In 1969 the Soviet Union signed an eighty-five-year lease on the site of the former Mount Alto Veterans Hospital, for construction of a consulate, an administrative building, an apartment building, a school, and a gymnasium.
A 1972 agreement stipulated simultaneous construction of an American embassy in Moscow, and that neither party could move into its embassy until the other was also ready for occupancy. Construction began in 1977. In 1980 the Soviets charged the United States with having planted listening devices on the premises, and in 1984 the United States discovered that its new Moscow embassy had been similarly bugged.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, in December 1991, the embassy of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics became the embassy of the Russian Federation.
(Washington Post, August 31, 1978)
“U.S. Thinks Agent Revealed Tunnel at Soviet Embassy”
James Risen, with Lowell Bergman,
New York Times, March 4, 2001
“The United States government constructed a secret tunnel under the Soviet Union’s embassy in Washington to eavesdrop, but federal investigators now believe the operation was betrayed by the F.B.I. agent who was arrested last month on charges of spying for Moscow, current and former United States intelligence and law enforcement officials say. The secret tunnel operation, which officials indicated was run jointly by the F.B.I. and the National Security Agency, was part of a broad United States effort to eavesdrop on and track Soviet — later Russian — facilities and personnel operating in the United States. Spokesmen at the F.B.I. and the White House declined to comment on the tunnel operation today.
Current and former United States officials estimated that the tunnel construction and related intelligence-gathering activities cost several hundred million dollars, apparently making it the most expensive clandestine intelligence operation that the agent, Robert Philip Hanssen, is accused of betraying. The tunnel was designed to aid in a sophisticated operation to eavesdrop on communications and conversations in the Soviet Embassy complex, which was built in the 1970’s and 1980’s but was not fully occupied until the 1990’s.
In the 1980’s, at about the time the tunnel operation was under way, the United States and the Soviet Union argued bitterly over their respective embassies in Moscow and Washington, with the United States accusing Moscow of spying at both locations.
The government has never publicly disclosed the existence of the tunnel operation. But in an F.B.I. affidavit in the Hanssen case, the government stated that Mr. Hanssen “compromised an entire technical program of enormous value, expense and importance to the United States government.” Officials said that was a reference to the tunnel operation and related intelligence activities.
The government charges that Mr. Hanssen, a 25-year veteran of the F.B.I. and a counterintelligence expert, volunteered to spy for Moscow in October 1985. He was arrested on Feb. 18 in a Virginia park after leaving a package containing classified documents for his Russian handlers, according to the affidavit.
It could not be determined when the government believes Mr. Hanssen betrayed the tunnel operation and related intelligence-gathering activities targeting the embassy complex. Nor are many details known about how and when the operation was mounted, or whether it ever succeeded in collecting useful intelligence.
But the emerging belief that the tunnel program had been compromised was a factor in the government’s decision to keep looking for additional spies after the 1994 arrest of the C.I.A. officer Aldrich H. Ames, according to current and former officials.
A secret investigative team was established to identify the source of a series of damaging intelligence losses, including the tunnel and related activities against the embassy, that could not be explained by Mr. Ames. Other unexplained intelligence losses — including other technical intelligence programs, as well as the 1989 disclosure to Moscow that the F.B.I. was conducting an espionage investigation of a State Department official, Felix S. Bloch — also prompted officials to begin a new mole hunt, officials added.
That mole-hunt team played a critical role in the counterespionage probe that led to Mr. Hanssen’s arrest, United States officials said. It was a successor to an earlier C.I.A. mole-hunt team that helped uncover Mr. Ames. The tunnel was built under Moscow’s embassy complex on Washington’s Wisconsin Avenue, a hilltop location known as Mount Alto, officials said.
The Soviets were prevented for years from fully occupying the embassy complex as a result of a long- running dispute with the United States about charges that the American Embassy in Moscow had been thoroughly bugged. Soviet diplomats occupied apartments there in 1979, and Congressional critics charged that they were using those buildings as espionage outposts. In the mid- 1980’s, some American lawmakers claimed that the hilltop location would give the Soviets an edge in intelligence gathering against United States government buildings in Washington. The new embassy complex was not fully occupied until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, the American intelligence offensive against the embassy remained hidden from public view even as the United States publicly protested a Soviet campaign to lace the new United States Embassy in Moscow with listening devices. Construction on the new American Embassy in Moscow was halted in 1985 after the Reagan administration protested that Soviet construction crews were imbedding eavesdropping equipment within the walls of the new chancery building. The disclosure that the United States believed that the new embassy was bugged sparked Congressional hearings and criticism of the handling of the matter by the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Ultimately, after considering tearing the embassy down, the United States flew in American construction workers and lopped off the top two floors and replaced them with two new secure floors before finally occupying the new facility.
The United States operation against the new Soviet Embassy in Washington, like the Soviet bugging of the United States Embassy complex, was designed to eavesdrop on electronic communications and conversations inside the facility. F.B.I. agents were secretly placed in critical jobs in some of the key contractors hired by the Soviets, according to an individual knowledegable about the planning of the operation. That individual said that bugging the building involved the use of secret technology developed by the intelligence community to pick up sounds inside a large building.”
“In fact, a former United States intelligence official said he was not certain that the Soviet Embassy tunnel operation ever actually produced any intelligence. Another official suggested that technical problems prevented the operation from becoming productive. That official suggested that the tunnel was both compromised by a spy, and also failed on technical grounds.”
(New York Times, March 4, 2001)
“U.S. Officials Were Given Tours of Soviet Embassy Spy Tunnel”
Washington Post, March 11, 2001, p.A3
FBI officials were so proud of a secret tunnel built beneath the Russian Embassy for electronic surveillance during the final years of the Cold War that they offered tours to senior officials with top security clearances, the Washington Post reported on Sunday. Former FBI agent Robert Hanssen, arrested on Feb. 18 on charges of selling secrets to Moscow for 15 years, is suspected of having disclosed the existence of the tunnel to his Soviet handlers. U.S. media first reported the existence of the tunnel earlier this month.
The Post quoted current and former government officials as saying Hanssen’s suspected report about the tunnel likely nullified the technological advantages the FBI could have gained from such close-range access to the then-Soviet embassy. The Post quoted one former U.S. official who said he was offered a tour but declined the invitation because he is claustrophobic.
He told the Post the tunnel was accessed from a residence near the Soviet – now Russian – compound on Mount Alto, a hilltop north of Washington’s swanky Georgetown neighborhood and one of the highest sites in Washington. The former official said the government purchased the home and started digging the tunnel out of its basement. The paper quoted another former official as saying he had toured the passageway but declined to describe it, saying everything about it remains highly classified.
One intelligence source with direct knowledge of the technology Hanssen allegedly compromised told the Post the Soviets used the FBI bugs and wiretaps to feed disinformation back to the U.S. government. “They were obviously feeding a very large quantity of data to us of apparent value but no real value,” the paper quoted the source as saying. “It was a very delicate game that was played out over several years.”
(Washington Post, March 11, 2001, p.A3)
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