Season 1
From the Travel Journal: Incredible Moments In US And Russian Counterintelligence
The moments that didn’t always make the headlines, but  made history.
by DOMINIQUE FERRARI
Things haven’t been this hot (or is it cold?) between Russia and the US in three decades. How did we get here? And with the Cold War behind us, what lies ahead? In this edition of The Ticket, we take a walk – at times terrifying and at others terrifyingly absurd – through some of the Cold War’s most bizarre moments because, as wild as you think the current state of affairs are, we can guarantee you they used to be even wilder.

US/Russia relations haven’t been this tense in over three decades. Let’s take a little stroll down Terrifying Recap Lane, shall we?

  • There are calls of election hacking and sophisticated disinformation campaigns funded and carried out by Russia as the US election looms in November. [[And by “sophisticated,” we mean memes so powerful that they can both siphon IQ points AND pour gasoline on anxiety at the same time.]]
  • Last week, there was the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny — a worrying signal that, amid sustained anti-government protests throughout Russia, Putin and his allies are feeling enough heat to start acting on it. And considering the Kremlin’s past with poison, this is probably just the tip of the umbrella.
  • There is the recent revelation that Russia paid Taliban fighters to assassinate US soldiers. 
  • And perhaps most worryingly of all, there is the fact that the final remaining strategic arms reduction agreement — a deal that has been in place for decades, known as New START — is set to expire in February of 2021. That means that the two countries which possess 90% of the world’s nuclear arsenal are about to suddenly have the last guard rail ripped away…while COVID, national protests in both countries, a historic global economic depression, and election tampering turn up the heat across the board.

Feeling a little anxious? 

We are too, and our anxiety sent us down a rabbit hole looking into some of the wilder, little known moments that have happened in US and Russian relations. The moments we discovered range from the terrifying to the hilarious. But rather than amping up our anxieties, each of these anecdotes actually gave us hope that — even when all signs have pointed to a US/Russia war time and again — there have somehow always been enough sensible adults in the room on both sides to know better. And some of them are just bizarre. 

#1 The Soccer Fields That Stopped a Second Cuban Missile Crisis

For 13 days in October of 1962, the entire world collectively held its breath as the US and the USSR seemed to be careening towards the start of WW3… It was the Cuban Missile Crisis and it was as close as the world had come to annihilation in human history. And we almost hit that brink again in 1970… until soccer fields saved the day.

It was September of 1970. HR Haldeman, who was then President Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff (and later Watergate conspirator, cool!), was in his office when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger stormed in. As he recalled later, Kissinger slammed a thick file of photos on his desk and said, “Bob, look at this.” They were reconnaissance photos of a province in Cuba called Cienfuegos. “Well? Well?” Kissinger demanded. “Well, what?” Haldeman asked. Kissinger explained, “It’s a Cuban seaport, Haldeman, and these pictures show the Cubans are building soccer fields. I have to see the president right now.” Haldeman was confused — soccer fields? So what? Kissinger stuffed the pictures back in the file and said, “Those soccer fields could mean war, Bob. Cubans play baseball. Russians play soccer.”

The photos revealed a military base under construction on the island of Cayo Alcatraz in Cienfuegos Bay. And right in the middle of the base was a giant soccer pitch. It was a clear signal about who the base was really being constructed for. Kissinger got to Nixon and eventually, under US pressure, the Soviets backed down. The crisis cooled down and the military base was never finished. You can visit Cienfuegos and Cayo Alcatraz today, sans nukes.

#2 The Incident of the Extra-Large Condoms Marked “Medium”

While we’re all focused on the wiley ways the Russians are trying to disrupt the American psyche one meme at a time, it’s worth acknowledging that two can (and have) played at this game for quite a long time.

There’s a saying in the Intelligence and Special Forces communities: the more boring something’s title, the more important it probably is. So allow us to introduce you to a former division of the CIA called the Office of Policy Coordination. Sounds like something from Office Space, right? That’s how you know they do some serious s#*t. On paper, their mission was refugee assistance and working with the International Red Cross. In reality, they were an off-books PSY-OPS (psychological operations) division headed by a man named Frank Wisner. Wisner was a larger-than-life, party-throwing, bon vivant who was the Office of Policy Coordination’s director. As such, he ran sophisticated psy-ops like a decades-long campaign to influence foreign news as well as an attempt to establish a guerilla resistance force behind the Iron Curtain. But Frank Wisner also had a wicked sense of humor. In one of the Office of Policy Coordination’s most wild schemes, they made plans to airdrop extra-large condoms on Soviet troops. The catch? The packages were to be marked “Medium”, leaving the Soviets to wonder just how well-endowed their US adversaries were. 

