“Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage”

“When veterans get together, it doesn’t matter who won or lost,” [Makarov] said through his translator. “It’s enough that both survived.”

Oh boy, do I love me some Cold War history. It’s easily my favorite time period to read about, and the one that I keep coming back to whenever my education requires I learn something about the past, lest I repeat it.1 The craziness of the whole period fascinates me – the Space Race happened in such a short time, people were cramming nuclear reactors into anything they could think of, Freeman Dyson was wandering around spitting out ideas that will probably remain the basis of science fiction giga-structures for the rest of human history, and the military was determinedly ensuring that they could wipe out the entire human race before the Commies could, dammit! It was insane! And a bit of a miracle that we all survived, really.
This book dove2 into an aspect of the Cold War that I hadn’t actually thought about very much. Yes, I spend a lot of time thinking about submarines, but never really as elements for espionage, always in either their key role as an element of the US nuclear triad3 or in the sort of crazy things I’d do with them if I had the sort of ridiculous budget that both Navies had during the War.
But they actually make a lot of sense in that context – nearly impossible to spot from orbit, invisible from the surface; their only real weakness to detection is sonar, and from the standpoint of a submarine or other stealth craft, active sonar is a big no-no when you’re trying to stay hidden. They’re basically the perfect stealth vehicle. So why not use them to do a bit of listening in?
And boy oh boy did they do some cool stuff with that. The one that takes the cake is actually how I found this book: Operation Ivy Bells. A specially-modified nuclear submarine wandered in past Soviet naval defenses and settled down on top of a key underwater communications line. Divers went out, divers affixed a wiretap, divers went back in. Wait a day or two, pick the wiretap back up, and then sneak back home to deliver the tapes to the spooks at the NSA.4 Between them and the people listening in on the sub itself, they found that the line was a treasure trove: the Soviets assumed it was safe, as it ran entirely within Soviet territorial waters, and part of the time they didn’t even bother to encrypt their communications. It was an intelligence coup, one that would be repeated on multiple other undersea cables, bringing in massive amounts of information. (At first, the wiretap could only run for a week at most before being replaced; the NSA and the Navy called in engineers from telecoms companies, and wound up building one with some rudimentary computational capabilities and an onboard nuclear power plant;56 the new device could be left in place for a year or more, require far less frequent invasions-of-territory by US subs.)
I’m going to stop there, having given away one of the biggest success stories told in the book, but that’s hardly all of it – the book, a beautiful work of non-fiction, weaves several interesting tales, ranging from political intrigue to scientific success stories to on-the-edge-of-your-seat adventure novel in places. I’d absolutely recommend it to anyone who’s at all interested in Cold War history.7

  1. What, exactly, I’m personally in danger of repeating from the Cold War, I don’t really know. 
  2. Pun absolutely intended. 
  3. Land-based missiles, SAC bombers constantly in the air, and submarines packed to the rafters with SLBMs. 
  4. This was back in the good old days, when our nation’s spies were looking outside the country. Mostly. Unless you were a Communist. Or Communist-adjacent. Or, y’know, vaguely suspicious.
    That said, the NSA didn’t do the “watching our own,” that was mostly handled (very illegally) by the CIA. 
  5. It wasn’t stated in the book, but I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet that it was a radio-thermal generator, better known as an RTG; both sides in the Cold War used them to power space-based devices, and the Soviets also used them to power a grid of remote lighthouses along their long, long coastline. 
  6. The “nuclear-powered lighthouses” thing would turn out to be a horrible idea, though only after the Soviet Union had already collapsed; the lighthouses these days have been stripped for materials, leading, presumably, to a spate of heavily-irradiated thieves around the country. 
  7. Or just people who’re interested in submarines, a stance which I totally respect – submarines are cool!