Fascinating profile of the Soviet KGB’s little-known tech wizard
December 24, 2012 5 Comments
By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
It is often suggested by intelligence researchers that one major difference between Western and Soviet modes of espionage during the Cold War was their degree of reliance on technology. It is generally accepted that Western espionage was far more dependent on technical innovation than its Soviet equivalent. While this observation may be accurate, it should not be taken to imply that the KGB, GRU, and other Soviet intelligence agencies neglected technical means of intelligence collection. In a recent interview with top-selling Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russian intelligence historian Gennady Sokolov discusses the case of Vadim Fedorovich Goncharov. Colonel Goncharov was the KGB’s equivalent of ‘Q’, head of the fictional research and development division of Britain’s MI6 in the James Bond films. A veteran of the Battle of Stalingrad, Goncharov eventually rose to the post of chief scientific and technical consultant of KGB’s 5th Special Department, later renamed Operations and Technology Directorate. According to Sokolov, Goncharov’s numerous areas of expertise included cryptology, communications interception and optics. While working in the KGB’s research laboratories, Goncharov came up with the idea of employing the principles behind the theremin, an early electronic musical instrument invented by Soviet physicist Léon Theremin in 1928, in wireless audio surveillance. According to Sokolov, the appropriation of the theremin by the KGB under Goncharov’s leadership “changed the world of intelligence”.
Renamed “passive bug” by the Soviets, a modified version of Theremin’s invention allowed the KGB to do away with wires and hidden microphones, using instead tiny coils and metal plates surreptitiously hidden in a target room or area. Such contraptions acted as sensors that picked up the vibrations in the air during conversations and transmitted them to a beam (receiver) placed nearby, usually in an adjoined room or vehicle. One such device was planted by the KGB inside the large wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States given by the Soviets to US Ambassador to the USSR, Averell Harriman, as a present in February 1945. By hanging the decorative artifact in his embassy office in Moscow, the Ambassador enabled the KGB to listen in to his private conversations, as well as those of his successors, including Walter Bedell Smith (later Director of Central Intelligence), Alan G. Kirk, and George F. Kennan, for nearly eight years. The bug was discovered by the US in 1952 and exposed to the world during a conference at the United Nations (see photo).
Sokolov says that Goncharov also used the “passive bug” in several Moscow hotels frequented by Western visiting dignitaries, such as the Hotel National and the Hotel Soviet. Targets of “passive bug” operations included Indonesian President Sukarno, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, whose conversations Goncharov allegedly managed to bug even though the West German leader chose to spend most of his trip to the USSR inside a luxury train compartment provided by the West German government. The Russian intelligence historian also claims that the theremin-based bug was used to eavesdrop on the conversations of Princess Margaret, sister of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. The KGB allegedly bugged Margaret’s cigarette lighter, cigarette case and ashtrays, and was able to listen in to the Princess’ “drunken sprees” during her trips around Western Europe, collecting “dirt on the British Royal House”.
In the 1970s and 1980s Goncharov traveled frequently around the world as a Soviet diplomatic official, usually carrying with him a suitcase “full of sensitive equipment”, says Sokolov. He trained countless intelligence operatives in the USSR and its allied countries, including East Germany, Vietnam and Cuba. IntelNews hears that Sokolov is writing a book in Russian about some of Goncharov’s surveillance operations, scheduled to be published in 2013 under the title Kremlin Vs. The House of Windsor.