Monday, October 10, 2016

Jack Barsky's KGB Radiograms and Family Tales

Commercial SW radio. A Spy's
favourite tool to receive messages
Jack Barsky's espionage career was a quite remarkable one with a surprising ending. Barsky was born as Albrecht Dittrich in East Germany. He was scouted by the Stasi, recruited and trained by the KGB and sent to the United States as a so-called illegal under the false identity of Jack Barsky. In contrast to intelligence officers that operate under official cover (often pretending to be embassy personnel), illegals do not enjoy diplomatic protection if they are caught. They usually stay low-profile and only have contact to their agency through their handler, a career intelligence officer. Illegals are often regarded as the elite of spies but their live, although quite risky, is usually all but glamorous or exciting.

Barsky's spying career lasted from 1978 until 1988, when his cover was blown. He refused KGB orders to return to East Germany, where he had a wife and son, and chose to stay with his American wife and daughter. Amazingly, the KGB bought his excuse that he had contracted AIDS and allowed him his final years in the United States (where he happily lives and works in good health since). Eventually, the FBI tracked him down thanks to information from the vast collection of documents that KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin smuggled out of the Russia in 1992. Barsky, already inactive for several years, decided to cooperate with the FBI. He was extensively debriefed on KGB spy techniques and in return has never been indicted or put on trial.

Illegal agent's one-time pad
booklet and microdot reader
Source: Canadian SIS
Jack Barsky is one more source that confirmed the use of one-way shortwave communications by intelligence organisations, known as numbers stations. Every Thursday evening Barsky tuned his shortwave radio to a predetermined frequency and listened for a so-called radiogram from the KGB. Barsky believes that his radiograms were broadcast from Cuba. These radiograms contain operational instructions that were encrypted into digits and sent in groups of five. His radiograms could take an hour to receive and write down and up to three hours to decrypt. Anyone could hear the message, you had no idea who was actually listening and no one could decrypt or read it. When encrypted with a one-time pad, this pen-and-paper system is proven unbreakable.

The Americans: fiction and real
life spy stories interwoven
You can watch Jack Barsky's two-part interview in which talks about the radiograms in part one (alternative video at dailymotion). Slate's TV Club has a Podcast about season four of the TV series The Americans (spoiler alert) where Jack Barsky tells about his life as an illegal in the United States and the similarities and differences with the illegals in The Americans (Soundcloud link). An excellent Spiegel TV documentary follows Jack Barsky in 2014 on his first trip into Germany in 30 years, as he explains how he became a KGB spy. The actual life of Jack Barsky as an illegal may not be that spectacular and full of action, compared to Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans, but the work of illegals can take quite a toll on their personal life.

Donald Heithfield and Tracy Foley lived a seemingly ordinary life with their two sons Tim and Alex until their house was raided by the FBI in 2010. To their children's surprise, Donald and Tracy, whose real names were Andrei Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova, turned out to be members of a Russian spy ring in the United States, controlled by the illegals department of the SVR, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. Eventually, Canadian born Tim and Alex were deported with their parents to Russia in one of the biggest spy swaps ever. Their life as they knew it ended instantly. They received Russian passports and had to build a whole new life. The fascinating story of Tim and Alex was published last May in The Guardian.

Andreas and Heidrun Anschlag, the spy couple arrested in German in 2011, also had a grown up daughter. Her life was undoubtedly also turned upside down by the spying career of her parents. But spies are not the only ones to pay a high personal price. The wives and children of defectors often suffered the same consequences. When Igor Gouzenko, a GRU officer (military intelligence) and cipher clerk at the Soviet embassy to Canada decided to defect, taking along most sensitive intelligence documents, this also changed the life of his wife and child dramatically. The interview with his wife and the story of his daughter who, as a child, never new that her father was not the man she believed him to be, are striking examples of the price for living a fabricated live. Remember, think twice before you start a spy career when you're a family man!

Further reading: numbers stations, one-time pad and Cold War signals.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Castle Feuerstein Laboratorium

There are many stories, some more fiction than others, about mysterious Nazi laboratories in dark castle dungeons where SS scientists perform all kinds of occult experiments. Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Mortyr are some well known PC games that portrait the Nazi obsession with the Ahnenerbe, the occult and paranormal experiments. Wewelsburg, the elite SS school and a center for archaeological excavations, is probably the most sinister of all.

What if I told you that scientists, lead by Dokter Oskar Vierling, worked in a secretive laboratorium in Castle Feuerstein. Does this sound to you like a sequel to Castle Wolfenstein? Not quite! Burg Feuerstein, located in Ebermannstadt, close to Nürnberg (Eng. Nuremberg), was all but fiction. A physicist in a mysterious laboratorium, how could that possibly relate to cryptology and intelligence? Exactly!

