Signals intelligence at the start of the Cold War

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For more information, see: Signals intelligence.
For more information, see: Cold War.


After the end of World War II, all the Western allies began a rapid drawdown. This article covers the period from 1945 to 1954. See Signals intelligence from 1954 to 1979 for the next period.

At the end of WWII, the US still had a COMINT organization split between the Army and Navy. [1] A 1946 plan listed Russia, China, and a [redacted] country as high-priority targets.

Each service ran independent agreements with foreign counterparts, some of which, especially the British, had already formed a central communications intelligence organization (e.g., the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, now the Government Communications Headquarters). Lack of centralization bothered these allies. The vital British-US cooperation was, at this point, one of the strongest incentives to the US Army and Navy to form a centralized organization.

Western counterespionage

From 1943 to 1980, the VENONA project, principally a US activity with support from Australia and the UK, recovered information, some tantalizingly only in part, from Soviet espionage traffic. While the Soviets had originally used theoretically unbreakable one-time pads for the traffic, some of their operations violated communications security rules and reused some of the pads. This reuse caused the vulnerability that was exploited. VENONA gave substantial information on the scope of Soviet espionage against the West, but critics claim some messages have been interpreted incorrectly, or are even false. Part of the problem is that certain persons, even in the encrypted traffic, were identified only by code names such as "Quantum". Quantum was a source on US nuclear weapons, and is often considered to be Julius Rosenberg. The name, however, could refer to any of a number of spies.

US movement to centralization in SIGINT

The Army and Navy formed a "Joint Operating Plan" to cover 1946-1949, but this had its disadvantages. The situation became a good deal more complex with the passage of the National Security Act of 1947, which created a separate Air Force and Central Intelligence Agency, as well as unifying the military services under a Secretary of Defense. While the CIA remained primarily a consumer, the Air Force wanted its own SIGINT organization, responsive to its tactical and strategic needs, just as the Army and Navy often placed their needs beyond that of national intelligence.[2] The Army Security Agency (ASA) had shared the national COMINT mission with the Navy's Communications Supplementary Activity (COMMSUPACT) - which became the Naval Security Group in June 1950. During and after World War II, a portion of Army COMINT assets was dedicated to support of the U.S. Army Air Corps, and, when the independent Air Force was created in 1947, these cryptologic assets were resubordinated to the new organization as the Air Force Security Service (AFSS).

Secretary of Defense James Forrestal rejected the early service COMINT unification plans. The Department of State objected to the next draft, which put the Central Intelligence Group/Central Intelligence Agency in charge of national COMINT. On 20 May 1949, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson created the Armed Forces Security Agency.

To centralize common services, the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA) as a national organization. AFSA, was formed by secret executive order in 1948. Still, until NSA was formed in 1952, AFSA did not have the authority for central control of individual service COMINT and COMSEC. Policy direction of COMINT came from the U.S. Communications Intelligence Board (USCIB) which, in April 1949, requested $22 million in funds, including 1,410 additional civilian employees, to expand the COMINT effort.

Pacific COMINT targeting prior to the Korean War

For the Pacific, the USCIB targeted China, and Russia in both the European and Pacific theaters, but Korea was a low-priority target: On its second-tier priority list were items of "high importance"; for the month prior to the war, Japan and Korea were item number 15 on the second list, but this did not focus on Korea itself. The specific requirements were "Soviet activities in North Korea", "North Korean-Chinese Communist Relations", and "North Korean-South Korean relations, including activities of armed units in border areas." [3] Was there early warning of the Korean War? Perhaps, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. As with the retrospective analysis of COMINT immediately after Pearl Harbor, certain traffic, if not a smoking gun, would have been suggestive, to an astute analyst trusted by the high command. Before the invasion, targeting was against Chinese and Soviet targets with incidental mention of Korea. Prior to 1950 there were two COMINT hints of more than usual interest in the Korean peninsula by communist bloc nations, but neither was sufficient to provide specific warning of a June invasion.

