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aircraft. We knew we had at least one Soviet destroyer and very possibly
a Soviet conventional submarine out there."
The captain took the Halfbeak deep”about three hundred feet” and
managed to hide under a dense layer of salt water that deflected any
enemy sonar signals. Sailing at four knots, the boat headed south out of
harm's way. By afternoon, with the danger apparently over, the Halfbeak
headed back toward its operational area near the missile-testing island,
arriving early the next morning. But now there was a new problem:
through the periscope, as it was rising toward the surface, the captain
noticed something strange. Everywhere he looked, all he could see were
thick logs floating above. Sigint was out of the question. "We couldn't
really put the ECM mast up in that stuff because it had these little thin
antennas sticking out, and if you hit that with a log . . . it's going to ruin
the watertight integrity of the antenna," recalled Cassidy. He suspected
that the Russians had dumped the wood deliberately in order to hinder
the sub's spying.
Determined to continue the mission, the captain sailed the Half-beak
to another part of the island's coastline and raised the camouflaged ECM
mast containing the eavesdropping antennas. By then, however, the
Russians were aggressively searching for the intruder and once again,
late in the afternoon, Cassidy heard the ominous sounds. This time it
was two Soviet destroyers and the signal was Strength Five”the highest,
meaning the destroyers were almost on top of them. "I have two Strength
Five Russian waterborne platform emissions!" Cassidy yelled to the
captain. Then sonar reported the presence of another sub nearby. The
captain immediately ordered a dive and set Battle Stations Torpedo.
Through a small side tube, a number of white, four-inch pills were fired
into the water. Like giant Alka-Seltzer tablets, they were designed to
create clouds of bubbles to hide the escaping sub. "We must have fired
twenty of those," recalled Cassidy. "We used that and prayed."
In the control room Cassidy could clearly see the depth gauge about


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four feet away. It had a red mark at 350 feet, indicating the test depth”
the safety limit for the sub. To his horror, the needle slipped past the
mark and continued downward as the old boat began to squeak and
groan. "Are we supposed to go below 350 feet?" he yelled to the sailor at
the controls.
"We do whatever the old man says," the man yelled back.
"Oh God," Cassidy suddenly yelled. "We're sinking. The water's
coming in!" Above him he heard a "pop" and ice-cold water poured down
on his head. Luckily it was only the snorkel drain breaking, releasing
about five gallons of water that had accumulated in the tube.
As the sub continued to descend to about 400 feet, a short distance
from the muddy seafloor, the sonar men could hear pinging sounds from
the Soviet ships searching for them above. Next the captain ordered
Sedge Quiet. "This is where you basically shut off everything except for
the gyroscope and the electric motor that's turning the shaft," said
Cassidy. "Lights were reduced, heating was off, the galley ranges were off,
hydraulics were off." With the hydraulic system inoperative, it took two
sailors to steer the sub, using small handles that pop out of the wheel.
Hour after hour after hour the Halfbeak quietly maneuvered deep in
the Barents Sea as sonar continued to pick up a heavy presence on the
surface. At one point a sonar man heard what he thought was an
explosion from a depth charge. Crew members were ordered to remove
their shoes to keep down the noise. "We were warned about banging
anything, coffee cups," said Cassidy. "No noise at all. It was like a tomb
in there."
Eventually the oily air began turning thin and rancid. The captain
passed the word to break out the carbon dioxide absorbent”cans of
powder would be spread on bunks to help draw the deadly gas from the
air. Nevertheless, the sub's doctor warned that the oxygen levels were
becoming dangerously low. Sailors, including Cassidy, passed out and
had to be revived. Two large oxygen canisters were placed in the central
part of the sub, and it was suggested that those who felt faint should
take a few deep breaths from the masks attached.
Without electric power, all that the galley could come up with was
peanut butter, crackers, and Kool-Aid, but few had the strength to go
there anyway. "It was so hard to breathe, you didn't even want to walk
from the forward torpedo room to the galley, which was probably about
one hundred feet," recalled Cassidy. "Because it was too much effort, you
had a hard time breathing. And it was cold; it was damp. They were
holding us down. We could not surface because they were above us.
Sonar could hear their engines. There were four separate surface
contacts around us, plus a probable submarine."
Finally, after about twelve or thirteen hours, the pinging began to


