A Trojan Seal

By Ken Stanley

The Professionals

Washington apprised American security officers John Ford and Joe Bezjian of the situation at their base of operations at the American Embassy in Paris, France. Both gentlemen were security professionals but Joe was the technical expert. The embassy invited them to come to Moscow to see if they could solve the mystery. Like the allied search team, they turned up nothing and determined that the Soviets had removed the device. This occurrence added fuel to the concern that the Soviets possessed a new technology that could effectively evade western search equipment and techniques. This was further compounded when an American military attaché, Major Van Latham, stationed at the Mohkavaya building (the American Embassy Chancery building at that time) overheard the ambassador’s voice while monitoring his radio. A frantic search ensued but once again, nothing was found.   

In September, Joe and John returned to Moscow to perform another search of U.S. facilities. They searched U.S. Embassy facilities thoroughly and turned up nothing. Joe suspected that his search may have been compromised but decided to make one last effort. As with Ambassador Kennan, he was aware that the renovation of Spaso House presented an opportunity for the KGB to introduce something technical – he just didn’t know what. Discussing the matter with the Ambassador they worked out a plan. The plan included surreptitious delivery of Joe’s search equipment to the house and a bogus classified dictation session by the Ambassador in his study. Joe moved all of his personal effects into a guest room at Spaso House and took up the life of a house guest for several days. He invited people over for dinner, played bridge in the evening, and quietly watched the normal routines of the house and its occupants.

On September 12, the embassy personnel officer, Sam Janey, brought Joe’s disguised search equipment to the house. The two men hid the equipment in a residence safe. According to plan, Ambassador Kennan called his longtime secretary, Ms. Dorothy Hessman, to perform dictation in the ambassador’s study. The ambassador dictated from an old embassy dispatch. The dispatch consisted of an unclassified portion of published diplomatic correspondence and to the uninformed ear could well sound worth collecting.

Soon after Ms. Hessman arrived, Joe and Sam carried the equipment from the safe to the attic. Almost as soon as the equipment warmed up Joe spun his dial and heard Ambassador Kennan’s voice and Ms. Hessman’s typing. Joe’s attentions snapped onto his receiver and a surge of adrenalin sharpened his focus, but he controlled his excitement and continued his quiet hunt using the radio strapped to his chest like a concessionaire at a ball game. Hearing the ambassador’s voice “on the air” Joe sent Sam down to the study with a note to the ambassador. Sam passed the note to Ambassador Kennan and then implored him, via sub-vocal whispers, to “keep on, keep on.” The room charged with an unknown presence lurking beyond the shadows.

Joe carried his equipment slowly down the stairs, entered the study, and started parsing the room, searching for the signal’s origin. He lowered his whip antenna, diminishing the receiver’s sensitivity, and quietly treaded from corner to corner. Ambassador Kennan continued dictating but held his eyes riveted on Joe as he fiddled with his dials and antenna. Using the meter on his receiver and the shifting audio in his headset, Joe tracked the signal to the study’s left rear corner. A corner table displayed many small things including a Zenith radio. Joe pointed to Sam to remove the radio and then in turn pointed at different items for him to remove from the table. Joe heard no effect on the device’s audio as the ambassador continued to read. Above the table hung a large wooden replica of the U.S. Great Seal. After Sam removed all the items from the table Joe’s eyes fixed on the Seal. He approached it delicately, suspecting that it might be covering up something planted in the wall.

Placing his receiver down, Joe picked the Great Seal off the wall gingerly and placed it on an overstuffed chair at the room’s center. The signal dropped off and just as suddenly returned. Joe returned to examine the wall. He slowly scanned back and forth with his eyes and ran his finger tips across the plaster surface seeing and feeling nothing. He slowly turned and fixed his gaze on the Great Seal. He went back to the chair where it sat and began examining it closely. He ran his receiver back and forth across where the Great Seal lay on the chair confirming that the signal emanated from behind the bald eagle’s head. In his excitement, he bumped the wooden Seal and the signal disappeared once again. Fearing that his search had been discovered, Joe told Ambassador Kennan that he had lost the signal but it undoubtedly came from inside the Great Seal. The signal suddenly returned a few moments later but then went off the air – forever.

Go Deeper

The ambassador looked at Joe and quietly asked about leaving the device in place to feed prepared information back to the Soviets in a misinformation campaign. Joe assured the ambassador that the Russian operator undoubtedly knew that the search effort was compromised. He felt sure they were listening to his activities and quite probably knew of his discovery of their intelligence operation. Joe advised the ambassador that the device needed to be studied to determine its capabilities. Further, Joe contended, the considerable U.S. effort to discover the device required that it be secured to keep the Soviets from “recovering” it, denying western governments the opportunity to understand and protect themselves from the new technology.

