The XX Committee

Cold War Disaster: The Loss of USS PUEBLO

One of the darkest times for U.S. intelligence during the Cold War was a less than two-year period in the late 1960s when American espionage, especially its Naval element, was battered by unexpected attacks and loss of life. Oddly, none of these terrible events occurred at the hands of the Soviets, at least not directly.

It began on June 8, 1967, when USS LIBERTY (AGTR-5), a Navy technical research spy ship, was attacked by Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats in international waters off Sinai during the height of the Six Day War. This devastating assault made casualties of nearly the entire LIBERTY crew – 34 killed and 171 wounded – and the ship was only saved by the heroic actions of her skipper, Commander William McGonagle, who later received the Medal of Honor for his actions that day. For the Naval Security Group (NAVSECGRU), the Navy’s cryptologic – i.e. codebreaking – arm, the LIBERTY was a true catastrophe, as the Israeli torpedo which nearly sank LIBERTY struck the ship’s super-classified NAVSECGRU area, buried below decks, taking out almost all the “secret sailors” who were listening to Soviet and Egyptian communications on behalf of the National Security Agency when disaster struck. The LIBERTY case remains officially unresolved, though recent evidence makes the official Israeli account that it was all a misunderstanding appear more ludicrous than ever.

NAVSECGRU’s season of sorrows was bookended on April 15, 1969, when a Navy EC-121 spy plane was jumped by North Korean MiG-21s in international airspace, without warning. The EC-121 was a lumbering, unarmed aircraft outfitted to listen in on communications, and never stood a chance against jet fighters; all 31 men aboard were lost in an incident that remains mysterious. Although several Navy spy planes were shot down during the secret war in the ether between the United States and the Communist bloc, there had not been a similar attack by the North Koreans since 1959, and the EC-121 shootdown ranks as the deadliest such incident during the entire Cold War.

Between these two sad events came the most embarrassing, as well as historically consequential, of them all: the loss of the USS PUEBLO (AGER-2), another electronic listening ship which was seized by the North Koreans on January 23, 1968. A smaller and slower vessel than LIBERTY, the almost unarmed PUEBLO never stood a chance when it was surrounded by North Korean patrol boats in international waters. No hero like McGonagle, the PUEBLO’s skipper, Commander Lloyd Bucher, gave up his ship without a fight, and the whole crew (minus one sailor killed by enemy fire), went into nearly a year of unpleasant North Korean captivity, until Washington, DC, secured their release.

The PUEBLO incident was a comedy of errors for the Navy and the Pentagon. How such a vulnerable yet highly sensitive ship wound up in that situation reflected poorly on DoD. It had not been a happy ship either. CDR Bucher almost despised the crew – coming from the Big Navy of ship-drivers, he was disappointed to get command of the PUEBLO rather than a “real” ship like a submarine. Neither had NAVSECGRU covered itself in glory. The ship was carrying an excess of classified documents, against regulations, most of which fell into North Korean hands (the only sailor killed in the incident, Duane Hodges, died while trying to destroy documents; many of his shipmates were less diligent).

Pyongyang’s haul was considerable: the whole NAVSECGRU contingent of 33 sailors, all with TOP SECRET-plus clearances, plus thousands of pages of highly classified manuals and reports, and a lot of late-model cryptologic gear, to both intercept communications and protect our own. NSA’s official history of the incident, written in 1992 and released several years ago with modest redactions, mostly dances around the issue of just how severe the intelligence loss was when the PUEBLO wound up in North Korean hands.

It was obvious that the loss had to be severe indeed. Presumably the whole NSA effort against North Korea was compromised, as well as many programs of interest to the Soviets, which surely Pyongyang eagerly shared with Moscow in exchange for various goodies. NSA’s collection of damage assessments written after the loss of PUEBLO, just released to the public after over 44 years, makes depressing reading. “Any conservative estimation of the possible and long term effects on U.S. intelligence must be classed as very severe,” it concluded.

While NSA realized that pretty much its whole signals intelligence (SIGINT) effort in Northeast Asia had been botched when the North Koreans got their hands on the PUEBLO – it was expected that Communist countries in the area, including the USSR, would change codes and ciphers once they realized what NSA had access to – those losses to the U.S. SIGINT system, while grave, were not a worst-case scenario.

What had to be avoided at all costs was the loss of U.S. secure communications, which would have truly devastating consequences for national security. Included in the haul the North Koreans got from the PUEBLO were several cipher machines, among them the KL-7 ADONIS, which was widely used by the U.S. and close allies at the height of the Cold War. Happily, concluded NSA and the Navy, the loss of the KL-7 and related cipher systems meant little, since without key materials, which DoD changed regularly, the enemy could not read encrypted U.S. communications.

What NSA did not know – and would not discover until 1985 – was that the Soviets actually had access to high-grade U.S. key material. In October 1967, John Walker, a Navy warrant officer, walked into the Soviet Embassy in Washington, DC, and offered the KGB regular access to key materials, which Walker, a communications specialist, had access to. Once the KGB established Walker’s bona fides, they began paying him handsomely for regular delivery of purloined key materials for several cryptographic systems, including the KL-7. Thus began the most damaging espionage case in the Navy’s history.

For the next 18 years, Walker gave the Soviets everything he could get his hands on, including massive amounts of current key material. He recruited a friend into the network, then his brother, and eventually his own son; after Walker retired from the Navy in 1976 he needed others to get access to TOP SECRET information so he could pass it to the KGB and keep the gravy train rolling. Walker, one of the least attractive traitors in recent history, was motivated by greed and spite, not ideology, and he seemed to revel in his treachery down to the very day in 1985 when the Chekist cash machine stopped dispensing once the FBI showed up at his door. This devastating spy network was undone not by outstanding counterintelligence work, but by Walker’s disgruntled former wife, who was terrified by her narcissistic ex getting their still-teenaged son into espionage for the KGB, so she went to the FBI; the FBI initially brushed off her story as the rantings of an angry, alcoholic ex-spouse … which it was, and also entirely true.

USS PUEBLO, 2008: Don’t give up the ship …. unless absolutely necessary

Since the end of the Cold War, senior KGB sources have confirmed that the North Koreans passed all the good stuff from the PUEBLO to Moscow, apparently within days of the ship’s capture. Longstanding rumors that the seizure of the ship, at Moscow’s request, was a directed operation desired by the KGB once they realized the value of Walker and his information – with access to current key material all the Soviets needed were the cipher machines – appear more than plausible.

The U.S. Navy still considers the PUEBLO to be in commission, since Pyongyang never returned the vessel, which sits in Wonsan harbor, looking a bit worse for the wear but still a valuable raised middle finger for the North Koreans aimed at the “imperialists” in Washington, DC. Much about the PUEBLO story remains mysterious, but recent NSA releases flesh out important parts of what happened and why. Suffice to say it’s a good thing that the U.S. Navy didn’t go to war with the Soviet Navy between 1968 and 1985, since the KGB, thanks to John Walker and the seizure of the PUEBLO, gave Moscow the upper hand in the information war.

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