This is part of a series of articles which are re-tellings of military (mostly naval) disasters, battles or events that have always fascinated me. To write these stories I have worked off numerous sources, from Wikipedia to the small collection of books on Submarine and Naval history on my shelf. So while I have tried to keep these as accurate as I can, this can be tough when multiple different sources disagree on details. This story, more than usual, relies on numerous sources from several books, and as always I've done my best to try not to include details which are too apocriphal or hard to prove. And despite this... it's still a hell of a tale.
When you think of wiretaps these days, you probably think of cops dressed as electricians putting little doo-dads in junction boxes, then sitting next to stale fast food containers and piss jars in suspicious vans for days while they listen in wireless on their suspects.
In fact, just generally, the idea of being 'wired' for sound tends to be predicated on wirelessness. Tiny little radio mics, or taps to send phone conversations through the air to a base station somewhere, listening in - whether it's the CIA tapping someone in central America somewhere, or cops trying to take down mafia guys in a film.
But long before that was a possibility, recording things to tapes and similar recording devices was done. In fact, there are many reasons to record conversations for later collection rather than transmitting them. Some are for safety - detecting a signal is easier than detecting a tiny little solid-state recording device. Others are practical - you may be tapping or recording something too far away to easily receive the transmission.
It's the latter that became important during one of the strangest and most ambitious wire-taps in history. And this one, unshockingly, involves a submarine...
During the early years of the cold war, submarines went through a massive burst of technological advancement. Nuclear power was used aboard submarines for the first time by both the Americans and the Soviets. But these weren't the only technical advancements - long range cruise missiles and even the idea of launching nuclear weapons from submarines were experimented with.
The earliest nuclear submarines in this era were quite varied, not just in technology, but in purpose and form.
It was in this experimental phase of early nuclear submarines that the Halibut, uh... surfaced (apologies). She was one of a short-lived style of submarines designed to fire Regulus nuclear-capable cruise missiles. Unlike modern ones, which can be launched vertically and from a submerged position, Halibut and several other submarines had "flight decks" built onto their deck before the sail or conning tower. They would surface, launch their missiles at land targets some distance away, then slink away.
For several reasons including the advent of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, these styles of boat were made obsolete, and after just five years of running "deterrence patrols".
These boats did not go to waste, however. Some were used as test boats for new technologies. But Halibut? She became a "special operations boat".
Submarines had been used for decades for special operations and intelligence gathering, of course. But having a special boat to customise was a whole different matter.
Where she once housed cruise missiles, was placed a huge steel chamber looking simply like a sonar housing. Inside this cavern, later dubbed the "Bat Cave" by the boat's crew, were an astounding collection of technologies and tools. In its three levels were a dark room, a data analysis room, bunks for 16 espionage professionals, and even a room which housed a mainframe computer.
Outside the Bat Cave were even more improvements - from station-keeping pump jets (so the boat could stay as close to motionless as possible while submerged), winches, station-keeping water anchors, recording equipment, and even two remotely-operated "fish" - vehicles on tethers designed to leave the Halibut and sneak around getting footage of whatever they wanted.
Operation Ivy Bells
It was 1970. The Office of Naval Intelligence, at the Pentagon.
Important communication is sent in code via radio much of the time, but still via telephone cables more often than not. Why risk being intercepted if you can just lay a cable inside your own territory and then make sure nobody physically goes near it?
Captain James Bradley, the director of undersea warfare, had a great idea - land cables may be deep in Soviet territory and unlikely to ever be reachable, but what about sea cables?
In the Eastern Soviet Union, on the Kamchatka Peninsula lay the Soviet Submarine Base of Rybachi, near Petropavlovsk. An enormous number of communications would need to be sent from what would become one of their largest submarine bases... and their communications would go via under-sea cable, ripe for tapping by a well-equipped nuclear submarine with the right equipment.
There were four problems with this plan. Well, probably a lot more, but four key ones.
Firstly, the cable would cross the Sea of Okhotsk, which was pretty well-enclosed and would have many Soviet naval patrols punting about with figurative flashlights, looking for intruders. Secondly, finding the cable would be tough. Where is it? The Sea of Okhotsk is large, wide, the cable could be essentially anywhere along it. Thirdly, divers would need to exit the submarine near the bottom of the sea, which could not presently be done by any submarines in service. Finally, though, was the largest problem: Bradley, the brains behind the plan... didn't actually know that the cable even existed.