Joe, eager to examine the device, remained uneasy because of the possibility that the device contained a booby trap that might explode and destroy its secrets as well as hurt the person opening the device or the people standing nearby. Joe instructed Ambassador Kennan, Sam, and Ms. Hessman to leave the study. But he was also driven by his curiosity to see what was inside of the wooden carving, enough curiosity to overrule his caution. He carefully examined the Seal and noted a seam in the edge. With a sharp-edged masonry hammer he slowly, deliberately cracked the seal open, splitting the plaster circumference ring and having the seal fall into its front and back pieces. Nothing self-destructed. Hidden within a large carved cavity inside the seal the disassembly revealed a cleverly hidden device called a cavity resonator. The device required no internal power source and uses the basic physical principles of resonance to steal audio from its surroundings. It had no electronic components, just a nonferrous microphone and an antenna crafted to resonate at the appropriate frequency. Much as a diva can explode a piece of glass with her voice resonating until the excess energy causes it to shatter, a cavity resonator can modulate (change) an externally supplied radio signal and use its clever combination of radio-frequency resonance and audio modulation to eavesdrop on nearby conversations. The resonator gave the Soviets a tactical and strategic edge in the battle for Cold War supremacy. 

Trojan Gift

An anonymous Russian had given the wooden replica to Ambassador Averell Harriman as a personal gift sometime in 1945. Initially, Ambassador Harriman did nothing with the seal. It was during the war and his time was limited. After several months in storage, someone hung the seal in the Ambassador’s study. Ambassador Harriman did not remember when, nor who hung the seal. When asked some 15 years later, all Ambassador Harriman remembered was that when leaving his assignment in the USSR the large size of the seal prevented it from being packed into his personal effects. He left it hanging on the wall of the house’s study for his successor.

Following Ambassador Harriman was Ambassador Walter Bedell Smith, soon-to-be director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He remembered the seal quite well. The ambassador remembered only one time throughout his entire Moscow tenure when the seal did not hang in the study. He noticed that a crack had appeared in the Seal’s rim and ordered it repaired prior to the arrival of the Secretary of State, George Marshall, who used the study as his bedroom. Ambassador and Mrs. Smith wanted the room to be as tidy as possible for the Secretary. A Russian handyman took the seal and kept it for approximately a week. The seal reappeared in excellent shape with no indication of a crack on any of its edges, well before Secretary Marshall’s arrival to negotiate with the USSR.

The Seal, apparently, had hung in the study from 1945 until Joe discovered it on September 12, 1953. State Department Security Engineers had examined the Seal twice in 1951 with a metal detector. The detector indicated the presence of the obvious metal screws and studs on the reverse side but nothing in the middle – fooled by the nonferrous brass construction of the resonant cavity. After Joe’s successful technical search, he continued his inspection with hand tools. He and Sam performed a destructive search destroying the wall on which the Seal had hung for so long. They found nothing: no cables, no power source, no indications at all. After they demolished the wall and finished searching for any associated devices at 3 A.M., they posted a Marine Guard in the study.

Joe placed the cavity resonator under his pillow and placed the Great Seal under the bed and settled in for a couple of hours of restless sleep. The next morning he accompanied Ambassador Kennan in his limousine to the Chancery heading directly towards the Kremlin on the way to the embassy. At the chancery, Joe photographed multiple angles of the cavity resonator and the Seal. He carefully packed the seal and resonator in boxes and hand carried them to the communications vault and packaged them in a diplomatic pouch. The next pouch shipment sent them to the Department’s Regional Security headquarters in Paris. Once the pouch reached Paris, Security Engineer Fred Snyder repacked the pouch and hand carried the Seal and the resonator to Washington, D.C. In D.C., it rapidly made its way to Secretary Acheson’s office, who immediately arranged to show it to President Truman. The President ordered the Seal given to the FBI lab for reverse engineering. State Department Security Officer Robert Eckert hand carried the seal and device to the FBI lab for analysis.

President Truman tasked the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) to develop countermeasures for cavity resonators. The NRL developed several passive and active devices for revealing resonant cavity devices and sent them to Moscow to be used. Despite diligent searches, no further devices utilizing this technology were discovered. It’s likely the Soviets removed any other devices after Joe made his discovery in order to maintain operations security over their other successes. The U.S. made several copies of both the cavity resonator and the Great Seal for various briefings to Congress and other Agencies.



The Magazine — Past Issues


Beyond Print

SM Online

See all the latest links and resources that supplement the current issue of Security Management magazine.