How Russian spies bugged the US State Department

Posted Wednesday, 23 October 2019 ‐ CNN

(CNN)Most US spy hunters work their entire careers tracking down undercover agents without ever personally playing a direct role in the physical arrest of a spy. Robert David Booth, however, is the rare exception. The retired State Department deputy director of counterintelligence was able to investigate a spy and then actually help to plan and execute an arrest -- a rare thrill that Booth considers himself lucky to be a part of. In early 1999, Booth and his colleagues learned that Russian spies were listening to classified conversations deep in the heart of Washington's State Department building -- inside a conference room in the same corridor as the Secretary of State's personal office. The resulting investigation was code-named Sacred Ibis. Booth, also the author of "State Department Counterintelligence: Leaks, Spies and Lies," spent some time with CNN to talk about that investigation. Below is a transcript of our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity. The Russians are listeningROBERT DAVID BOOTH: Sacred Ibis was brought to us by an FBI agent. Under my agreement [with the government] I can't use his name, but he showed me videotapes and still pictures of a Russian diplomat [named Stanislav Borisovich Gusev]. The intelligence community believed Gusev was a KGB technical officer working under diplomatic cover in the United States. In one film, Gusev was sitting on a bench in the back of the main State Department building. He had (a) bag next to him, one hand in the bag, and an earphone plug was in his ear with the wire snaking into the bag. Once we watched him sitting on the bench with one hand in the bag, one hand in his shirt pocket, smoking a cigarette all the while reading the Washington Post upside down. Days later, another film revealed him driving a car up the same street where the bench was located. He would park it, leave it for a couple of hours, then come back and drive off. In reviewing the film, the intelligence community concluded that Gusev's actions were consistent with a technical operation. They believed that a bug — a listening device — had been placed inside the State Department's rear facade. We monitored the area, both physically and technically, and sure enough one of our countermeasure devices strongly indicated there was a listening device on the seventh floor. We surmised Gusev's car, equipped with Russian Embassy diplomatic plates, contained electronic equipment that would send a signal across the street, activating a bug as a live microphone that picked up conversations in a conference room. One night we went into the State Department building at 2 o'clock in the morning and used additional equipment to positively identify the listening device that had been concealed inside a chair rail molding on the wall of a 7th floor conference room. That was an a-ha moment.To our incredible surprise, we learned that one group known as the D Committee met in this room to review the official personnel files of senior State Department people. The committee discussed not only their active personnel file, but also talked candidly about their "corridor reputation." If the Russians were listening to those conversations, they would have learned about certain vulnerabilities that a number of senior State Department people had.OK, Russia bugged us. Now what?BOOTH: There was a big debate within the intelligence community about what to do about the listening device. One segment of the intelligence community said, "Let's leave the bug in place and see if someone tries to service it so we can arrest them on the spot." Others said, "We've gotta rip it out right away so we can analyze it and develop counter measures; maybe the Russians have similar devices in other areas, like US embassies or private businesses inside the United States." Others said, "Why don't we just have people go into the conference room and have a controlled conversation that would give the Russians conniptions or give them false information?"

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