It was just a theory. He figured it had to be there, but couldn't prove it. He'd worked on the problem for a bit, and came up with a rather ingeniously simple way to look for it...
No matter how secret your underwater cable is supposed to be, you had to warn fishing trawlers not to accidentally cut it to pieces with an anchor, right?
As far as hunches go, though, it was a good one - and there intelligence was something Nixon and his administration were chomping at the bit for. So when he presented the plan to General Haig and Kissinger, he got an oblique response... and his plan was a go.
Halibut was refitted with a new kind of pressurised diving chamber, to allow divers to work using new helium-based diving apparatus, allowing them to operate at the depths these kinds of operations would be required.
This thing was huge, of course. So how do you hide it?
Simple. You hide it in plain sight. They built it in the shape of a small rescue submarine, welded to the hull, and painted "DSRV Simulator" (deep-submergence rescue vehicle) on it.
This camouflage worked particularly well, as after the tragic loss of both USS Thresher and USS Scorpion in the preceding decade, lots of work was being done on underwater rescue technology.
Soon enough, with the new gear installed, the Halibut began the dangerous journey across the Pacific, past the Kuril Islands and into the icy, dangerous Sea of Ohkotsk.
It was a particularly rough and slow journey, as the Halibut may have had some brand new espionage kit aboard, but she was still an old boat - she ran off a '50s vintage nuclear reactor and lugged a very non-hydro-dynamic (yes, that's a word, and isn't it cool?) lump on the back, so could barely make 13 knots (for contrast, contemporary brand-new nuclear attack submarines from this period, such as the USS Sturgeon, could manage double that - and some older boats, the Skipjack-class, had truly been built for speed and managed 33 knots).
However, the journey was made and soon Halibut and her crew found themselves punting slowly up the interior of the peninsula, hoping they found some evidence of the cable's location before anyone spotted their periscope.
A week later, almost ready to give up hope... they found it.
Flash forward several cheers of delight and surprise, a successful tour of duty for the remotely operated "fish" sent out to find the silt-covered cable, and the boat was slowly trying to position itself near the bottom of the ocean, next her target. She had chosen a spot several miles off shore as it was technically in international waters, so she had some kind of logical defense for her actions if some angry Soviet sailors came knocking.
Her sea anchors deployed, Halibut swayed back and forth near the bottom at 120 metres below the surface, while divers in rubber suits breathing helium and oxygen exited the boat and plodded out with their specialised wire-tapping gear to the gritty, ill-defended communications cable.
Cutting the wire wasn't an option, of course - they had brought with them fancy new gear designed to sap signals from the wire using induction. In theory they could leave it there a while, get some recordings, then head on back home and nobody would be the wiser.
To everyone's shock... this is precisely what happened. A good sample of the data acquired, the divers came back aboard, and after another slow trip through the Pacific, Halibut was back in port, and the recorded data was being examined and listened to be many salivating NSA employees.
The hunch had been right. Very right. Satellites and U-2 spy planes could get pictures, but this was something entirely new - unencrypted phone calls between high-ranking Soviet officers, complaining about everything from hardware and supply problems to whose mistress was doing what.
With the test run done, Operation Ivy Bells began in earnest. A custom built 6 tonne rig designed to stay settled on the water for long periods of time, replaced every few months by a regular stream of Special Operations submarines, was loaded up and, once again, Halibut trekked out to the acquire some of the most astounding intelligence of the war.
A new routine was worked out - once more she motored across two oceans and settled near the bottom, dropping off their enormous wiretap, before returning home. The trip went smoothly, and there's even stories of the divers grabbing a very large and surprised crab from the ocean floor and hauling it aboard to be boiled and eaten by the crew.
On the next trip, to bring back months of recordings, things did not go so well.
While the divers were out, an enormous storm began to brew on the surface, and with no warning at all, the boat suddenly began to pitch about despite being hidden below the waves.
