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trouble. "At one point when we were off Argentina," said Brown, "we were
pursued by an Argentine warship because we were not flying the flag. ...
So they couldn't identify us, didn't know what nationality. It was a
relatively old Argentinean naval vessel, but it was a warship. It pursued
us because it wanted to know what kind of ship we were. It was very
unusual not to have colors. Nothing flying from the mast. So we ran from
it. They pursued us but we were monitoring all the traffic to and from the
ship, which was all Morse code. We finally outran them."
Another of the Oxford's missions was to attempt to locate spies in
South America who were thought to be communicating by ham radio. "So
we set off on this fool's mission to monitor all the ham communications
in Latin America for these spies who were communicating with each
other on ham radio," said Brown. "And of course there was nothing
there."
Finally the ship pulled into Rio de Janeiro. Brazil had great influence
within Latin America and was another major NSA target. Key elections
were scheduled for May and the CIA had spent truckloads of money to
secretly influence the outcome. Using several phony front organizations,
the CIA dumped some $12 million, and possibly as much as $20 million,
on anticommunist candidates.
The eavesdroppers had good fortune. The Brazilian navy welcomed the
NSA ship and put it in their naval area. Even better, the mooring they
were assigned lay between two microwave links carrying sensitive
Brazilian naval communications. According to Brown, the mooring "put
the guys in the rear section, the Elint people, in direct line of all the
Brazilian navy microwave communications. We copied everything we
could when we pulled into port."
Passing through the Caribbean on their way back to the United
States, the Sigint operators on the Oxford were often instructed by NSA
to pay particular attention to communication links between Fort-de-
France, the capital of Martinique in the French West Indies, and Dakar,
Senegal, in West Africa. For years Airne Cesaire, the Martinican writer
and former Communist, had led an independence movement on the
island. Along with Leopold Sedar Senghor, the president of Senegal, they
were founders of the Negritude movement, which protested French
colonial rule. "Every time we got it [the link] up they wanted copy from
that," said George Cassidy. "It had something to do with the Soviets.
They [the intercepted messages] were code groups."
Cassidy added, "A lot of times we would get messages from NSA or
NSG [Naval Security Group] and they would say, 'Here's a list of


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frequencies, keep an eye on these things.' It was like going hunting. That
was the mindset we were in. We were on the ship and we were hunting
for these things and when we found them we felt pretty good."
Like South America, Africa was becoming "hearable" as a result of
NSA's eavesdropping navy.


In its earliest days, NSA had planned for its fleet of spy ships to be
small, slow, civilian-manned trawlers rather than the large floating
listening posts such as the USS Oxford, The model was to be the Soviet
trawler fleet that loitered off such places as the space launch center at
Cape Canaveral and the large submarine base at Charleston, South
Carolina. "I was called to Washington in the mid-fifties and asked could
we monitor a Soviet Navy maneuver," recalled retired Navy Captain Phil
H. Bucklew, who was involved in the Navy's Special Warfare program at
the time. "They wanted me to rig a fishing boat with electronic equipment
and operate it in the Caspian Sea at a time of the Soviet maneuvers and
asked, 'Is it feasible?' I replied, 'I guess it's feasible; it's starting from
scratch. I don't welcome the opportunity but I believe we would be the
most capable source if you decide to do it.' I heard nothing more on that."
Instead of fishing trawlers with their limited space, the NSA chose to
build its eavesdropping fleet with small and ancient cargo vessels. "I was
probably the father of it at NSA," said Frank Raven, former chief of G
Group, which was responsible for eavesdropping on the non-Communist
world. "It was one of the first projects that I started when I got to G
Group. . . . What we wanted was a slow tub, that was civilian, that could
mosey along a coast relatively slowly, take its time at sea."
The first to join the Sigint navy was the USNS Valdez, which at 350
feet long was considerably smaller and slower than the Oxford. In fact, its
call sign was "Camel Driver." Run by the civilian Military Sea
Transportation Service (MSTS) rather than the U.S. Navy, it was powered
by a straight-drive, 1,750-horsepower Bush and Sulzer diesel engine,
and had a six-foot screw with a six-foot pitch.
In December 1961, the Valdez sailed to Cape Town, South Africa,
where it became NSA's "African Queen." By the time it arrived, antennas
bristling from its deck and masts, it was a salty sailor. Built in 1944 at
the Riverside Yard in Duluth, Minnesota, it had spent most of its life as a
seagoing pickup truck, hugging coastlines as it transported barrels of
nails one way and bales of cotton another. It was named after a Medal of
Honor winner killed in action near Rosenkrantz, France, in the waning
days of World War II.
"On her maiden voyage she picked up Chinese telemetry signals, a
first," said Raven. From Cape Town, the ship also eavesdropped on Soviet
missile tests. As listening posts in Turkey and Iran collected telemetry on