145
cease. After another hour, to make sure that the Soviet ships had
departed, the Halfbeak slowly began to rise. "He said you know we could
probably surface now, but we are going to take another hour and I want
you to just search and search and listen, listen, listen," said Cassidy.
"And they would put a new operator on about every fifteen or twenty
minutes for another good set of ears. When they were positive that there
were no surface contacts around, we just squeaked up. I searched all the
bands for aircraft . . . and when the captain and the exec [executive
officer] were as sure as anybody could be that there were no signals up
there, we came up to periscope depth. This was early morning. Looked
around with the attack scope and the regular scope and saw nothing.
And once they were happy with that, they put up the snorkel mast. . . .
The first time we snorkeled after being down so long, the fresh air was so
clean and pure it hurt you, it actually hurt your lungs."
With most of the mission completed and the Soviets hot on their trail,
the captain decided to head back to New London. There, the dozens of
intercept tapes were double-wrapped and sent by courier to NSA for
analysis. As with most missions, the intercept operators were never
informed what the agency learned as a result of the dangerous mission.
They did not have the required "need to know." And in the ship's history
of the USS Halfbeak, the year 1965 has been eliminated.
Throughout the Cold War, similar missions continued. Even as late as
2000, the Barents Sea remained prime eavesdropping territory for
American submarines. That summer, the bullet-shaped bow of the USS
Memphis, a 6,000-ton attack sub, slipped quietly out of its home port of
Groton, Connecticut, and disappeared beneath the frosty whitecaps of
the Atlantic. Its target was a major naval exercise by the Russian
Northern Fleet”the largest such exercise in a decade. Among the fifty
warships and submarines participating in the mock battle was a steel
leviathan named the Kursk, a double-hulled, nuclear-powered submarine
twice the length of a Boeing 747. On board were about two dozen Granit
sea-skimming cruise missiles as well as torpedoes. It was the pride of the
nation”the most modern submarine in the Russian Navy.
On Saturday morning, August 12, the Kursk, with 118 crewmembers
aboard, was off the Kola Peninsula cruising at periscope depth, about
sixty feet below the sea's heaving swells. Some distance away,
maintaining radio silence, the USS Memphis eavesdropped on the
maneuvers. Sticking above the surface like the necks of tall, gray giraffes
were antenna-covered masts. Down below, intercept operators searched
through the static for fire control signals and pilot chatter while sonar
men plotted the pinging sounds of other steel fish. Then at precisely
11:28, the sub's sonar sphere”a giant golfball attached to the bow,
containing over 1,000 hydrophones”registered the sound of a short,
sharp thud. Two minutes and fifteen seconds later a powerful, fish-


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scattering boom vibrated through the sensitive undersea microphones.
The blast was so powerful, the equivalent of up to two tons of TNT, that it
was picked up by seismic stations more than 2,000 miles away.
On the Kursk, a room-size hole opened up in the forward torpedo
room, turning the smooth curved bow into a jagged bean can and
sending the sub on a deadly dive to the bottom. Sailors who didn't die
immediately likely survived only hours. The cause of the disaster was
probably the onboard explosion of a missile or torpedo. But given the
long cat-and-mouse history of American submarine espionage in the
Barents Sea, senior Russian officials pointed the finger at an undersea
hit-and-run collision with a U.S. sub.
Six days later, the Memphis surfaced and quietly sailed into a
Norwegian port. There it off-loaded boxes of recording tapes containing
an electronic snapshot of the worst submarine disaster in Russia's
history”the undersea sounds of the dying Kursk and the surface voices
of the confused rescue efforts. The tapes, flown to Washington, largely
confirmed the theory that the tragedy was caused by internal explosions.
They also confirmed the continuing value of sending eavesdroppers deep
into the Barents Sea's perilous waters.
While many listening posts were quietly built in distant places with
tongue-twisting names, others were built much closer to home. On an
ancient English estate, an elephant cage rose like a modern-day
Stonehenge. Chicksands Priory, in what is today Bedfordshire, dates to
the time of William the Conqueror.
Once home to an order of Gilbertine monks and nuns, by World War
II Chicksands had become host to a secret Royal Air Force intercept
station. In 1948 the U.S. Air Force moved in and began eavesdropping on
Soviet communications. By mid-December of the same year Chicksands
was intercepting 30,000 five-figure groups of coded traffic a day. Three
years later, however, that number had skyrocketed to 200,000 groups a
day.
Communications security operators at Chicksands also began
intercepting U.S. Air Force communications. The operation was aimed at
analyzing Air Force voice, Morse code, and teletypewriter radio
transmissions for violations of security. If they could read the messages
or pick up clues to pending operations, it was assumed, so could Soviet
eavesdroppers.
Earl Richardson arrived at Chicksands to join the Security Service in
1953, fresh out of communications school at Keesler Air Force Base in
Mississippi. Sitting in front of a Hammarlund Super-Pro SP-600 high-
frequency receiver mounted in a rack, he would slowly turn the half-
dozen black dials. His job was to search for sensitive U.S. Air Force
messages mistakenly sent in the clear; or identify lazy communicators


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using made-up voice codes in a poor attempt to mask classified
information. The results were put in "Transmission Security Analysis
Reports" and sent out to offending commands. There, the radio operator
would receive a stern lecture and warning. According to one former
Chicksands operator, "Much of the caution was perverse and focused on
not being caught again by the Security Service, which in time came to be
perceived as an enemy more real than the Warsaw Pact."
Another elephant cage quietly rose in the Scottish village of Edzell, a
farming area nestled in the foothills of the Grampian Hills, thirty-five
miles south of Aberdeen. It replaced listening posts in Bremerhaven,
Germany, and in Morocco, and soon became host to Army and Air Force
eavesdroppers as well. A key target was the shadowy Soviet merchant
fleet.


