Project Gunman: the grandfather of all cyber operations

The year is 1984. In the National Security Agency (NSA) Washington campus, near Fort Meade in Maryland, sits a small parking lot next to Operations Building 3. This parking lot would become a place of legend, where the “grandfather” of all cyber operations in the United States was born.

All surveillance, hacking, and cyber attacks started here, in this parking lot, with this top-secret operation.

Trucks entered the parking lot carrying tightly wrapped packages. All seemed inconspicuous, yet in one of the packages was a tiny secret of gargantuan proportions.

The device was minuscule, just smaller than a pencil, but it was the focus of a secret operation, one of which only a select few NSA specialists knew.

This was the beginning of a counterintelligence effort so secretive the few who knew of its existence barely understood how it operated.

This was the beginning of Project Gunman.

Where it began

This story begins months earlier, during the peak of the Cold War, when we observed Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the warnings of a nuclear apocalypse, and escalating espionage.

The Cold War was so divisive that it split the world into two, with one exception: embassies.

Image by Shutterstock

There were still diplomatic relations between the two powers despite the tumultuous tensions rising between them.

The United States and the USSR had embassies in each other's territories, and within both territories, much spying ensued.

The American embassy was a grand Gothic building situated in the heart of Moscow, which was comprised of 10 floors and filled with secrets.

For decades, the Soviets tried to decipher the secrets buried within.

Staff at the embassy continued to find devices embedded in the walls, furniture, and the concentrate beams that supported the establishment – all planted by the Soviets, of course.

They even fashioned a huge emitter that would blast the building with microwaves just across the street from the embassy.

Some speculated that this device was planted to give the Americans cancer, but the most likely reason for building such a device would power up the equipment planted inside.

The American spies around the USSR needed to find out how the Soviets were spying on them, and they got help from some neighboring nations.

French and Italian diplomats located bugs hidden in their teletype machines, which are essentially glorified typewriters that work remotely.

The French told the Americans that bugs were hidden in their machines and that they might encounter them if they looked hard enough.

Image of the American embassy in Moscow/ Image by Shutterstock

For the period, these teletype mechanisms were complex, making it easy for someone to hide a small recording device.

Various other gadgets – computers, radios, typewriters – metric tonnes of tech, all potentially containing bugs the Americans had to catch without getting caught.

The Soviets could disable the devices, temporarily remove them, or play tricks that could destabilize the bug hunt, that’s if they catch wind of your efforts.

The American President at the time, Ronald Reagan, wanted those bugs caught, so he enlisted the help of Walter G. Deeley, the deputy director of communications security at the NSA.

Deeley told Reagan, “We can find that damn bug,” and the bug hunt began.

Let the bug hunt begin

The main goal of the NSA was to remove any bugged devices from the American embassy without raising the red alarm.

The agency fabricated a story, saying that all of the technology, all tens of tonnes of it, would be “upgraded.”

Instead, they bought the same items and shipped them over to the USSR while the old tech was sent back to the US.

In a petty attempt to sabotage their plans, the Reds cut the electricity to the embassy, rendering all elevators useless – meaning that American embassy personnel had to haul this heavy tech down ten floors by hand.

Once placed in tamper-proof bags, the load was flown to Frankfurt where it made its final resting place in Washington, DC.

Now came the task of identifying what components had been tampered with and where the bugs were.

Finding the bugs

Deeley devised a plan. He placed two large trailers in a parking lot adjacent to the NSA headquarters.

One had a portable X-ray machine, the other had a technician inside who would play an arduous game of Spot the Difference using photos of the devices and a schematic of the same part.

This project, dubbed Very Restricted Knowledge (VKR), was incredibly secretive, so much so that it wasn’t common knowledge until the 90s.

If you even mentioned VKR, the NSA would refuse to acknowledge it and almost gaslight you into believing that you’re speaking nonsense.

The project was comprised of 25 agents, all overseen by Deeley. No one else knew of Project Gunman, not even those residing in the embassy back in the USSR.

Those 25 agents worked tirelessly, comparing images with schematics when, finally, an employee saw this.

Image by Crypto Museum

What you see is an image of an aluminum bar in a typewriter, which stops the machine from breaking. This bar was full to the brim with electronics.

The typewriter was a sophisticated IBM Selectric II, which was an electromechanical machine that contained many moving parts. Inside it were magnetometers.

These devices sense the proximity of magnets. Each time the magnetized lever comes into its proximity, the magnetometers are triggered.

When this happened, signals were transmitted to a tiny microchip for encoding. When the memory became full, its contents would be sent through a miniature antenna, which would then be picked up by a much larger antenna on the embassy’s rooftop.

However, the Soviets could only hold memory in multiples of six, so this encoder would compress a six-bit message into four bits.

Cyberwar is born

After Project Gunman, James R. Gosler, known to many as “the Godfather of American cyberwar” and who worked for the NSA, spoke to a New York Times journalist about the impact of Project Gunman on the American spy efforts – the change he described was night and day.

This discovery was a huge wake-up call for the NSA, CIA, and all other agencies as the Soviets were planting sophisticated bugs in American tech.

That’s when Deeley and other officials ramped up their espionage efforts, and that’s how we have things like Stuxnet, a malware worm that obliterated Iran’s nuclear program, mass surveillance programs, and an entire ecosystem of hacker armies.

And it’s all thanks to Project Gunman.

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