Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Martha Peterson and TRIGON

Martha Peterson on her
1975 Russian driver license
The story of CIA operations officer Martha Peterson Shogi and her work related to Soviet spy Aleksandr Ogorodnik is quite remarkable and also sheds some light on how the two communicated in Moscow.

Martha Peterson, née Denny, met her first husband John Peterson at Drew University and married him in 1969. John enlisted as Green Beret to serve in Vietnam and was later hired by the Central Intelligence Service for covert operations in Laos. In 1971, Martha and John travelled to Laos. John was killed one year later in a helicopter crash during a mission Laos.

In 1972, the CIA recruited Aleksandr Ogorodnik, a Soviet diplomat at the Soviet embassy in Bogota, Colombia. They gave him the codename TRIGON. Ogorodnik provided the CIA with communications between Soviet ambassadors in South America, giving the CIA an insight in Soviet foreign politics. In 1974 he was recalled to Moscow to work at the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His new job provided him access to communications and reports of Soviet ambassadors from all over the world. The CIA struck gold.

Aleksandr Ogorodnik
Before leaving to Moscow, the CIA provided him with a pen with miniature camera to photograph documents, a schedule to make dead drops, special carbon paper for invisible writing and trained him in the use of these materials. Ogorodnik also insisted on having a suicide pill, to use in case he got caught. CIA provided him with such so-called L-pill, concealed in a pen.

Martha Peterson returned to the Washington after her husbands death and applied for a job at the CIA. She was hired as CIA operations officer and agreed to be sent to Moscow. She received operational training and took a Russian language course. Peterson arrived in Moscow in November 1975. At the age of 30 she became the first ever female CIA officer to be stationed in Moscow and was now responsible for the exchange of communications and spy items with TRIGON.

Peterson had an important advantage over here male CIA colleagues. The Soviet Intelligence Service did not believe that an American female would be a CIA officer and assumed that she was a low level clerk. Peterson was therefore never under surveillance and, in contrary to other CIA officers, could travel around Moscow without being followed.

Peterson never met TRIGON in person. He delivered photographed documents and messages through pre-arranged dead drops, mostly in parks. After extensive counter-surveillance runs she collected the content of the dead drop a short time later, at the same time supplying him with a new pen-camera with film, instructions and one-time pad duplicates through that same dead drop which he in turn collected some time later. TRIGON used the one-time pads to decrypt messages that he received trough CIA numbers station broadcasts from West Germany. During such operations, Peterson always wore an SRR-100 surveillance receiver to intercept and detect KGB surveillance communications.

In early 1977, the CIA started worrying about the quality of the material that TRIGON provided and grew concerned about his security. Eventually, on June 26, TRIGON failed to retrieve a dead drop and there was no more communications. TRIGON neither showed up after a numbers station broadcast, instructing him to meet at a pre-arranged location on July 14.

In the evening of July 15, after the usual counter-surveillance runs, Peterson arrived at the Krasnoluzhskiy railroad bridge over the Moscow river, near Lenin Central Stadium. At 2230 hours she placed a dead drop package, concealed as a hollow piece of concrete, in the window of one of the bridge’s towers.

As soon as she walked out of the tower she was grabbed by three men who immediately strip-searched her, took photos and put her in a van that drove straight to Lubyanka prison in KGB headquarters. She was interrogated while all items from the dead drop package and her SRR-100 receiver were displayed in front of her.

KGB photo of Martha Peterson's apprehension at the Krasnoluzhskiy bridge

The displayed items of the dead drop and the SRR-100 receiver

An U.S. embassy official was summoned to  Lubyanka prison to explain who she was and what she was doing. Having a diplomatic status, Peterson was released, returned to the U.S. embassy and flown to Washington the next day. She was declared persona non grata and never returned to Russia again.

Martha Peterson during the interegation at Lubyanka prison

The fate of Aleksandr Ogorodnik was unknown for some time, until the Soviets aired a TV series called TASS Is Authorized to Declare. Its script was almost a copy of TRIGON’s story. In that movie, the spy committed suicide during interrogation with a pill from his pen. KGB accounts later confirmed that Ogorodnik was arrested a month before Peterson got caught. He offered to write a confession, took the special pen and quickly used the L-pill.

However, even today accounts vary on what happened to Ogorodnik and some even believe that he was actually killed by the KGB, but we will probably never know the real story. According to the CIA it was Karl Koecher, an agent of the Czechoslovak intelligence service StB that infiltrated the CIA as translator and analyst, who betrayed TRIGON to the Soviets. The Soviets later on published the story in the Izvestia newspaper and  heavily publicised the spy case that also ended up in U.S. press.