Early warning and the Korean War

In April 1950, ASA undertook a limited "search and development" study of DPRK traffic. Two positions the second case, as revealed in COMINT, large shipments of bandages and medicines went from the USSR to North Korea and Manchuria, starting in February 1950. These two actions made sense only in hindsight, after the invasion of South Korea occurred in June 1950.

Some North Korean communications were intercepted between May 1949 and April 1950 because the operators were using Soviet communications procedures. Coverage was dropped once analysts confirmed the non-Soviet origin of the material.

Within a month of the North Korean invasion, the JCS approved the transfer of 244 officers and 464 enlisted men to AFSA and recommended a large increase in civilian positions. In August, the DoD comptroller authorized an increase of 1,253 additional civilian COMINT positions. Given the administration's belief that the conflict in Korea could be part of a wider war, only sine of the increase would go to direct support of the conflict in Korea.

COMINT, supported by information from other open and secret sources, showed a number of other military-related activities, such as VIP visits and communications changes, in the Soviet Far East and in the PRC, but none was suspicious in itself. Even when consolidated by AFSA in early 1951, these activities as a whole did not provide clear evidence that a significant event was imminent, much less a North Korean invasion of the South.

In 1952, when personnel levels and a more static war allowed some retrospective analysis, AFSA reviewed unprocessed intercept from the June 1950 period. Analysts could not find any message which would have given advance warning of the North Korean invasion. One of the earliest, if not the earliest, messages relating to the war, dated June 27 but not translated until October, referred to division level movement by North Korean forces. [3]

Strategic SIGINT targeting of the USSR

In the fifties, only aircraft platforms could obtain SIGINT over the USSR. A Soviet source pointed out that "aircraft were of limited usefulness, due to being vulnerable to fighters and antiaircraft weapons. (Translator's estimate: in the period 1950-1969, about 15 US and NATO reconnaissance aircraft were shot down over the USSR, China, the GDR and Cuba). The US, therefore, undertook the WS-117L reconnaissance satellite project, approved by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954, within which was a signal intercept subsystem under Project PIONEER FERRET." [4] By 1959, WS-117L had split into three programs: [5]

  1. Discoverer, the unclassified name for the CORONA IMINT satellite
  2. Satellite and Missile Observation System (SAMOS)(IMINT)
  3. Missile Defense Alarm System (MIDAS), a nonimaging staring infrared MASINT system

The first experimental ELINT package would fly aboard a photoreconnaissance satellite, Discoverer-13, in August 1960. Translated from the Russian, it was equipped with "equipment was intended to record the signals of Soviet radars which were tracking the flight of American space objects." [4]

Indochina

The Viet Minh, at first, used captured French communications equipment. Under the French, no Vietnamese had been trained in cryptography, so, the initial messages were sent in the clear. On September 23, 1945, the US intercepted a message from Ho Chi Minh to Joseph Stalin, requesting aid for flood victims. This traffic immediately triggered more suspicion of Ho's relationship to Moscow, but it turned out to be one in a series of messages to world leaders. [1]

On September 12, the Viet Minh established a Military Cryptographic Section, and, with their only reference a single copy of French Capitaine Baudoin's Elements Cryptographic, and began to develop their own cryptosystems. Not surprisingly, these were very basic. By early 1946, they had established a network of radio systems, still transmitting with only minimal communications security.

The French had a number of direction-finding stations, with about 40 technicians. By 1946, the French had identified a number of Viet Minh network and were able to do traffic analysis. They also monitored Nationalist and Communist Chinese, British, Dutch and Indonesian communications[1] In general, however, SIGINT in French Indochina was limited by the availability of linguists. [6]

While the US began to provide military supplies to the French, approximately at the time of the start of operations of the Armed Forces Security Agency in 1949, Indochina was a low COMINT priority. Even in 1950, the position of the French there was considered "precarious", both in a Joint Chiefs of Staff assessment and a National Intelligence Estimate.