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the launch of ICBMs from Kapustin Yar, the Valdez would be in position
in the South Atlantic. There it could easily pick up the signals from the
missile as it headed for its target area southwest of what is now Namibia.
Shortly after the Valdez reached Cape Town, a second ship, the USNS
Lieutenant James E. Robinson, also became operational. A third, the
USNS Sergeant Joseph E. Muller, was still undergoing conversion. More
ships were planned, but Navy officials objected, arguing that future NSA
spy ships must be Navy vessels. "They complained very bitterly about the
speed of the Valdez," said Frank Raven. "After all, it could make six knots
if the wind were blowing right. . . . Well, if you had a crisis in the Pacific
and your ship was in the Atlantic you couldn't get it there in time. This
was the sort of argument."
As a result, NSA's navy switched from civilian Valdez-type ships to the
U.S. Navy Oxford-type ships, a decision that Raven greatly objected to on
the grounds that the civilian ships were far less conspicuous. "The
Valdez was my dream ship," he said. "She was the damnedest tub. One
of our stock jokes was that we had a bow wave painted on the thing”
just so it would appear she was moving."
While the Oxford was to be NSA's ears along South America, the
Valdez was to be its floating listening post along the coasts of Africa. It
and its sister ships had the advantage of being little noticed as they
bobbed like corks riding the tide along a coastline. At eight to ten knots,
the coastal transports had exactly half the speed of the Oxford. They also
cost about half a million dollars per year less to operate than the Ox.
Also, being outside the Navy and run by civilian masters, the Valdez-type
ships could cut through the cumbersome bureaucracy: they could
operate at sea for longer periods, and overhauls could be performed in
foreign ports rather than U.S. Navy facilities.
On the other hand, its speed allowed the Oxford to react more quickly
when needed and also enabled it to conduct "shadow missions," following
suspicious foreign ships. And the larger number of signals intelligence
personnel, six officers and 110 enlisted men, versus 4 officers and 91
enlisted for the Valdez, enabled the Oxford to target and intercept more
communications. "The bigger ships," said Marshall S. Carter, "could
carry so much more equipment, so much more sophisticated equipment,
so much better antennas."
Getting its reams of intercepts to headquarters was a major problem
for NSA's "African Queen." As it eavesdropped along the East African
coast, the ship would pull into ports and a crewmember, in civilian
clothes, would hand-carry the pouches of intercepts to the nearest
American embassy. The documents would then be flown back to NSA by
diplomatic courier. But some ports, such as Mombasa, Kenya, were not
near any American diplomatic facilities. A crewmember would have to fly



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with the material to Nairobi, where the closest American embassy was
located. This greatly worried NSA: the crewmembers did not have
diplomatic immunity, so the pouches could be opened or seized by
customs officials, who would find copies of their own government's secret
communications. "Revelation of some sensitive material could prove
extremely embarrassing to the U.S.," said one NSA report that discussed
the problem.
During the Valdez™s slow crawl up and down the long African coasts,
French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Russian linguists eavesdropped on a
continent in chaos, tearing itself away from its old colonial bosses only to
come under the violent domination of new Cold War masters. In the
waves and swells of the Indian Ocean off Tanzania, intercept operators
carefully twisted their dials hoping to pick up communications between
Dar es Salaam and Havana. In April 1965, the Cuban revolutionary
leader Che Guevara, wearing an olive-green beret and smoking a cigar,
quietly arrived in the Congo with a force of Cuban guerrilla fighters. They
saw the struggle by supporters of the murdered Patrice Lumumba
against Joseph-D©sir© Mobutu and his American and Belgian backers as
a continuation of a worldwide revolution against imperialism. They came
to lend their support and expertise in guerrilla warfare.
The intercept operators knew that Dar es Salaam was serving as a
communications center for the fighters, receiving messages from Castro
in Cuba and relaying them on to the guerrillas deep in the bush.
Guevara transmitted his progress reports and requests for supplies back
through that same channel. Every day at 8:00 A.M., 2:30 P.M., and 7:00
P.M., one of Guevara's radio operators would also make contact with the
jungle base at Kigoma.
But Guevara knew the dangers posed by sloppy and too-frequent use
of radios. "It seems excessive to me," he cautioned one of his fighters, "to
communicate three times a day with the other side and twice a day with
Dar es Salaam. Soon you won't have anything to say, the gasoline will be
used up and codes can always be broken. This is without considering
that planes can locate the base. Apart from the technical conditions, I
recommend that you analyze the possibility of having normal daily
communication with Kigoma at a set time once a day for extraordinary
news and once every two or three days with Dar es Salaam. That will
allow us to save gasoline. They should be at night, and the radio should
be protected against an air attack. I think your idea of the shortwave is a
good one, with simple codes that are changed frequently."
Despite his caution, the signals to and from Che Guevara were easy
pickings for the Valdez.


