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runway on Guam, twenty-seven Strategic Air Command B-52 bombers
lined up like a rehearsal for doomsday. They were a fearsome sight:
planes as long as sixteen-story buildings, their swept-back, fuel-laden
wings spanning more than half the length of a football field and drooping
so close to the ground that they needed to be supported by bicycle-like
outriggers. Weighing them down were eight Pratt & Whitney J-57
turbojets capable of generating more than 100,000 pounds of earth-
shaking thrust. Their cavernous bomb bays were roomy enough to house
limousine-size nuclear bombs.
In the cockpit of the lead aircraft, the gloved right hand of the pilot
grasped the eight throttles, one for each engine. Slowly, in a single
motion, he shoved them forward, hurling the mighty machine ever faster
down the runway. Seconds later the plane lifted into the sky from
Anderson Air Force Base, bearing fifty-one conventional bombs totaling
sixteen tons. More than two dozen Stratofortresses followed, flying to a
point over the measureless Pacific Ocean where they rendezvoused with a
fleet of KG-135 tankers. There, through long steel straws, they took in
fuel at 6,000 pounds a minute while performing a delicate ballet five
miles above the sea at 300 miles an hour.
Codenamed Operation Arc Light, their mission was to lay waste South
Vietnam”the country the U.S. was trying to save. The targets were
Vietcong guerrilla bases, which were to be bombed back into the days of
flint and stone axes. Launched on their nonstop, 5,000-mile round-trip
missions, the B-52s cratered the South Vietnamese countryside like the
face of the moon. Twelve hours after taking off, they would land back on
Guam. Month after month, 8,000 tons of iron rain fell on South Vietnam,
spreading death, dismemberment, and destruction on whomever and
whatever it touched. An average of 400 pounds of TNT exploded
somewhere in the small country every second of every hour for months
on end.
As preparations got under way days in advance for each mission, a
growing cloud of electrons would form over Guam. Messages would have
to go out requisitioning new bomb fuses and brake pads, target
recommendations would flow back and forth, authorizations and go
orders would be transmitted. The volume of signals would increase every
day, like a bell curve.



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Shortly after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed, a Soviet trawler,
the Izmeritel, took up residence three miles off Apra, Guam's major
harbor. Like a seagull hovering around a fish factory, the antenna-
covered Sigint boat was scavenging for signals. With the start of the Arc
Light missions, the feeding became a frenzy. Guam served as a key
communications center for many of the Navy's operations in Southeast
Asia, and during the early part of the war was the only staging area for
B-52 bombing missions over Vietnam. Soon after the beginning of Arc
Light, mission planners began noticing that on many occasions the
element of surprise had been lost. It would be more than a year before
they began to understand why.
Bobbing innocently in the waves off Apra, the Izmeritel was able to
gain a clear picture of launch times for the B-52s. Through traffic
analysis of pre-strike encrypted transmissions, they were able to identify
alerts from the indicators that marked Flash messages. About an hour
before launch, the short-range VHF radio network would swell with clear-
text transmission by aircraft and munitions maintenance personnel. This
increased volume tipped off the Soviets to an impending launch like a
signalman waving a flag. Also, thanks to radio talk such as "652 must be
ready by 0900," they were able to identify the launch aircraft by tail
numbers and even to learn the names of the crew. Unencrypted weather
forecasts by SAC over certain areas of the Pacific gave away the aerial
refueling locations.
Similar Sigint operations by the Vietcong in South Vietnam would
reveal the target areas. And because the B-52s carried no encryption
equipment, except for the Triton codes for nuclear authorization, all their
communications were in clear voice. Captured enemy documents
included a transcript of two and a half hours of detailed discussion of a
particular planned B-52 raid, including the exact time of the attack and
the coordinates of the target.
Only after a highly secret NSA, Air Force, and Navy investigation at
Guam and other locations was it determined how the North Vietnamese
and Vietcong were able to eliminate Arc Light's element of surprise. The
probe uncovered "a number of insecure communications practices that
made vital intelligence available to the enemy."
The NSA was also concerned about the Soviet trawler's ability to break
its codes by discovering a "bust." Known technically as a cipher-signal
anomaly, this is when an electrical irregularity occurs during encryption
that "might permit an alert enemy to recover plain language or other
data," according to an NSA document. Then, as now, it is a key way to
break an otherwise unbreakable cipher.
Even without a bust, the Soviet trawler might still be able to defeat
the cipher systems by intercepting the radiation emitted from the



