennan’s arrival to the post. Kennan was well aware of the Soviets’ tendency to listen to conversations from his earlier assignment to Moscow as a junior officer under the first U.S. Ambassador to the Soviets, William Bullitt (1933-1936). Kennan thought the Soviets might have used the construction as an opportunity to put listening devices into the walls of Spaso House.
We had long since taught ourselves to assume that in Moscow most walls – at least in the rooms that diplomats were apt to frequent – had ears. Still, we had supposed in earlier years that one did not want to make it easier for curious people than it needed to be made. Yet this was precisely what, in redecorating the building, we had contrived to do. (Kennan Vol. II 153)
Ambassador Kennan requested technical security teams from the State Department in Washington, D.C., and the regional security center in Paris, France, to perform several technical inspections. They came and searched repeatedly but found nothing. They always left with a nagging feeling that Ambassador Kennan was correct.
In that same time frame, on the other side of Moscow, at another western embassy, a U.S. ally had an unsettling occurrence. The Air Attaché had toyed with the receiver he used to monitor Russian military traffic and overheard the Naval Attaché conversing in another office. Alarmed, he immediately notified the embassy’s security officials of his suspicions about a technical penetration of their embassy. They immediately called for help and their security services dispatched a team to investigate. The team performed an extensive destructive search tearing the office down to its framing members but discovered nothing.