On Operation Ivy Bells


in Bombs and rockets, Geek stuff, History, Security

Finally the men were ready to crawl out the outer hatch. In the control room, McNish could see them walking what seemed a space walk. Only barely lit by their handheld lights, they cut a ghostly path through the murky water to the [Soviet] communications cable [in the Sea of Okhotsk]. Once there, they began using pneumatic airguns to blow debris and sand away from the wire. As soon as it was clear, the men started to attach the tap, a device about three feet long that held a recorder filled with big rolls of tape. Off the main box was a cylinder that contained a lithium-powered battery. A separate connector wrapped around the cable and would draw out the words and data that ran through. The tap worked through induction. There would be no cutting into the cable, no risk of an electrical short from seeping seawater.

Bradley saw the next step, and he saw it clearly. He wanted to tap as many of the lines as possible, and he wanted to plant a device that could record for several months or even a year, a device that would keep working in Okhotsk even when Halibut was docked at Mare Island. His staff contacted Bell Laboratories, whose engineers were familiar with undersea phone cables and began designing a much larger trap pod. Just like the smaller recorder Halibut carried on her first trip, this new device worked through induction, but this tap pod was huge. Nearly 20 feet long and more than 3 feet wide, it weighed about 6 tons and utilized a form of nuclear power. [Probably a radioisotope thermal generator.] It would be able to pick up electronic frequencies from dozens of lines for months at a time. Halibut could plant the tap one year, then go back and retrieve it the next.

When the new tap was finished, it looked like a giant tube that had been squashed some from the top and welded shut at the ends. The device was crammed with miniature electronic circuits and had the capacity to record for weeks at a time.

Sontag, Sherry and Christopher Drew. Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage. PublicAffairs; New York. 1998. p. 171-2, 174-5, 175 (hardcover)

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