Feuerstein was an important target of TICOM, a secret Allied project to capture German scientists and seize SIGINT stations,  cryptographic and communications equipment, just before Germany surrendered. The mission of TICOM (Target Intelligence Committee) was to collect as much as possible German science and technology, preferably before Soviet forces got their hands on it. To achieve this, TICOM sent fast-moving special teams to pre-determined valuable locations inside the collapsing Germany, sometimes ahead of Allied troops.

Burg Feuerstein in Ebermannstadt

Is there a better way to hide a secret laboratorium than to build a typical Frankischen Schweiz style castle on top of a mountain in plain sight? It was so obtrusive that no one would suspect its purpose. Castle Feuerstein was build from scratch in 1941 by Dr Vierling with private funds. He was a physicist, electronics engineer and professor in high-frequency technology and electroacoustics. Laboratorium Feuerstein started its research in 1942 and developed experimental communications systems. At its peak, Feuerstein housed 200 staff and workers. TICOM only learned about Feuerstein's existence from decoded intercepts that referred to its research.

The scientists, lead by Dr Vierling, worked on a variety of projects, including high speed transmitters for covert agents, receivers, wave traps, accurate filter design, speech scramblers, voice frequency spectography, teleprinter cipher (crypto) attachments, improvements on cipher machines, a synchronisation system for the Lorenz SZ42 cipher teleprinter, acoustics and filter components for acoustic torpedoes, anti-radar coating for submarines, a night fighter control system, various frequency generators and an electronic calculator to solve sine and cosine equations. They were a busy bunch!

Dr. Oskar Vierling
Just before the German collapse, Dr Vierling was ordered to relocate his speech projects to Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps and to destroy all other projects and equipment. Vierling, however, had other plans with his Feuerstein legacy. Once the Nazi's were off to Berchtesgaden with the speech equipment, he stored the most valuable equipment and plans in a large bomb proof walk-in vault, hidden behind a false wall in Feuerstein. There, he awaited the end of the war.

Castle Feuerstein was used as a German Army hospital at the time the TICOM team arrived. They rounded up the scientists and Dr Vierling proved very willing to cooperate with TICOM. Vierling and his group rushed to restore the laboratory and continued their work on selected projects under control of TICOM investigators.

NSA's declassified AXIS SIGINT in WWII, Vol II, Notes on German High Level Cryptography and Cryptanalysis contains some interesting crypto related info. The Lorenz SZ-42c cipher teleprinter with synchronisation, named SK-44 and SK-45, would generate and send a continuous pseudo-random five-bit stream. The receiver mixed its identical stream, by XOR-ing, with the incoming stream, resulting in nothing to print, since (K ⊕ K) = 0. When sending a message, the plain teleprinter message was mixed into the stream. The receiver mixed, as usual, the received signal with its own stream, which results in canceling out the stream and the original plain message being printed instantly, since (K ⊕ M) ⊕ K = M.

An eavesdropper would not know if or when the random stream contained an actual message or how long it was, thus effectively preventing traffic analysis. The U.S. Army Security Agency (ASA) suggested that analysis of the continuous mostly non-message-carrying pseudo-random stream, generated by the  SZ-42c, might compromise the machine's secret key settings. This would enable them to predict the stream and decipher all message that follow. The principle of continuous random stream was also used in the 1950s on the more advanced U.S. KWR-37 JASON and KWT-37 Fleet Broadcast crypto system.

Speech scrambling research by Dr Vierling's team produced little result. In 1943, only Dr Vierling and Telefunken still worked on ciphony (encrypted voice) and from 1944 on only Dr Vierling. At war ends, Feuerstein's research on ciphony focused on synthetic speech, encrypted by triple wobbling. The speech was separated in eight frequency bands. These were encrypted in a three stage ring wobbling (shifting the frequencies up and down) where the stage was split in half and these halves wobbled separately. However, speech quality after de-wobbling was very bad and ASA considered the German scientists several years away from developing any usable ciphony.

More details about the Feuerstein laboratory and Dr Vierling's work is available in chapter VIII, page 37 from Volume 8 Miscellaneous (alternative link here) of NSA's declassified files on European Axis Signal Intelligence in World War II. The rebuild of the lab under control of TICOM is described the Interim Report on Laboratorium Feuerstein (first pages are double, start reading from page 5) from the NARA archive. Another excellent source is the TICOM Archive. These documents contain enough inspiration for a few Wolfenstein sequels.

The importance of Feuerstein for TICOM is shown in ASA documents. The Temporary Duty Report of Mr William Friedman, the renowned U.S. cryptologist, is a resume of his tour in Germany from July to September 1945, in cooperation with TICOM. Vierling's Laboratorium, noted as important TICOM target, was one of the sites he visited in July 1945. NSA has a few more documents related to Dr Vierling.