While NSA concentrated on building its electronic wall around the
Communist world, much of the Southern Hemisphere”South America
and Africa”escaped close scrutiny. That was one of the key reasons for
building a Sigint navy. As the ships slid out of dry dock, they began
hauling their antennas and eavesdroppers to places too difficult to reach
with land-based listening posts and too remote for regular airborne
missions.
Tired of the daily routine at the listening post in Bremerhaven, Aubrey
Brown volunteered for a ship NSA was having converted at the Brooklyn
Navy Yard. It was late on a winter night when he arrived. As he boarded
the gray-hulled USS Oxford, the decks were littered with acetylene tanks,
welder's torches, and buckets of iron rivets. After sea trials off Norfolk,
Virginia, the ship set sail for South America, a continent brimming with
signals for its virgin ears, on January 4, 1962.
At the time, U.S. officials feared that the Communist "fever" that had
struck Cuba would spread throughout the continent. Later that month,
in Punta del Este, a beach resort in Uruguay, foreign ministers from the
Organization of American States were planning to meet to discuss many
of these issues. The meeting was seen by the U.S. State Department as
an opportunity to push for collective action against Cuba, such as a
resolution that all countries still having diplomatic and commercial ties
with that nation move to break them. It was thus a logical place for the
Oxford's first mission.
As the Oxford sailed south, intercept operators eavesdropped on one
of the assigned targets, government communications links in British
Guyana, considered very sensitive because it belonged to our close Sigint
partner, England.
Arriving off Montevideo, on the north shore of the Rio de la Plata
estuary, the Oxford was almost unnoticed amid the fleet of cargo ships


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heavy with wool, hides, and textiles. On board, hidden below decks, the
intercept operators tuned in, listening for telephone calls and messages
to and from the delegates attending the conference a few miles east at
the resort.
Afterward, they moved a short distance west, up the Rio de la Plata to
Buenos Aires. "We would go into bays to intercept microwave links, and
to really intercept that well you had to have your receiving antenna in
between their transmitting antenna and their receiving antenna. So to do
this we would get into bays," said George A. Cassidy, an Elint specialist
who sailed on a later Oxford South American cruise. For microwave
communications, which contain a great deal of telephone and other voice
communications, the Elint operators used a piece of equipment called
the RYCOM, which received the signal and then broke it into hundreds of
channels. "We were intercepting South American military voice traffic,"
said Cassidy. "We would record on magnetic recorders."
In addition to receivers, a row of nearly a dozen printers constantly
pounded out intercepted teletype messages. "If it started printing out
five-number code groups, then we knew we had something," said
Cassidy. "And if it was Cyrillic, which was really a good find, then we had
linguists aboard that could read it. ... If it was a frequency that nobody
had noted before, and it was five-number code groups, that was a keeper.
. . . We would save those and they would go back to NSA."
Another piece of equipment in the Elint spaces was so secret that it
was hidden even from the captain, although not for national security
reasons. Forbidden to have a TV on the ship, the intercept crew
nevertheless rigged up a small one and attached it to one of the rotating
intercept antennas. It was painted gray, and "Special Access" was written
on it. "The captain came in for inspection and had no idea what it was,"
said Cassidy, a veteran of submarine espionage missions on the USS
Halfbeak.
Upon leaving Buenos Aires on its first South American journey, the
Oxford headed for another target on its list, a large atomic research
station in Argentina's southern Patagonia region. However, according to
Aubrey Brown, "the weather conditions were so bad we couldn't get into
that position. We tried to do it for days, but we finally had to turn around
and come back."
While off the coast, the intercept operators did pick up information
that the president of Argentina had been overthrown. They whipped off a
Flash message to NSA, but because of atmospheric conditions, instead of
three to five minutes, it took hours to send. "By the time it got there I'm
sure it was old news," said Brown. Although the ship had the moon-
bounce dish, according to Brown it seldom worked. "The moon-bounce
mission was more cover story than anything else," he said. "There were



149
only one or two guys that were working on it. We may have used it once
or twice. It was mostly cover story."
On the way north, more than fifty miles offshore, they ran into

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