(Hey Sean, Mikka added and made some changes, they have been italicized.)

Both the United States and the Soviet Union were acquainted with the underground works of spying on each other in hopes of gathering intelligence either about one another’s weapons, invasion plans, or as a means of counter-intelligence. Espionage greatly increased after World War II, in the era of the Cold War. When the Soviets built an embassy in Washington, the US devised a plan of literally undermining the embassy that was positioned high above. Here’s what happened.

Espionage Battle

Beginning in the 1920s, the Russians had infiltrated the many facets of both the military and politics of the US. When World War II ensued, the Soviet intelligence agencies received direct orders from Moscow to gather all the information they could get about the US and British war plans, as well as the technological advances under development.

The Soviet spies were pretty good at their job and gained assess to numerous classified US plans, like the Manhattan Project, that led to the development of the Soviet atomic bomb, leading to the geopolitical tension of the Cold War. Perhaps one of the earliest and most remarkable known buggings of the Soviets was when they made a wooden, hand-carved, ceremonial seal of the USA to present to then US Ambassador to the Soviet Union William Averell Harriman in 1945 to show a gesture of camaraderie and friendship between the two world powers. As it turned out, the innocent-looking gift, called “The Thing,” had a listening device in it. The Thing was not discovered until six years later by a radio operator in the British embassy.

Great Seal bug – National Cryptologic Museum. (Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Operation Monopoly

In 1977, the embassy of Russia was relocated to 2650 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, Washington, DC. The United States feared that the Soviets would use some new kind of technology to listen to the White House and Capitol building conversations. As a response, the FBI launched its own surveillance operation called Operation Monopoly. They knew they had to take action before the construction began, so the FBI started by ordering three trees around the construction site to be cut down and ensure that no evidence of the activity would be left on-site, like sawdust and tree stumps. This was to ensure that they would have an unblocked view of the embassy. Next, they purchased a three-bedroom unit at 2619 Wisconsin Avenue, almost across the street. They did this so that they could observe Russian movements 24/7. This house was installed with security cameras and photographers to capture movements while the embassy was being erected.

The most vital and complicated part of the plan was to dig a tunnel right under the embassy and plant eavesdropping equipment that would enable them to listen to all manner of communications to and from the new Soviets embassy.

The agents assigned for the operation had to pose as construction and subcontractor workers, but they also hired real ones who would plant the bugs in the embassy building itself. The constant ingress of water meant that the workers digging during Operation Monopoly had to work tirelessly. Not only that, but they were pretty much blind on where their tunnel was heading in relation to the building.

On the other hand, the Russians were experts in counter-espionage, something that they perfected throughout the years. Thus, it was challenging for the Americans to successfully gather vital information. Instead of using the conventional marble-epoxy-marble wall, the Soviets used thick slabs of marble so that bugs could not be glued on them. They also made sure to disassemble and then reassemble every single window frame and sheet for possible bugs before placing them in the building. Lastly, they dug 30-40 feet deep holes around the embassy to see if there were tunnels.

A Rat in the Tunnel

The embassy’s construction finished in 1994. After all those years, the US’s multiple and expensive attempts that cost millions of dollars to dig under and monitor the embassy had failed, and they began to suspect that there may have had a spy inside the FBI feeding information to the Soviets. In 2001, they discovered that there was indeed a rat in the person of an FBI agent named Robert Hanssen. Upon his discovery, it was discovered that he had snitched on KGB agents working for the FBI, some of which were executed by the Soviets.

Robert Hanssen mugshot. (Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As it turned out, Hanssen had revealed Operation Monopoly around 1989, although the exact date was uncertain. The Russians did not move into the newly constructed embassy until 1994, so they had ample time to install countermeasures to combat the bugs in the tunnel, like constructing a secure room where they could discuss sensitive information. Basically, the US wasted all the time, money, and effort in trying to dig the tunnel.

It was also in 2001 that the operation became public knowledge. It was shocking news for the American citizens but obviously not for the Soviet government, which was long aware. Even so, they made a big display and acted like they were shocked. In a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry, he said, “If these reports prove true, this will be a flagrant case of the violation of generally recognized standards of international law concerning foreign diplomatic missions.”