That Time When Russia Actually Bugged the US Government

The lesson here, if you’re a US diplomat and someone offers you a wooden plank as a “gesture of friendship”, you should politely decline. Just sayin’.



Last week, many security experts were concerned over the Trump administration allowing a state-run Russian news organization to enter the Oval Office. Some had opined, over the possibility, that the Russians could have planted a bug (ie listening device) in the Oval Office without anyone’s knowledge. While many have said the scenario that security experts are proposing, may be a little too Tom Clancy-ish to be taken as a credible threat, yet to be fair, it wouldn’t be the first time the Russians have tried to plant a bug and eavesdrop on conversations within the federal government!


Back in 1945, Soviet Russia had presented an artisanal wooden plank, that was carved to look like the Great Seal of the United States, to then US’ Ambassador to Moscow; Averell Harriman. World War II had just concluded, and the gift was a “gesture of friendship” from the Russians to the US. It really was a lovely gift and hung in the US Ambassador’s Moscow residential study, where conveniently, international business was discussed regularly by US diplomats. However, there was one slight problem with the wooden carving; it was actually a listening device designed to gather US intelligence!



Created by Russian inventor Léon Theremin – yes THAT Léon Theremin – the bug that is now known as “The Thing” (or The Great Seal Bug) was a listening device that didn’t need its own power and could be activated by a strong radio signal from outside of the building. This essentially gave the Soviets an eavesdropping device that was stationed at an ideal location for intelligence gathering purposes and most of all, gave the bug virtually unlimited power because it never needed to be charged!


“The Thing” hung up in the US Ambassador’s residence for seven years! It was discovered only after a British radio operator, at the British Embassy, accidently overheard American conversations over the radio waves, right as Russia was beaming radio signals to activate the device. It’s unclear how much American intelligence was intercepted by the Soviets during the seven-year time span, but everyone’s guess was quite a bit.


While this is one of those stories that many look back now as an interesting side note to the Cold War, for security experts however, “The Thing” remains an important reminder; that when it comes to Russia and the US, even the slightest chance of espionage should never be taken lightly.



(Photo Credit: Google Images, Crypto Museum)


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