260
cryptographic equipment. For years NSA had worried about the amount
of intelligence that might be gained by monitoring the radiation emitted
by sensitive communications and encryption equipment”even by power
cords. Through careful analysis, these radiated signals might reveal the
contents of a secret message as it was being typed on a cipher machine”
that is, before it was encrypted. Likewise, an incoming message might be
detected as it was being printed out, and thus at a time when its
protective ciphers have been stripped away. To help eliminate or at least
decrease this radiation, the agency has long had a program known as
"Tempest testing."
An NSA team was flown to Guam and put aboard the USS Charles
Kerry, a destroyer, which was then positioned near the Izmeritel. Working
inside a cramped Sigint van, the intercept operators began testing the
electronic environment to determine just what the Soviet trawler was
capable of hearing. Then the destroyer moved to other locations,
eventually working its way around the island, staying three miles
offshore. During the course of the test, the NSA team obtained over
77,000 feet of magnetic tape recordings. Happily, while in the vicinity of
the Sigint trawler, the team could detect no "compromising cipher-signal
anomalies," nor any Tempest problems. Nevertheless, at every point
around the island they were able to clearly hear Air Force ground
maintenance crews. "The communications were in plain language," said
the NSA report, "and the NSA analysts could thus predict B-52 mission
launchings at least two hours prior to take-off."
After their seagoing survey, the NSA team tested the land-based
circuits and found that signals from teletypewriters that were rapping
out decrypted, highly secret messages were leaking onto unencrypted
voice channels. Thus by intercepting and then closely analyzing the voice
communications, the Soviets might be able to read the classified
messages.
As a result of the investigation, NSA conducted several other large-
scale analyses of communications leaks. One, codenamed Purple Dragon,
determined that the North Vietnamese were learning the locations of
planned strikes by several means, among them the monitoring of
unencrypted radio traffic from the fleet of KG-135 tankers.
To many at NSA, the results were shocking. "U.S. air strikes were of
dubious success against an enemy who mysteriously faded from target
areas," said a former NSA deputy director for communications security,
Walter G. Deeley. "Ground sweeps seldom encountered more than the
aged and the very young; and Marine amphibious forces stormed
virtually deserted shores. It was apparent that the success of the enemy
in evading our forces was probably predicated on advance knowledge of
our intentions."



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More shocking, said Deeley, was the fact that even after being
informed by NSA of the devastating security lapses, the military refused
to take any corrective action. U.S. military commanders in Vietnam
frequently looked down on Comsec and paid no attention to the
warnings. And communications personnel referred to them as "buddy
fuckers" because they eavesdropped on American forces. In such cases
there was little NSA could do. "Comsec monitors and analysts had an
advisory role only and no power themselves to effect changes," said an
NSA report. "For a variety of reasons commanders frequently ignored, or
read sympathetically without action, the findings of the Comsec units."
The consequences were often deadly.
One U.S. Army commander at 1st Infantry Division headquarters was
talking over his desk phone when someone came into his office and
mentioned that a specific operation was to take place in a location "35
kilometers north of here tomorrow." A Comsec monitor, eavesdropping on
the call, heard the mention of the location of the operation and notified
the officer. But the officer never bothered to change the plans. "On
landing, the assault force met unexpectedly heavy resistance," said an
NSA report. "U.S. losses were approximately 58 men killed and 82
wounded." The ASA commander on the scene "regarded the outcome as
the results of an enemy reaction to a security breach." The number of
deaths caused by poor U.S. communications security and successful
North Vietnamese Sigint became alarming. NSA spoke of "a veritable
flood of intelligence for enemy Sigint exploitation and tactical application,
a flood that spelled defeat or losses during many U.S. combat
operations."
Incredibly, the United States was losing the code war the same way
Germany and Japan lost it in World War II. With the aid of the Russians,
the North Vietnamese may have been getting access to intelligence from
NSA's most secure encryption systems, gaining information like that
obtained by breaking the German Enigma and Japanese Purple codes
during World War II. Even without that, they were obtaining enormous
amounts of Sigint, which frequently allowed them to escape destruction
and, instead, target American forces.
From the very beginning, American commanders had an arrogant
belief in U.S. military superiority. They believed that the North
Vietnamese military and jungle-based Vietcong”the "gooks"”were far
too unsophisticated to be able to make sense of U.S. communications
networks. After all, many commanders reasoned, how could an army of
soldiers who marched on sandals made of used tire treads be taken
seriously? "Most U.S. commanders in Vietnam," said an NSA study,
"doubted that the enemy could conduct successful Sigint operations.
These commanders reasoned that U.S. superiority in training, firepower,
and mobility made Comsec of little importance." The commanders, like


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their defeated German and Japanese counterparts during World War II,
would be wrong.
Compounding the problem, the American military commanders would
also ignore a second lesson of World War II: they paid little heed to
warnings derived through their own signals intelligence.


