In 1972, during the détente period in U.S.–Soviet relations, the United States handed the Soviets the key to its new embassy, enabling one of the largest spying scandals of the Cold War. Although the detente period ushered in improved relations between the rival countries, neither could resist eavesdropping on the other when they agreed to build new embassies in Washington and Moscow. While the Soviets got a nice hilltop position and sprawling property near the National Cathedral, the Americans selected a tiny strip of land and gave construction responsibilities to the Soviets, resulting in a nearly useless microphone-infested building.
In 1969, the U.S. and Soviet governments entered into the first serious talks since World War II about constructing new embassies in each other’s capitals. While talks stalled, the détente period contributed to both President Nixon and Secretary Brezhnev pressuring their negotiators into making a deal. The result was a bad one for the United States—it gave responsibility for the construction of the U.S. embassy to the Soviets, and even allowed them to produce the materials off-site and away from American supervision. The result was a building infested with a complex surveillance system that the Americans could never fully uncover, and the Soviet construction crews had to be kicked off the site before construction was completed. The Soviet embassy in Washington, however, was constructed using bricks with microphones in them—all of which were discovered and presented at an embarrassing press conference.
The Americans never figured out how the Russian system was supposed to work, since they only imagined the Soviets placing microphones in bricks, as they had done themselves. Instead, X-ray crews and other investigators were never able to identify exactly where the bugs were or how they worked. Many theories abounded, but none were proved. Today, the embassy that was built in Moscow is used as an offsite extension of the current embassy, but was never usable as a fully functioning embassy due to the security risk.
The Russian embassy in Washington, however, still dominates the area of the National Cathedral, high atop its hill overlooking the city.
Ambassador Arthur Adair Hartman was the U.S. Ambassador to the USSR from 1981–1987, and he experienced many security challenges in the embassy’s operations during his tenure. He was ambassador at the time of the Sergeant Lonetree Scandal in 1986, which produced a steep hike in security measures, much to the ambassador’s annoyance.
Ambassador Hartman’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on October 20, 1999.
Read Ambassador Hartman’s full oral history HERE.
Drafted by Calvin Heit
ADST relies on the generous support of our members and readers like you. Please support our efforts to continue capturing, preserving, and sharing the experiences of America’s diplomats.
“Washington was in a total state of disorganization.”
Caught Spying: First of all, let’s talk about the building. The initial agreement on building the two embassies was made back in the ‘70s. This is the new embassy in Moscow. My predecessor as assistant secretary for Europe was Walt Stoessel, who later became ambassador both in Germany and in Russia. Walt, who knew Moscow, was very tough on the agreement we were going to sign with the Russians about building these embassies. He particularly objected to a part which allowed the Russians to prefabricate pieces of it off-site.
Dobrynin came in to see Henry Kissinger when he was national security adviser. He said, “Dammit, Brezhnev is coming to town, he wants one of the big agreements that we are going to sign, this one on building the two embassies. Your guys in the State Department are being difficult about this.” Henry naively believed Dobrynin more than he believed his own staff, and ordered this agreement be signed. Walt did under protest.
Sure enough, when we got to the actual building of the building, it was in this off-site building process that the Russians built spying devices into the building of their system. To this day I don’t think the intelligence community knows exactly how that system was supposed to work. It was something quite different from what we thought it would be and what we did, because in the building of their building, we put little microphones in various bricks around the building. I remember at one point the Russians had a press conference and showed all the things they had found in their bricks. Damned if they didn’t find every one of them. We went through and tried to pick out stuff in our building but a couple of things turned out to be old cigarette packages that had got caught in the cement. Typical Russian sloppy fashion. One theory I’ve heard was the whole building was supposed to resonate from microwaves that were put on it and conversations could then be picked up. After Yeltsin got in and appointed a private lawyer as head of the KGB, he gave Bob Strauss what he said were all the plans for the embassy that they had made to do something to it. Whether they revealed all or didn’t, I don’t know. When I got to Moscow, I found Washington was in a total state of disorganization.
“The thought that the rooms might be compromised in some way wasn’t there.”
Building the embassy: On the building of the embassy I found there was no central coordination that brought together the building people and the intelligence people—both counterintelligence and intelligence—and it was really my going around town talking to the FBI and the CIA that caused a committee to be formed that got hold of the problem. Our builders were building and could have cared less about what system might be put in or how it was going to be done.
I think there was a general feeling that they were going to protect themselves by building the rooms. The thought that the rooms might be compromised in some way wasn’t there. We brought along a number of American workers to do the sensitive parts of the building but eventually they called it quits because there was no way to cleanse the things. So they stopped the Russians. It was after that (after my time) that they settled on a way to destroy the top of our building and put on another one. This was Jim Schlesinger’s suggestion for how to cure the problem. The Russians went on to build a very beautiful building here in Washington which I’m sure they enjoy very much and it is a great entertainment place.
“So much for this new hundred million dollar building.”
Beautiful but useless: I recently visited our embassy in Moscow and it is quite interesting. You have to go through three check points before you get to see the ambassador, and there are these wonderful entertaining spaces on the ground floor and the first floor. I said to the ambassador, “This must be wonderful to have all this stuff.” He said, “We never use it.” I asked why not and he said, “Because no Russian wants to come in here and go through that many checkpoints—the thick glass doors—so we entertain at Spaso House where people can just walk in and also at restaurants.” So much for this new hundred million dollar building or whatever it is. The whole security thing, and you know I was caught up in this marine thing.
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
U.S. Army Air Corps 1944–1946
BA in Government, Harvard University 1946–1947
Joined the Foreign Service 1948
Paris, France—Economist 1948–1955
Washington, D.C.—Assistant Secretary of State for Europe 1973–1977
Paris, France—Ambassador to France 1977–1981
Moscow, USSR—Ambassador to the USSR 1981–1989