Martha Peterson continued to work as CIA officer in operations, including 10 years of foreign assignments, married her second husband Joseph Shogi in 1978 and retired in 2003 after a distinguished 32 year career in the Agency.

More about Martha Peterson at her website Widow Spy, which is also the title of the book she wrote about her CIA career and the TRIGON case. An account of Peterson's arrest is found at the The Espionage History Archive which also has the Russian view on the death of Aleksandr Ogorodnik. The CIA published a short Featured Story on TRIGON. CNN tells how she revealed her secret spy life to her kids, including several images of her early days. Numbers-station.com published TRIGON Numbers Station. On my website there's more information on number stations and the use of one-time pads.

But who can explain everything better than Martha Peterson herself. The Spy Museum published the podcast Caught by the KGB where she tells about how she was captured by the KGB. Below her fascinating account (direct link) of her time in Moscow as case officer with many details on TRIGON. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Crypto Box Challenge Solved by George Lasry

George Lasry
Great news from the Crypto Box Challenge, as George Lasry from Israel solved the final box! He's only the sixth person in more than nine years to complete the challenge. He took on the challenge in 2013 and, after various side tracks, including the completion of the Enigma Challenge, he succeeded cracking that last box.

George Lasry is a one.of-a-kind hobby cryptologist who evolved quickly into a well respected member of the classical cryptology community within a mere three years. It's the amazing story of a man who was searching for a new job in software development. Meanwhile, he wanted to train his programming skills and his interest in the Enigma machine lead him to the crypto challenges on my website. The Crypto Boxes were his first encounter with historical cryptography but the final box however proved a nut too hard to crack.

Giving up was not his cup of tea, so he started experimenting with various cryptanalytic techniques and quickly solved the complete Enigma Challenge with software he developed on his own. In search of new challenges he learnt about many cryptanalytic techniques and implemented various different types and combinations in his ever expanding software. Some other side tracks were the Mystery Twister C3 and the strong Double Transposition Challenge.

Searching a solution to a complex cipher is not simply writing some software to search for the solution or the proper key. It involves the development of complex fast algorithms for an exhaustive search, tailored for a specific problem, in combination with various methods to measure the success of the ongoing process and to proceed on a successful track.

The Crypto Box
He experimented with hill climbing, simulated annealing and used bigrams, trigrams, quadgrams and log quadgrams. A recent paper by Olaf Ostwald and Frode Weierud, Modern Breaking of Enigma Ciphertexts, explained the use of hexagrams. George had excellent results with this technique but the final Crypto Box remained unbroken. George finally solved the stubborn box on 14 February with a variation of simulated annealing, based on James Cowan's "churn" method, and even found three different keys to solve the box.

His journey through classical cryptology also draw the attention of some experts. George teamed up with German researchers and was encouraged to publish his techniques in the renowned Cryptologia journal. He started a PhD thesis and continued to solve various tough crypto challenges. His solution of the Double Transposition cipher caught the eye of people from Google, which eventually lead to his recruitment by Google.

I'm quite pleased to hear from George that my Crypto Box Challenge was his first encounter with classical cryptography and that the website inspired him to experiment with various cryptanalytic techniques, resulting in the successful decryption of the final Crypto Box. Congratulations George!

More about the challenges at Cipher Machines and Cryptology.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Operation Vula's Secure Communications

Operation Vula was the creation of an underground ANC leadership with supporting secure communications network in South Africa to fight against the apartheid regime. The operation ran from 1988 to 1991 and is also the fascinating story of Tim Jenkin, who played a key role in providing secure communications.

Tim Jenkin today
Tim Jenkin came into contact with the anti-apartheid movement when he visited the African National Congress (ANC) office in London. He was eager to support the fight against apartheid. Jenkin was trained in covert operations and returned to South Africa where he and his good friend Stephen Lee started underground work for ANC in 1975. They ran a propaganda shop but got arrested in 1978 and were sentence to respectively 12 and 8 years imprisonment. Amazingly, they escaped 18 months later from a Pretoria high security prison with keys that Jenkin made out of wood. This gives you an idea of how creative he was. Jenkin left South Africa and made his way to the ANC office in London where he became a trainer for underground operatives.

The ANC leadership had fled to Lusaka in Zambia after many of their leaders and members were jailed or tortured. This left the ANC with no representatives in South Africa. Among the exiled members were ANC president Oliver Tambo, commander of the military wing (MK) Siphiwe Nyanda and ANC strategist Mac Maharaj, whose mission was to revive the freedom movement and ignite revolution in South Africa.

