Research Find: Why you shouldn’t tell the newspapers if you’re breaking someone’s code or tracking their satellite phone

In 1927, the government of Great Britain was looking for a reason to break off diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. They had plenty of reason—for one, the staff from the Soviet embassy in Great Britain was involved in espionage. Proof could be found in several diplomatic messages that the British had intercepted and decrypted. The British released the decoded messages and published them in The Times. Thus, the reason for the break was justified publicly.

The Soviet Union promptly dropped their diplomatic code and switched to using one-time pads. The British were unable to break any Soviet codes for the next twenty years. In the meanwhile, several very successful Soviet spies were able to steal all sorts of British secrets (if you’re looking for an example, google the Cambridge spy ring).

This bit of history reminded me about a more recent event. Osama Bin Laden used to have a satellite phone (fourteen, fifteen years ago). He used it. The CIA (or NSA) tracked it. In 1998, the story leaked and was printed in a major US newspaper. Bin Laden stopped using his satellite phone. The US government could no longer listen in to his phone calls. I think everyone remembers what Bin Laden went on to do in the years between 1998 and his death in 2011.

Before posting this blog, I looked up the Bin Laden story, just to make sure I had it right. Turns out the way I remember it isn’t completely accurate. When the Washington Times reported that Bin Laden had a satellite phone, it didn’t say the US was tracking it, and it wasn’t the first time word had gotten round about Bin Laden’s phone. Bin Laden did dramatically decrease how often he used his phone after the Washington Times story, but at about the same time he was almost killed by a US missile strike, which may have been a larger factor than the article. The LA Times was the first paper to report that the government was actually tracking the satellite phone, and after that the calls dropped off completely.

So what was the point of this post? Just to say that some things never change—intelligence successes are usually secret. And if they become publicly known, they often change into intelligence failures. Also, it seems that anything involving George W. Bush is still controversial. I wonder how many decades it will take for that to change?

6 Comments

  1. At least the British were a little smarter during WWI when showing the Americans the Zimmermann Telegram. Sticky situation there having to figure out how to do so w/o letting on that they’d broken the Russian diplomatic code & were eavesdropping on US cable traffic.
    I think my favorite intelligence success from code breaking comes in WWII by the Americans prior to the Battle of Midway. Intelligence work, counterintelligence work, and a coordinated plan of attack that helped stop the Japanese advance across the Pacific.

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    1. I agree; Midway was brilliant. And yes, I’m pointing out a few stupid things the British and Americans did, but I’ve also read about a ton of really smart things they’ve done (like the British breaking the German and American codes during WWI and using the Zimmerman telegram to get us into the war without ticking us off). And I’m sure there are many other successes that I haven’t read about.

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  2. Good job publishing Research Find: Why you shouldn’t tell the newspapers if you’re breaking someone’s code or tracking their satellite phone A.L. Sowards. I would like to learn more about this topic.

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    1. I found most of my information about early twentieth-century British code-breaking from Jeffery T. Richelson’s A Century of Spies: Intelligence in the Twentieth Century, and most of the information about Bin Laden’s phone from a google search.

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