U.S. relations with Moscow through the decades have been problematic at best while the embassy itself has been the subject of spy scandals, eavesdropping and other Cold War intrigue. One of the strangest episodes was revealed in the 1970s, when the U.S. confirmed that the USSR had been beaming microwaves at the embassy for the past 15 years. One concern was that the Soviets were trying to inflict physical harm on the Americans working there. Famed columnist Jack Anderson wrote that a CIA file named “Operation Pandora” described the Soviets’ attempt to “brainwash” Americans. The level of microwaves was actually lower than what was considered safe in the U.S. at the time; another explanation is that the USSR was apparently trying to jam electronic monitoring devices located at the embassy. William Andreas Brown discusses the widespread concern among Americans working at the embassy at the time and their anger at the State Department for its lack of transparency on the issue. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in November 1998. Read also about James Schumaker’s experience.
BROWN: When I first went to Moscow in 1966, after serving in Borneo and Southeast Asia, I fought tooth and nail to be assigned to study Russian, so that I could be assigned as the Sino-Soviet specialist in Moscow. For me, with the mentality of that period, this was a great challenge. This was the front line in the heart of the country of our adversaries. That’s the way we looked at things in the Foreign Service in those days.
I have to tell you what a shock it was in about 1972 or 1973 to wake up to the great, microwave scandal and to find that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his associates had kept from us the fact that for years we had been bombarded by microwave apparatuses, directed straight at the embassy in Moscow. I remember being one of a small group of officers in 1972 or 1973 when news of this development broke. We raised our voices in despair, dissent, and so forth. We were finally ushered into a room where Larry Eagleburger, Kissinger’s Special Assistant at the time, briefed us and made some sort of presentation, assuring us that steps would be taken, and so forth. He said that medical studies were under way, and the evidence thus far was that these microwaves had not been deleterious to our health. This was somewhat reassuring until, at the end of the meeting, Larry Eagleburger said, “Now, rip up all of your notes and give them to me. Nobody can leave with notes on this discussion.” One said to oneself: “What in the hell is going on here?”
It turned out that the Soviets had been bombarding us with microwaves, beginning in about 1964 or 1965. Why they had done this remained a mystery. How they had bombarded our embassy remained somewhat of a mystery, as well as why they had done so. Also a mystery was what was the response. We were furious. We felt betrayed by the leadership of the Department of State and by the Secretary of State himself…I’m speaking now of the microwave radiation scandal, as I would call it, of the early 1970s, which harked back to the early 1960s.
Many of us who had served in the embassy felt betrayed as people who had put so much into our efforts and who had volunteered to serve in Moscow. We probably would have volunteered anyway to serve in Moscow, even if we had known about this. However, we learned only years later that this had happened and that information on it had been kept from us. Foreign Service physical examinations routinely include a blood test. Unbeknownst to us, the Department of State was testing our blood to see what, if anything had happened to us as a result of the microwave radiation. This was a pretty jolting realization.
Now, at that stage we were assured that there was no evidence whatsoever of damage to our bodies. You know, so many people had been given physical examinations. In an atmosphere like that stories soon began to come out that so-and-so had developed cancer. There was a story circulating that a former leader of the Marine Security Guard detachment in Moscow, who was married and had children, had filed a suit against the State Department and that this suit had been settled out of court for alleged damage to one or more of his children.
Wow! Let me tell you, when I went back to the embassy in Moscow in 1977, this situation had become a matter which affected staff morale. Now I was going back, if you will, as the third-ranking officer in Embassy Moscow. I was of equal status with the Economic Counselor, but in the third-ranking position in the embassy. I had become a part of the management of the mission. By this time we had meters to measure microwave emanations.
In the interval something like summer screens had been installed on the windows. I remember once gathering a group of officers with this meter and showing them the effect of taking the screen off. The needle on the meter jumped noticeably. Then we put the screen back on the outer window, because the microwave beam was coming in directly from the front. When we did this, the needle on the meter dropped down. Not all the way, but it faded significantly. So I then said to them, you can see the effect yourselves, but we are now told that this radiation is less dangerous to your health than living near one of the radio stations in Chevy Chase, Maryland, or something like that.
I had just been administering the environmental agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States. I had seen studies by Soviet scientists in an entirely different field which highlighted the deleterious effects of microwave emissions, such as emissions from high-voltage electric wires.
It wasn’t long before another scare broke. It turned out that the studies of our blood samples over the years of people who had served in Moscow showed that something like six months after a person arrived in Moscow, his or her white blood counts rose significantly. Some people speculated that this had to do with the water supply. A team led by a doctor was sent out from Washington to look into the matter. I can’t recall his name now, but he had earlier pooh-poohed the notion that the radiation the American staff was receiving was deleterious and now he was visiting Moscow again. He announced to us that his group wanted to meet with Soviet medical authorities to discuss with them the epidemiology of the Moscow population, because we had now found significantly higher white blood counts in the blood of the Americans who served in the embassy in Moscow. The idea that the Soviets would sit down and talk with such a medical team about the blood counts of typical, Russian residents of Moscow, in epidemiological terms seemed so naive. Can you imagine the concern of Russian medical authorities about a story that Moscow was an unhealthy place to live? In fact, environmentally speaking, Moscow was an unhealthy place to live, in several ways. So the Soviets ignored this request.
All of this fermented, and the American press played it up. We had a real scare in Moscow. I raise that matter in terms of lessons learned. Lord knows what the future will bring in the Foreign Service.
Q: Before we leave that matter, was consideration ever given to our saying to the Soviets: “If you keep up this nonsense, we will close our embassy in Moscow?”
BROWN: Or, we could say, if the Soviets kept up this nonsense, we would do exactly the same thing to the Soviet Embassy in Washington. But, oh, no, that would have been nasty, and nothing like that was done. We felt pretty strongly about this. It affected morale and assignments to positions in the embassy.
Q: What was the purpose of what has to be regarded as this campaign by Soviet authorities against the health of members of the staff of the American embassy in Moscow?
BROWN: This takes you into realms that I’m really not qualified to discuss. I was aware of various theories and of measures and countermeasures that might be taken. However, the point is that microwave emissions were being beamed at us. This point came home to me particularly one day when a visiting technician from the State Department came with equipment and said, “Do you mind if I set this up in your office?”
I said, “Okay, but why here? Why in my office?” He said, “Because actually there are at least two beams being directed at the embassy. One comes in from the front of the embassy building, and one comes in from that great, white building over there, which is called the ‘White House.’ You know, where the Russian Parliament meets.”…
“One beam comes this way, and the two beams intersect right here at your desk. So I’d like to set this up.” I thought: “My God! It makes you think.” But the Soviets weren’t turning these beams off. This was a disturbing development. As I said, it affected assignments to positions in the embassy in Moscow, as well as other things.
The Foreign Service had now a much less glamorous view of serving in Moscow. It was a dirty, unattractive, hostile city. It was difficult to persuade a middle ranking senior officer of superior quality to come back to Moscow. Over and over you encountered a whole variety of excuses, such as: “I’d love to return to Moscow. Don’t misunderstand me. However, my wife would object, or my kids’ schooling situation would be a problem.” In those days it was very disturbing to me to deal with such attitudes. I myself had not volunteered to go back to Moscow. However, once there, I threw myself into the job. So service in the embassy in Moscow was a unique experience in many ways.