With Halibut whipping about on its sea anchors, approaching it was not an option... and the divers were outdoors. With little else to do and time running out for the men watching their 4000 ton nuclear-powered ride home whipping about like a balloon tied up outside a kid's birthday party, the Captain did what he felt was the only sensible thing... he bottomed the boat.
Blowing her ballast tanks, the Halibut slapped down heavily onto the ocean floor. The divers quickly scrambled their way back aboard, and the crew sat in their boat, waiting out the storm and hoping they'd actually manage to surface again.
With the storm passed and the wire data secured, Halibut blew ballast tanks and headed home, her crew no doubt very, very conscious of how close they came to disaster.
The information they gathered was a veritable gold mine, and not only did the Halibut have a schedule to go out again, but several other boats were fitted out and joined the rotating roster of nuclear-powered wire-tapping special operations boats - this time tapping more wires than just the Okhotsk undersea cable.
The USS Parche and USS Richard B. Russell, both slightly newer boats, were allegedly cycled onto the roster, and the world's most expensive wire tapping operation continued.
The beginning of the end came when another boat was brought in to join the little squadron of spy boats.
Enter the Seawolf
The USS Seawolf (SSN-575) was a unique boat, and I don't just mean that figuratively. It was a relatively rare instance of a one-of-a-kind submarine, which makes sense as it's only the second nuclear submarine the US Navy constructed. Amongst other things including an oddly shaped hull, multi-tiered conning tower and atypical sonar suites, her first nuclear reactor was an experimental liquid metal-cooled one, using sodium rather than water. (This was replaced some years later by a pressurised-water reactor, mainly to keep a standard of reactor used in the fleet.)
Years of conventional service later, having done everything from oceanographic missions and carrier battle group support to search-and-rescue, Seawolf was refitted with similar kinds of sensitive equipment to the Halibut, and was sent out to the Sea of Okhotsk to perform the now-regular wire tape data replacement operation.
Amongst other changes made as the operation progressed, the submarines (including Seawolf) had been fitted with ski-like legs below their hull, to allow them to safely rest on the ocean floor and avoid the kind of fate that nearly befell the Halibut.
But Seawolf was not Halibut. She was old, broken, had been patched up and refitted so many times you could almost joke that it brought up the Ship of Theseus dilemma. She had a new commander who'd been in charge for the several years of refits and tests, but had yet to captain her during a proper mission. Her crew were disenfranchised due to the state of their boat, coupled with intense drug screenings which had begun fleet-wide, cycling out a lot of old crew members who tested positive for marijuana usage.
This was the state of affairs when Seawolf headed out to the Kamchatka Peninsula.
After an uneventful trip, she found the wire tap spot and prepared to settle down on her under-slung ski-legs. Not as nimble or as experienced as her earlier counterpart, however, one of her legs came down in the wrong place and with that, a little over 4000 tons of metal slammed down hard on the vitally important Soviet communications cable.
It's hard not to imagine the kind of deeply uncomfortable grimace you have dropping something heavy late at night when everyone is asleep, but ramped up to 11 and shared by just over a hundred already-grumpy sailors.
Had the impact damaged the cable, or even destroyed it? Would the Soviets hear something wrong and go looking? What if they figured out someone was tapping their undersea cable?
Without much else to do, the crew went ahead with the wire tap, sitting on the bottom for the days on end required for the task.
Unfortunately, this was not to be the last problem they ran into - or even the worst. Sitting on the bottom mean they were unable to raise their electronics masts, and were able to receive no radio messages.
If they'd been able to receive radio messages, they might have gotten something not too unlike these:
CYCLONE HEADING TOWARD SEA OF OKHOTSK
CYCLONE NOW AT SEA OF OKHOTSK
SECOND CYCLONE IN SEA OF OKHOTSK, WINDS OF 55KTS
NO, WAIT, THEY JOINED AND NOW IT'S JUST ONE BIG TYPHOON. FUCK, EH?
Submariners are not that bothered by storms, as a general rule. Even very large storms tend not to affect the water much once you get below a certain depth, and even submarines from the 1940s could usually dive deep enough to not need to spend much time dealing with the intense swells and winds that can make the lives of sailors of surface ships hellish.