#3 You Dropped the Bomb On ME

 

The US has not once, not twice, but at least FOUR TIMES accidentally dropped nuclear bombs on itself or friendly nations. One of the wildest incidents took place on March 11, 1958. That day, a US B-47 was on a flight from Savannah, GA to England. While flying over a small town called Mars Bluff, South Carolina, the navigator realized that the pin fastening one of their bombs – A NUCLEAR BOMB – was coming loose. He got up to take a look, and as he bent down, he grabbed a handle to steady himself. You see where this is going…

He had inadvertently grabbed the bomb release handle. He watched in horror as the bomb hit the bomb doors, they opened, and the bomb sailed down. Fifteen thousand feet below, two sisters, six-year-old Helen and nine-year-old Frances Gregg, along with their nine-year-old cousin Ella Davies, were playing near a playhouse in the woods that had been built for them by their father Walter Gregg, who had served as a paratrooper during World War II.

The bomb landed on the playhouse and its explosive detonated. But miraculously not its nuclear payload. That’s because the bomb’s nuclear core had been stored in another part of the plane and hadn’t been inserted into the bomb yet. But it’s conventional high explosives did detonate, destroying the playhouse, injuring 6 members of the Gregg family and leaving a crater about 70 feet wide and 35 feet deep. You can still visit the Mars Bluff Crater to this day for some real Cold War kitsch.

#4 The Soviet Officer Who Single-handedly Stopped WW3

 

In 1983, the Cold War was as hot as it had ever been. In March of 1983, there was Ronald Reagan’s searing and instantly historic speech calling the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire”. Then on September 1st, 1983, Korean Air flight 007, which was carrying a US Congressman, was shot down by Soviet warplanes, killing everyone aboard. And beyond all that, in 1981 the US had begun a series of PSY-OPs in which the US sporadically sent nuclear-armed warplanes straight towards the Soviet Union, only to have them turn around at the last possible moment. It was a potentially world-ending game of chicken. 

So on the night of September 26th, 1983 – when Soviet officer Stanislav Petrov’s early missile warning radar screen began flashing and a giant red and black square reading “LAUNCH” popped up on his screen, by all accounts, that should’ve been WW3. Stanislav’s radar systems had detected five missiles headed right for the Soviet Union. A lesser officer or someone more keyed-up by the intense rhetoric and paranoia floating around might’ve looked at that screen and seen a prophecy fulfilled. But Stanislav saw something different. Rather than focusing on the heated atmosphere of the time, he bucked protocol and didn’t send it up the chain of command. Instead, he sent it up the chain of logic. Why would the US launch only five missiles, he reasoned? If they had achieved first strike capability and the element of surprise – wouldn’t they want to take out all they could in one fell swoop? It made no sense to him, and so he told his officers that it was a computer glitch and waited. After 23 minutes had passed, he knew he’d been right; the missiles would’ve impacted by then. Stanislav bucked protocol and fear – and in the process, very likely saved the world. Later it was determined that what his radar screens had picked up was sunlight bouncing off high atmospheric clouds at an angle which caused them to appear like missiles.

#5 The Cat was Acoustic.

 

The US and Russians have always been locked in an acoustic arms race to spy on each other. We know this intimately because our company is producing a story about the first FBI Agent ever charged with espionage and the wild, almost Coen Brothers-esque mission that unfolded as the Bureau tried to catch him in the act – a story which involved LOTS of bugs and surveillance around the Soviet consulate in San Francisco and the FBI’s Los Angeles headquarters.

As we surveilled stories of surveillance, we came across an absolutely bonkers story involving cats. The CIA was determined to get intel from inside the walls of the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. and so they dreamed up a program to bug cats. They found a suitable cat. Then they implanted batteries and an acoustic device into its ear and an antenna into its tail. They then spent quite some time training the cat. In all, the CIA reportedly spent $10  million dollars on the program. Finally, when everything was in place, the CIA hit go. CIA agents in an unmarked van pulled up across the street from the Soviet Embassy. Then they released their $10 million dollar cat to carry out its mission. The cat made it approximately 10 feet before being run over by a passing taxi. In one insane moment, a taxi, tax payer money, and taxidermy all collided. The program was discontinued.

And that wraps up our stroll down Terrifying Recap Lane. Here’s to hoping there are still enough adults in enough rooms!

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© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.