This proved to be a mission impossible because of the problems to communicate and coordinate with the few ANC members that were still in South Africa. In the mid 1980s, communications between London, Lusaka and operatives in South Africa were still protected by manual one-time pad encryption that was too cumbersome for long reports that took many hours up to days to encrypt by hand.

Oliver Tambo tasked Siphiwe Nyanda to join MK's Chief of Staff Joe Slovo in starting up Operation Vula. The goal of this extensive operation was to set up a secure covert communications network and to smuggle ANC leaders and weapons into South Africa to install a leadership that would take over command of the underground work. This is where Tim Jenkin comes into play.

Jenkin met Mac Haharaj while training ANC agents on radio communications in Lusaka. Haharaj asked him to set up secure communications between covert operatives in South Africa and the ANC office in London. At that time, Jenkin was experimenting with computer communications. Personal computers were quite a novelty in the 1980s but handyman Jenkin developed one-time pad encryption software that used floppy disks, filled with random data, to serve as key. During encryption, used key bytes were automatically wiped from the disk, making the system unbreakable. The software also increased encryption speed for Vula messages considerably, compared to the slow pen-and-paper system.

Jenkin's office in London, nicknamed GCHQ (after the British Signals Intelligence organisation) served as the main Vula communications hub for messages between London, Lusaka and South Africa. In his computer shack he developed, tested and ran secure communications to cope with the increasing amount of reports from and to the ANC underground leadership.

Tim Jenkin in his communications hub

Jenkin devised a system to convert encrypted message digits into DTMF (dual-tone multi-frequency) telephone dial tones that were then recorded onto cassette tapes for transmission by pay phone later one. They provided ANC operatives with several DTMF tone generators that were disguised as electronic calculators. Later on, they dropped the method of manually keying in the DTMF tones and drastically increased communication speed by  recording the computer modem sound directly to tape.

Conny Braam, a Dutch anti-apartheid activist, became responsible for the Vula logistics. She ran a network of people that supported the entire operation. First task was to get the network running. She had to find someone to travel several times a month between Amsterdam and Johannesburg. Air hostess Antoinette Vogelsang volunteered as courier. Being an air hostess, she didn't had to go through airport checks and could safely smuggle into South Africa the Toshiba laptops and software that secured the network. She also provided the communication hubs with a regular supply of floppy disks, containing new one-time pad keys.

The Dutch Lucia Raadschelders was sent to Lusaka to run a communications hub from a small house in the slums. She also served as contact between Jenkin and ANC headquarters in Lusaka. Janet Love, the ANC underground operative in Johannesburg switched from the slow manual one-time pad encryption to its fast computerised version. Everything was finally up and running. In 1988, Mac Maharaj and Siphiwe Nyanda  were the first Vula leaders to clandestinely infiltrated into South Africa.

Meanwhile, Janet Love's communications hub in Johannesburg was also operational. Tim Jenkin received the first long reports from Mac Maharaj a few weeks later. ANC's freedom movement finally was able to communicate securely with Jenkin's London office as central hub. From then on, Janet Love encrypted all Johannesburg messages and recorded the computer modem sound on cassette tape.

The operative in South Africa chose a random pay phone to call an answering machine in London and played back the tape with the message that he had encrypted and recorded earlier. The London office checked the message and called the operative's pager with a specific code to signal that the message had arrived well. London then relayed this message to, for instance, ANC headquarters in Lusaka.

The London office also used a specific pager code to warn operatives in South Africa that there were messages for them to receive. To retrieve a message, the operative again chose a random pay phone and called another answering machine in London on which the London HQ had recorded an encrypted message from Lusaka or from other operatives.

From the manual encryption of long reports, taking many hours to encrypt and days to get across, they now were able to get a message to London in one or two hours. Jenkin relayed the messages almost real-time back and forth between the ANC headquarter in Lusaka and the operatives in South Africa. The South African security services could not track these messages as they were sent anonymously from randomly chosen pay phones. It would require them to monitor each and every pay phone and even if they managed to intercept such a message, it would merely contain what seemed like unintelligible fax or computer tones, giving them no clue about their purpose.

Mac Maharaj succeeded in setting up covert communications with the imprisoned Nelson Mandela through his lawyers. By then, the South African government held secret talks with Mandela, who they believed to be clueless about the situation in the country. Little did they know that Mandela was in direct contact with ANC president Oliver Tambo and a well organised underground leadership. In fact, without realising it, the apartheid regime was negotiating directly with the ANC. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in February 1990, the Vula operation continued underground to protect the actual leadership and its communications with Mandela.