"After abolition of the French Indochina opium monopoly in 1950, SDECE imposed centralized, covert controls over the illicit drug traffic that linked the Hmong poppy fields of Laos with the opium dens operating in Saigon." This generated profits that funded French covert operations in French Indochina". [6]

In the spring and fall of 1951, [1], French forces beat back Viet Minh attacks, but continued to be increasingly hard-pressed in 1953. While the NSA history is heavily redacted, it appears that the French may have provided COMINT to the CIA.

In 1953, the French began their strongpoint at Dien Bien Phu, for reasons the NSA history said were unclear. Factors may have included controlling some restive tribal groups, or, having seen the effect of US firepower in Korea, hoped to draw the Viet Minh into a similar "killing zone". The history mentioned the possibility that the French intelligence service did not want to lose a profitable opium operation in the area, but suggested it was more likely that the Viet Minh were making a profit in this area.

Again concealed by heavy redactions in the NSA history, it appeared that the French had intelligence of multiple Viet Minh units in the Dien Bien Phu area, but no good idea of their size. The overall commander, Henri Navarre, rejected the possibility that these units could be of division size, and that the Viet Minh was capable of a multidivisional operation against Dien Bien Phu.

The NSA history indicates, although the sources and methods are redacted, that the US had very good data on both sides at Dien Bien Phu. As the position crumbled, the French apparently thought that they could get combat assistance from the US. Only the heading of that an NSA emergency force was being considered survived redaction. Nevertheless, while some of the Joint Chiefs did recommend a US relief expedition, President Dwight Eisenhower, as well as Gen. Matthew Ridgway, having just come from the Korean command, rejected the idea of another land war in Asia.

US domestic surveillance

During this period, several programs, potentially in violation of its foreign intelligence charter, the NSA (and its AFSA predecessor) monitored international telegram and selected voice communications of American citizens[7].Project SHAMROCK, started during the fifties under AFSA, the predecessor of NSA, and terminated in 1975, was a program in which NSA obtained copies, without a warrant, of telegrams sent by international record carriers. The related Project MINARET intercepted voice communications of persons of interest to US security organizations of the time, including Malcolm X, Jane Fonda, Joan Baez, and Martin Luther King.

Drone technology grows

While there were remote-controlled aircraft in World War II, the technology of the time was inadequate for reliable operation, as demonstrated by Operation Aphrodite. This began to change in 1948, when Ryan [8] won the US Air Force competition for the Q-2 jet-propelled aerial target. Known as the Q-2A Firebee, the jet-propelled UAV, launched by a rocket and recovered by parachute, was also bought by the Navy and Army.

Drones did not have an immediate SIGINT role, but they are so important in later conflicts that the first modern development is worthy of note.

Korean War

Korean coverage was incidental to Soviet and Chinese interests in the Korean Peninsula.[3]

Was there early warning of the Korean War? Perhaps, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. As with the retrospective analysis of COMINT immediately after Pearl Harbor, certain traffic, if not a smoking gun, would have been suggestive, to an astute analyst trusted by the high command. Before the invasion, targeting was against Chinese and Soviet targets with incidental mention of Korea. Prior to 1950 there were two COMINT hints of more than usual interest in the Korean peninsula by communist bloc nations, but neither was sufficient to provide specific warning of a June invasion.

In April 1950, ASA undertook a limited "search and development" study of DPRK traffic. Two positions the second case, as revealed in COMINT, large shipments of bandages and medicines went from the USSR to North Korea and Manchuria, starting in February 1950. These two actions made sense only in hindsight, after the invasion of South Korea occurred in June 1950.

Some North Korean communications were intercepted between May 1949 and April 1950 because the operators were using Soviet communications procedures. Coverage was dropped once analysts confirmed the non-Soviet origin of the material.