The Valdez, one small ship monitoring an enormous continent, was


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later joined by the USS Liberty, a large floating listening post like the
Oxford. A veteran of World War II like the Valdez, the Liberty had also
served honorably during the Korean War, making the lonely transit
across the Pacific eighteen times to bring supplies to American forces
fighting there. Worn, its hull streaked with rust, the ship was finally
retired to a naval boneyard in 1958, but five years later it was recalled to
active duty for service in the Cold War and fitted with four .50-caliber
machine guns”two forward and two aft. Its next war would prove to be
the most deadly of all.
As the Valdez crawled up the east coast of Africa, Liberty moseyed
down the west coast, its forty-five antennas tuned in to a continent
convulsing. Cruising slowly in calm seas near the entrance to the Congo
River, intercept operators kept an eye on the endless trail of debris
washing into the ocean. "Those of us aboard Liberty waited to see if any
bodies surfaced," said one crewmember; "loss of life was an everyday
occurrence." But separated from the deadly shoreline by a dozen miles of
ocean, the sailors on the spy ship felt relatively safe. Suddenly, however,
that all changed.
As he did every morning, Bobby Ringe went to the mess hall, quickly
downed his breakfast, and then went topside for a few minutes of fresh
air and sun before lining up for muster. Within a few hours, however, he
was doubled over in excruciating pain. The ship's doctor determined that
Ringe had appendicitis and needed immediate surgery. But before the
operation, Ringe needed to be anesthetized and the only means available
was the administration of a spinal tap, a procedure familiar to the doctor
and his corpsman. As the anesthesia began to flow from the syringe,
however, Ringe began violent convolutions. Without anesthetic an
operation was out of the question.
After some quick messages between the Liberty and the headquarters
for the Atlantic fleet, it was determined that there was only one way to
save Ringe's life. He had to be transported to Brazzaville, capital of the
Republic of the Congo (not to be confused with Mobutu's similarly named
Congo), where a U.S. Navy plane would be waiting to fly him to a hospital
in Tripoli, Libya. But this meant a dangerous cruise up the Congo River,
deep into the violent madness they were eavesdropping on: a forbidden
voyage for a ship full of spies.
Commander Daniel T. Wieland, the captain of the Liberty, turned his
ship toward the wide mouth of the Congo”"an immense snake uncoiled,"
wrote Joseph Conrad, "with its head in the sea . . . and its tail lost in the
depths of the land." Although his charts of the river were very old and
out-of-date, Wieland gambled that if he held the ship close to the center
of the waterway he would not run aground. As the broad Atlantic
disappeared behind, the verdant coastline closed in ahead, like a pair of
green pincers. Life slowly began materializing from every direction as the


154
poky gray ship, like an awkward tourist, disappeared into the heart of
Africa. Dozens of pirogues, huge hollowed-out hardwood trees, bobbed
and weaved in the current. Aboard larger, flat-bottom boats, traders
offered such goods as tortoises, bats, and baskets of caterpillars. In the
distance was a "pusher," a double-decker boat pushing half a dozen
barges teeming with humanity, a floating city of perhaps five thousand
people. The pusher was on its way to Stanleyville, twelve hundred
winding miles into the jungle.
It was night by the time the Liberty reached Brazzaville. Captain
Wieland cut his engines and allowed the river's strong current to bring
her to a stop. The anchor was dropped and crewmen quickly swung the
emergency ladder into place. Ringe was carefully lowered into a boat that
took him to shore and the waiting aircraft.
As the excitement died down, the crew quickly became aware that this
was not going to be a simple mooring. Gathering around the aft of the
ship was a growing number of small boats and barges. Soon the flotilla
became a blockade. Across the river from Brazzaville was Leopoldville,
capital of the other Congo, Mobutu's Congo. For years Brazzaville had
served as home to a number of rebel factions fighting against the
Leopoldville government. The fleet of boats had been sent from
Leopoldville accompanied with a demand for an inspection visit in the
morning. Officials worried that the ship was secretly supplying arms for
guerrilla fighters in Brazzaville.
To allow representatives of one of the ship's eavesdropping targets to
come aboard for an inspection was unthinkable, but there was little they
could do about it. Everywhere there were copies of secret intercepted
messages and tapes, perhaps even containing the words and voices of
some of those on the inspection party. Encrypted, high-priority messages
were sped to the director of NSA and Atlantic Fleet Headquarters in
Norfolk, Virginia. While the Navy responded with a message saying they
had no objection to the inspection, NSA became apoplectic. "DIRNSA
[Director, NSA] responded saying there was no way an inspection team
would board Liberty," said Robert Casale, one of the enlisted cryptologists
on board.
An escape plan was quickly devised. Curtains were drawn, all
unnecessary lights were turned off, noise was kept to a minimum, and
topside activity was completely halted. "The ship, for all intents and
purposes," said Casale, "visibly disappeared." At 11:00 P.M., the ship's
winch slowly began raising the anchor. The idea was to allow the Congo

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