The operation was eventually compromised in July 1990 after the police followed Siphiwe Nyanda and discovered encryption disks and plain messages in a Vula hide-out. Mac Maharaj, Siphiwe Nyanda and six other Vula members were arrested and imprisoned. Others fled the country or went into hiding. Despite this setback, Tim Jenkin was able to reboot the Vula network within 24 hours. All Vula members eventually received amnesty as part of the political transition that lead to the end of apartheid.

Tim Jenkin's story is an amazing example of people with no background in intelligence, espionage trade craft or secure communications who used their creativity to set up an ingenious international secure network that changed South Africa's history. It should be noted that their communications system, which was quite novel and therefore secure in the 1980s, would pose serious risks in today's world with advanced signals intelligence capabilities, ranging from hacking computers to extensive electonic surveillance and geolocation.

Tim Jenkin's story of operation Vula is published at the ANC website (alternative link here). More details about the encryption systems and equipment at the web page How the ANC sent encrypted messages. Below an excellent eNCA documentary about operation Vula. Additionally, you can watch a NGC documentary of Tim Jenkin's escape from Pretoria prison.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Tatjana J. van Vark at Secret Communications 2

The Crypto Museum and the Foundation for German Communication and Related Technologies again teamed up to present their second Secret Communications exhibit. This unique and meanwhile international event brings together the finest pieces of historical crypto and covert radio equipment, some of which has never been on public display before (non-exhaustive list here). I visited the opening day, but the collection can be visited two three (!) more days in the coming weeks. Due to its immense success, there will be an additional exhibit on January 14!

This year, they have the honour of receiving Tatjana Joëlle van Vark, a Dutch lady who is impossible to introduce in a few words. On November 12 she gave a demonstration of her amazing hand-crafted Cryptograph machine and we were fortunate to talk with her. She will give a second demonstration on December 3.

Although inspired by the German Enigma Machine, the Cryptograph is quite different and more complex in mechanical design. Her machine includes encryption of letters, digits and punctuations, a printer and paper tape puncher and reader.

Tatjana explains the mechanics of the Cryptograph

Some call it a Super Enigma, but I prefer to see it more as a piece of art work. Tatjana is a lady that strives for perfection and beauty. The sophistication and attention to detail are a crucial part of all her projects and the hallmark of her work and philosophy. From the tiniest metal parts, over tidy packed wiring to the shiny instrument panels, it all breaths perfection.

The Cryptograph. An art work of electro-mechanical design and beauty

Personally, I believe that somewhere along the line we lost the desire to create beauty in every-day items. Everyone knows those old radios, from little design pieces to beautiful wood crafted receivers, but also the gracious curves of kitchen machines and other household items, all produced with excellent and durable materials. This craftsmanship and design has almost become a lost art. Sadly, today's products in simple plastic boxes are often a hymn to cheap mass production.

Not so with Tatjana J. van Vark! Her projects arise from her imagination and are shaped and developed solely in her mind. She doesn't use technical drawings or plans and works straight from her memory! She has what we can call a beautiful mind, supplemented with skilled hands that put raw materials into all kinds of precision parts, assembled into devices that are no longer simply functional objects but true pieces of art. The true art of creating things.

The Cryptograph printer. Perfection as only to be found in scientific instruments

Talking about Enigma, Tatjana is above all an enigmatic person. Her interest in scientific instruments as a child evolved into scientific work for technology firms, government and military. Her work includes such a wide range of science and technology that can only be explained by her drive to understand and learn all and everything. Power systems, electronics, telephone switching, instruments for the pharmacy industry, aircraft avionics, radar and weapons control, navigational equipment, optics. You name it, she did it.

She explained to me that you can create anything, as long as you learn enough and think enough about it. Now that's the spirit of a true explorer. I can only end with admitting being really jealous of that lady's talents.

You will have another chance to meet Tatjana J. van Vark and her Cryptograph on the last day of the Secret Communications exhibition on December 3. If you can't make it to the exhibition, then you should visit Tatjana J. van Vark's website and her amazing collection of home brew instruments with many amazing photos (make sure to click each image for more details) or visit her page at the Craftsmanshipmuseum. The short documentary Myth of a Magistra (incl subtitles) shows some of her extraordinary work.

Much more to discover at Secret Communications 2

More information about the unique Secret Communications 2 exhibition, its amazing list of displayed items and directions to its location near Amsterdam in the Netherlands at this link. Be advised that roadworks are in progress near the exhibition and alternative directions are available.

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). The Guardian also has a long article on Barsky. 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.