Within a month of the North Korean invasion, the JCS approved the transfer of 244 officers and 464 enlisted men to AFSA and recommended a large increase in civilian positions. In August, the DoD comptroller authorized an increase of 1,253 additional civilian COMINT positions. Given the administration's belief that the conflict in Korea could be part of a wider war, only sine of the increase would go to direct support of the conflict in Korea.

COMINT, supported by information from other open and secret sources, showed a number of other military-related activities, such as VIP visits and communications changes, in the Soviet Far East and in the PRC, but none was suspicious in itself. Even when consolidated by AFSA in early 1951, these activities as a whole did not provide clear evidence that a significant event was imminent, much less a North Korean invasion of the South.

In 1952, when personnel levels and a more static war allowed some retrospective analysis, AFSA reviewed unprocessed intercept from the June 1950 period. Analysts could not find any message which would have given advance warning of the North Korean invasion. One of the earliest, if not the earliest, messages relating to the war, dated June 27 but not translated until October, referred to division level movement by North Korean forces. [3]

Tactical SIGINT

UN forces in the Korean War had an assortment of SIGINT units from the various services. [3]On the ground, mountainous terrain, and short supplies of radios among North Korean troops, caused the 1951 reuse of World War I telephone eavesdropping techniques called Ground Return Intercept (GRI). One colonel who participated in the GRI program was heard to remark that the information was so well appreciated by his soldiers that he had little trouble getting volunteers to go out at night and implant the equipment to make intercept possible, even though the sensors might need to be as close as 35 yd (32 m) to the enemy.

Starting in July 1951, Low-level intercept (LLI) teams, of 2-5 men in a jeep or bunker, became popular. Although the mobile operations were productive, the jeeps were considered too vulnerable, and operations were "dug in" in bunkers near the main line of resistance, as it was then called. The product was disseminated directly to combat units, usually at regimental level, and was of immediate tactical value: from twenty minutes to three days at best

Little to much long-term analysis was done - or possible. It thus became difficult to keep continuity on opposing units. These problems were eased somewhat with the creation of an LLI "control section" at ASA headquarters in Seoul in late 1951. This section collated reports from the field and service as a reference source on language problems and OB questions.

Postwar changes in SIGINT, EW and ELINT

The Service Cryptologic Agencies still had their own identity, even after the formation of NSA.

In 1955, ASA took over electronic intelligence (ELINT) and electronic warfare functions previously carried out by the Signal Corps. Since its mission was no longer exclusively identified with intelligence and security, ASA was withdrawn from G-2 control and resubordinated to the Army Chief of Staff as a field operating agency.

Under the US Marines,[9] the 1st Composite Radio Company was activated on September 8, 1959, continuing the World War II legacy.

President Harry Truman, on 24 October 1952, issued a directive that set the stage for the National Security Agency, whose scope went beyond the pure military. NSA was created on 4 November 1952.[2]

Loss of COMINT due to a spy in NSA

ASA in the post-World War II period had broken messages used by the Soviet armed forces, police and industry, and was building a remarkably complete picture of the Soviet national security posture. It was a situation that compared favorably to the successes of World War II. Then, during 1948, in rapid succession, every one of these cipher systems went dark, as a result of espionage by a Soviet agent, William Weisband. NSA suggests this may have been the most significant loss in US intelligence history. [3]

Air Force support

Air Force SIGINT, by the Air Force Security Service, supported numerous Korean War operations. They often gave early warning of bombing attacks or ambushes for fighter aircraft. Since the North Koreans operated under Soviet doctrine, with strict ground control, the ground controlled intercept communications were especially vulnerable. North Korean orders to bombing units might well be intercepted and processed in the US system, before they reached the enemy units. Both ground sites and aircraft intercepted North Korean communications.