On March 8, 1965, two Marine battalions stormed ashore at Da Nang,
the first official combat troops to be sent into the war. By the end of the
year, the number of American forces in Vietnam would swell to nearly
200,000. After a period of relative calm, the Vietcong erupted throughout
the country on May 11. More than 1,000 poured over the Cambodian
border, a growing weak spot, and brought down Songbe, a provincial
capital about fifty miles north of Saigon.
To help plug the Cambodian hole, the decision was made to send
NSA's flagship, the USS Oxford, into the war zone. The Oxford would be
the first seagoing Sigint factory assigned to Vietnam. The orders were
transmitted to the ship on May 26 to set sail immediately for Southeast
Asia. At the time, the Oxford was just completing a nearly four-month
cruise off West Africa, where it had stopped at Lagos and Durban, among
other ports. Now not only were the crew going to war rather than home,
they were also told that from now on the ship's homeport would be San
Diego instead of Norfolk, a blow to those with families on the East Coast.
"In Africa we were looking at some of the local links," recalled George
A. Cassidy, an Elint intercept operator on the ship. "Anything that could
be Communist related. If we ever got anything Communist or Russian it
was like a feather in our cap. That was our main goal, to get something
that had to do with Russia."
Then came the message from NSA. "We left Durban and were going
around the other side of South Africa for some reason," said Cassidy. "It
was about three o'clock in the afternoon. The captain came on and made
an announcement. Guys were really worried. I mean, you had guys who
had marriages almost on the rocks, and here they are, they're across on
the other side of the world. Guys had houses, families, cars, kids, wives,
lovers, whatever, everything on the East Coast, and we all said, Now
we're going to Vietnam. ... I can tell you it was probably almost the same
lowering of morale, in a different way, which we felt when Kennedy was
shot."
On the long voyage to Southeast Asia, Cassidy found a way to boost
morale: he created a photomontage of pictures taken by crewmembers in
the various houses of prostitution they had visited while on their many
NSA Sigint voyages. "Crewmembers would take photos in the
whorehouses and bring them back where another crewmember would
develop the film," he said. "I would swear them to secrecy that they


263
wouldn't show it to anyone on the ship, especially the officers, and I
would keep an extra print of the good stuff. I kept it locked away, a place
nobody could find. It was in a big metal can up in an air vent in the
photo lab.
"So after this happened [the orders to Vietnam], I was talking to some
of the guys, and they said why don't you make up a big poster board of
all these pictures and try to raise the morale a little. I said, 'I can't do
this, I'll get killed.' So I went to the captain and I told him what my idea
was and he said, 'Well, if they're not really bad, explicit photographs it
probably won't be a bad idea.' So I went to each guy and asked if they
would mind and nobody really minded. And we put it up in the mess
deck one afternoon. And I'll tell you, it kind of brought the morale up a
little bit. It was from photographs of guys with women in Durban, the
Canary Islands; I had some from the Caribbean, even. And there were
some from the Zurich Hotel in Valparaiso, Chile."
In Asia, as elsewhere, all information concerning the Oxford was
considered very secret. Unfortunately, that made life difficult for those
who were sent from the United States to join it. One of those was John
De Chene, who was trying to get to the Oxford from California. "They
tried to keep the Oxford movements very highly classified," he said. "First
we went to Subic Bay, Philippines, because that's where they had the
Oxford listed. We arrived at Clark Air Force Base and took a bus for four
hours over back roads to Subic. Once there, they told us it was actually
at Yokosuka, Japan. So we took the bus back to Clark and flew to
Yokosuka, only to be told they'd never heard of the ship. Later, however,
someone said the ship was now off Saigon. So we flew to Saigon and they
said no, not here, she's now at Subic. We went back to Subic and it
wasn't there. Finally they sent out a fleet search. Well, it had been sitting
for two months in dry dock in Sasebo, Japan. So they flew us in to a
Marine base in Japan and then we had to take a Japanese train all the
way down to the lower islands and got to Sasebo the next morning and
there she was. We were probably in transit about a week."
Once out of dry dock, the Oxford sailed to its assigned station in the
Gulf of Thailand, a remote area near An Thoi on the southern tip of Phu
Quoc Island. "We generally spent two months on station at our position
on the border of Cambodia/Vietnam, copying and recording all
communications, both foreign and friendly," said De Chene. "A lot of the
time we were only about two miles off the coast." It was a very good
position to eavesdrop on and DF [direction-find] the hundreds of units in
the area."
The ship would occasionally pull in to An Thoi so that Ray Bronco, the
ship's postal clerk, could pick up and drop off mail. One day he

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