After the war, Prof Dr Oskar Vierling continued working at his 1941 established firm VIERLING GmbH but relocated to Ebermannstadt, a mere kilometer from Castle Feuerstein. He had quite a prolific career, developing crypto machines, covert radio transmitters, eavesdropping devices, radio direction finding and various measuring and test equipment. He worked for Organisation Gehlen (post-war West-German intelligence), its successor the Bundesnachrichtendienst (foreign intelligence), the Zentralstelle für Chiffrierwesen (central cryptologic service) and the Deutsche Bundespost. From the 1930s until the 1950s he was also an important pioneer in the development of electronic and electro-acoustic instruments.

Due to legal restrictions on crypto export, Dr Vierling sold the rights for his crypto equipment to Crypto AG's predecessor Hagelin Cryptos. NSA archives show that Dr Vierling developed crypto machines in cooperation with ASA and NSA, at least until 1953 (see here and here). These documents show that ASA supplied tranistors for Vierling's crypto research. Transistors were quite novel in 1953 and their use in crypto equipment pretty unique.

Vierling's firm is currently still located in Ebermannstadt. Today, Burg Feuerstein is a catholic youth center.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

U.S. COMSEC History - Additional Releases

The National Security Agency (NSA) just published an update of the 2007 release of the David Boad lectures on communications security (see my old post). Many blank pages of the old version are now unredacted and show newly released information on various crypto systems, such as the TSEC/KL-7, KW-7, KW-26, KW-37 and one-time pad systems.

After the 2011 FOIA releases of the KL-7 operating instructions, I'm happy to see another bit of information on that pretty crypto machine ooze out of Fort Meade. More on the KL-7 at my website (including an accurate simulation). Of course there's much more to discover in the wonderful David Boak lectures.

The new almost unredacted version:

Friday, November 06, 2015

The Able Archer 1983 Source Book - Finally!

The Cold War was (and actually still is) often far from cold in many Asian, African, Middle Eastern and South American countries. At times, we were much closer to a nuclear war than many ever realised. Two events, however, really stand out if it comes to getting truly at the brink of Armageddon.

The first one was the Cuban missile crisis, caused by the Soviet preparations for installing nuclear missiles at a stone's throw from the United States. The second, lesser known crisis was the Soviet reaction to, or rather perception of, NATO exercise Able Archer. The purpose of Able Archer was to test NATO command level communications and the readiness of nuclear armament in Western Europe, with the exercise scenario ending in a fictitious DEFCON 1 alert. The Soviets believed this exercises to be a cover for an actual nuclear attack by NATO against the Soviet Block.

Today, the National Security Archive released over a thousand declassified pages with details on how the Soviets perceived Able Archer and how the exercise lead them to the idea that the Western Allies were about to launch an all-out war against them. The sources include KGB papers, reports from East Germany's STASI, various Warsaw Pact countries and Western intelligence services. They are a real treasure trove that gives you a front seat in the decision making process and the reactions of the various countries involved. More importantly, these documents finally end the speculations about how scary the 1983 War Scare actually was.

All documents are available at the Able Archer Source Book web page. Before submerging in this fascinating Cold War event, you might first want to read the short recap 1983 - The Brink Of Apocalypse that I wrote some years ago, just to get you in the picture, because exercise Able Archer was only the grand final of various events that culminated into tense nerves at the Kremlin.

The documentation of this 1983 War Scare for the National Security Archive was in large part Nate Jones' project. As FOIA coordinator, he succeeded in getting all these wonderful documents declassified and released. In the video below, Nate explains how the Able Archer Source Book was compiled.

I can highly recommend a visit to the Able Archer Source Book pages, the newest addition at the National Security Archive's Nuclear Vault!

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Operation Tinker Bell - KGB On The Run Anniversary

I usually write about the real stuff, but I do enjoy creating a fun challenge once in a while. Exactly two years ago I published Operation Tinker Bell, a spy adventure about the hunt for a KGB defector, set at the height of the Cold War. Meanwhile, many participants have already taken up the challenge to unveil the secret behind the KGB defector and it continues to amaze me how many people are attracted to the combination of espionage & cryptology.

Although the story itself is fictional (or maybe not ;-) I took care to make it as realistic as possible, using actual modus operandi of intelligence organisations and their tricks of the trade. Accurate details about organisations, locations and historical facts are woven into the story, submerging the participant in a true Cold War espionage atmosphere. In contrast to my previous challenges, you don't need any cryptologic skills to crack messages. All required keys and tools are provided.

Do you love spy stories, liked watching The Americans on TV or got fascinated by reports about ten Russian sleepers that were caught by the FBI? Then rush to Operation Tinker Bell, visit the briefing and start the hunt for Colonel Rogozin!

Our friend here is on the run for two years now. Can you solve the case?