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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

High-Tech Bugs Go Where None Have Before

When 007 de-bugs his hotel room he simply peers into the lamp shade, squashes a grape onto the offending device and, hey presto, blissful privacy.


In real life, however, microchip technology has advanced electronic surveillance to a level of sophistication impervious even to James Bond's fast-fix methods. And despite the cessation of the open hostilities of the Cold War, foreign diplomatic missions would appear to be monitored by old adversaries as tightly as ever.


In Washington, cameras are permanently trained on the Russian Embassy and teams of FBI agents keep tabs on suspected agents, while in Moscow the elaborate precautions taken by some foreign embassies on their premises would also suggest the espionage war is going strong.


Some local security firms offering bug scanning services to local businesses are clearly wary of the diplomatic sphere, especially in view of clauses in the new criminal code which effectively prohibit any interference in matters of Russian state security.


"If an embassy is working in Moscow, then the Russian special services are probably interested in them," said one former KGB captain employed by a private security company in the capital. "We probably wouldn't take on such a client -- we don't need any enemies in high places."


According to the specialist, the smallest electronic bugs now available are about the size of a match head and have an internal power source lasting two weeks. The device is simply dropped in a target area, and conversations may then be monitored at a distance of 100 meters to 200 meters.


Bugs can be disguised as any seemingly harmless object, said the ex-officer, citing instances where foreign agencies had planted sticky bugs shaped like balls of chewing gum, or molded into cups made of clear glass.


Power sources may be internal, lasting as long as 10 years, or bugs can be externally powered from a distance using lasers or microwave technology, said the specialist.


It is precisely the possibility that hordes of Soviet bugs may still be operational in the infamous chancery building in the American embassy compound in Moscow that has finally produced a $240 million project to render at least part of the unfinished eight-storied block secure.


Once described by a U.S. Senate committee as the "most massive, sophisticated and skillfully executed bugging operation in history," the building has stood empty since 1985 when U.S. intelligence specialists failed to neutralize the extensive audio surveillance system secretly installed by Soviet builders over the 1979-1985 construction period.


According to press reports supplied by the U.S. Embassy, bugs were found implanted in welded girder seams, constructed of materials of the same density as the metal beams so that they would not show up under X-ray examination. Some of the office typewriters were even said to have been fitted with devices which could interpret what was being written by the sound of the keystrokes.


The current recommissioning project will entail the removal of the top two floors of the so-called "giant transmitter," and the addition of four new security-cleared floors.


In stark contrast with the original chancery project, work will be performed by up to 300 American security-cleared construction workers, and practically all materials and equipment will be manufactured in the United States and shipped to Russia.


"We learned our lesson the hard way the first time," one U.S. official told the Washington Post. "This will be a strictly made-in-the-U.S. operation."


Upon scheduled completion in 1999, the new floors of the chancery will only be accessible to authorized American staff members. The remaining six floors will be used for non-classified purposes.


Whether American fears of another large-scale security breach are justified is hard to say, especially in the light of the rapid division and downsizing of the structures of the former KGB since 1991.


According to the British newspaper The Independent, the KGB ran a network of some 400,000 agents in Russia at the organization's peak in the mid-1980s. Today, the successor Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, numbers an estimated 75,000 operatives.


Few, however, are under the illusion that counterintelligence services in the East or West have laid down their tools since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. As former KGB agent Yuri Shvets told the Washington Post, "As long as these agencies exist, they will spy. It is a matter of inertia. If they stopped spying, they would lose their reason for existence."


In Moscow too, old hands in the spying game were explicit about the U.S. Embassy's chancery project.


"You can be sure that someone somewhere in the special services is going to be interested in what goes on in the new building," said the former KGB captain.


Elsewhere in Moscow's foreign diplomatic community, officials reacted with varying degrees of candor to questions about security, particularly during building and maintenance work on embassy premises. Personnel at the British Embassy were particularly tight-lipped about security measures during the ongoing construction of the new $87 million embassy building on Smolenskaya Naberezhnaya, carried out by the Woodrow/Skanska construction group, an Anglo-Finnish joint venture.


All other embassies contacted said that Russian staff and contractors were closely supervised when working in sensitive areas.


"We have been here for approximately 50 years and are used to these types of concerns -- it's part of doing business here," said Canadian Embassy press attach? Greg Alton.


"I suppose we have scramblers to check phone lines," said Indian Embassy spokesman Sarjavit Chakravati. "But we have never had a problem with leaks [of confidential information]. As far as we're concerned, this is a very friendly country."


One official at a Western European embassy, who wished to remain anonymous, was clearly skeptical of the notion of diplomatic privacy.


"Do you really think there are any embassy premises or diplomatic residencies which are unbugged? he asked cryptically.