An AFSS intercept site, established, in 1951, on Paengyong-do Island, brought sensitive equipment and personnel unacceptably close to the enemy. Security concerns led to the site being abandoned. This served as a feasibility demonstration, and a new, more secure facility was placed on Cho-Do Island. Cho-Do provided both tactical and strategic SIGINT, and a key officer, Delmar Lang, later used the same techniques in Vietnam.

After the Chinese entry into the war, Air Force COMINT, sometimes of tactical communications, allowed UN commanders to prepare for Chinese attacks. Chinese radio communications were limited to higher headquarters, so the UN often knew plans before the unit executing the plan.

Indochina and Vietnam to 1954

"After abolition of the French Indochina opium monopoly in 1950, SDECE imposed centralized, covert controls over the illicit drug traffic that linked the Hmong poppy fields of Laos with the opium dens operating in Saigon." This generated profits that funded French covert operations in French Indochina". [6]

In the spring and fall of 1951, [1], French forces beat back Viet Minh attacks, but continued to be increasingly hard-pressed in 1953. While the NSA history is heavily redacted, it appears that the French may have provided COMINT to the CIA.

In 1953, the French began their strongpoint at Dien Bien Phu, for reasons the NSA history said were unclear. Factors may have included controlling some restive tribal groups, or, having seen the effect of US firepower in Korea, hoped to draw the Viet Minh into a similar "killing zone". The history mentioned the possibility that the French intelligence service did not want to lose a profitable opium operation in the area, but suggested it was more likely that the Viet Minh were making a profit in this area.

Again concealed by heavy redactions in the NSA history, it appeared that the French had intelligence of multiple Viet Minh units in the Dien Bien Phu area, but no good idea of their size. The overall commander, Henri Navarre, rejected the possibility that these units could be of division size, and that the Viet Minh was capable of a multidivisional operation against Dien Bien Phu.

The NSA history indicates, although the sources and methods are redacted, that the US had very good data on both sides at Dien Bien Phu. As the position crumbled, the French apparently thought that they could get combat assistance from the US. Only the heading of that an NSA emergency force was being considered survived redaction. Nevertheless, while some of the Joint Chiefs did recommend a US relief expedition, President Dwight Eisenhower, as well as Gen. Matthew Ridgway, having just come from the Korean command, rejected the idea of another land war in Asia.

US Submarine SIGINT begins

Under the code names HOLYSTONE, PINNACLE, BOLLARD, and BARNACLE, began in 1959, US submarines infiltrated Soviet harbors to tap communications cables and gather SIGINT. They also had a MASINT mission against Soviet submarines and missiles. The program, which went through several generations, ended when compromised, by Ronald Pelton, in 1981.[10]

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Hanyok, Robert J. (2002), Chapter 1 - Le Grand Nombre Des Rues Sans Joie: [Deleted and the Franco-Vietnamese War, 1950-1954], Spartans in Darkness: American SIGINT and the Indochina War, 1945-1975, Center for Cryptologic History, National Security Agency
  2. 2.0 2.1 Thomas L. Burns (1990), The Origins of the National Security Agency, 1940-1952, National Security Agency
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Hatch, David A.; Robert Louis Benson. The Korean War: The SIGINT Background. National Security Agency.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Andronov, A. (1993), Thomson, Allen (translator), ed., "American Geosynchronous SIGINT Satellites", Zarubezhnoye voyennoye obozreniye
  5. U.S. Air Force, Chapter V, Space Systems
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 John, Pike, DGSE - General Directorate for External Security (Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure)
  7. Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (OCTOBER 29 AND NOVEMBER 6, 1975), The National Security Agency and Fourth Amendment Rights. Retrieved on 2007-12-07
  8. RYAN AQM-34G - R. Retrieved on 2007-10-12.
  9. USMC, 1st Radio Battalion, Vietnam Veterans. History - 1st Radio Battalion 1943 - 1973.
  10. Jeffrey Richelson (1989), The US Intelligence Community, 2nd Edition, Chapter 8, Signals Intelligence, Richelson 1989