But in this case, a surprise typhoon hit while the Seawolf was sitting at the bottom of the relatively shallow sea, barely over a hundred metres deep.
Without any idea just how big the enormous beast of a storm above them actually was, the crew were initially unconcerned when the boat began to periodically rock side to side on its legs.
Within a day, however, the storm had hit them full-force, and even on the ocean floor the Seawolf was being lifted repeatedly so it was leaning on just one leg, before being slammed back into the silty floor.
Meanwhile, divers outside began to lose their footing, and if that didn't happen they'd sometimes be ripped from their feet by the tether connecting them to their boat.
During one particularly bad bit of swell above, Seawolf all but stood awkwardly on one leg while a diver outside was dragged straight towards it as it began to smash down onto the sea floor again.
Mercifully, nobody was hurt and the divers made it back to the boat.
Once inside, the Captain declared that enough was enough. The mission was over. It was too dangerous - they'd take what they had and be out of there. Unfortunately, this proved more easily said than done.
As the boat had been rocked back and forth in the storm, the mud and sand had been kicked up around them. Every single part of the submarine which had a water intake valve, and any exposed nook or cranny between the submarine's internal and external pressure hulls had begun to be filled with sand and sludge.
Most horrifying was the fact that it was getting into the water intake used by the nuclear reactor. Slowly, as the water being filtered around the core got murkier and murkier, the efficiency dropped. For two days they sat there, rocking back and forth and checking every system they had to ensure they actually could get home again.
As if that wasn't enough, by the time they were sure things were able to be run again, they realised that weeks of rocking back and forth had firmly wedged their legs into the mud - there were absolutely no guarantees they could get free.
At first they tried using their hydroplanes and propeller to move forward, but all it did was make the boat rock about and make horrifying metallic screeching noises. They tried small blows to the ballast tank, hoping that there wasn't too much sludge in there to affect those systems.
Another problem they had was this: the boat was not simply resting on the bottom of the ocean - it was anchored there. Four large mushroom anchors sat on the bottom, so that if they blew ballast to get off the bottom, as they would have to do, they wouldn't accidentally go up too fast and broach the surface of the water, giving away their very existence to the entire Soviet fleet.
The anchors were weighing them down. They were cut off, and a big blow on the main ballast tanks was attempted. With the screw turning at the stern as fast as it could, they finally got off the ocean floor, despite horrifying screeches and scrapes as their feet were dragged from the ocean floor.
Fortunately, they managed to remain submerged, and began to limp the month-long journey home, and out of typhoon-and-Soviet infested waters. The trip was even longer than going out, as this time random bits of metal and scrap was hanging from their boat, limiting their speed to about 6 knots - any faster and they'd give away their position entirely.
Once home, the sand-sodden boat was taken to dry dock to be repaired.
She would remain in service until 1986.
A surprisingly long time after Seawolf's disastrous deployment, satellite coverage showed numerous Soviet warships and even a deep-sea salvage vessel over the location of the wire tap. The gig was up. Operation Ivy Bells was over.
For years, it was wondered how the Soviets had figured it out. Had it been Seawolf coming down on the cable? Was the boat so noisy it got detected during its noisy retreat from the storm? There was even speculation that one of the submariners from the Halibut, who had resigned as he felt the wire tap was unethical, might have told the Soviets.
As it turns out, it was none of those things. Around the same time the Seawolf was being decommissioned in California, a KGB colonel, Vitaly Yurchenko, (briefly) defected to the Americans during an operation in Rome. While being debriefed, he gave up the names of two US Intelligence employees were double-agents for Russia.
One of them, Ronald Pelton, an NSA analyst in terrible personal debt, had walked straight into the Soviet embassy in 1980 and sold them information about Ivy Bells... for $5,000.
To this day, a twenty-foot long wire-tapping pod sits in the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Moscow. Inside the casing sits a construction plaque which reads, "Property of the United States Government".
This article cribs details from numerous sources, many linked from the Wikipedia pages on Ivy Bells and the submarines involved, but is also informed by the amazing book "Blind Man's Bluff" by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew. If you're interested in cold war submarine espionage, this book covers the story of Ivy Bells and many more operations and it's, well, pretty damn awesome.