179. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Scowcroft) to President Ford 1


  • Soviet Intercept of Domestic Telephone Communications


As you know, the Soviets are [1 line not declassified] to intercept U.S. private line telephone conversations carried on microwave radio links. Though this activity has been mentioned in U.S. Government documents and by Government officials,2 and there have been several news items over the past year dealing with this problem, the fact and scope of the Soviet listening has not yet become a public issue.

[2 lines not declassified] To protect the most sensitive information, all government communications in the above areas are being moved from microwave to non-interceptable cable. This movement is completed in Washington and progressing in New York and San Francisco.

[7 lines not declassified] In the meantime it is not technically or economically feasible to provide broad protection. For this interim period, it is recommended that:

—Protection be given to sensitive government contractor communications by moving them from microwave to cable.

—Some non-provocative masking be permitted of the most vulnerable microwave link in the Washington area.

—A contingency capability to jam the Soviet intercept sites be acquired.

—Detailed plans for broader implementation of advanced microwave protection techniques be prepared in anticipation of the time when they are available.

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—A small White House task force examine the organizational questions connected with securing the national telecommunication network.

Eventual implementation of large-scale protection of the public sector telecommunications will require public explanation. This explanation could be based either on the need to defeat Soviet telephone interception or on broader concerns over the inherent vulnerability of microwave telephone circuits to relatively easy interception by anyone. Both these explanation scenarios are now being analyzed and this issue will be the subject of a subsequent memorandum. Although extensive disclosure at this time of the Soviet intercept problem could put on-going government actions in a more positive perspective, it could also trigger an anti-Soviet reaction as well as demands for immediate remedial actions which are beyond current technical capabilities.

For the past several months, a special NSC Panel has been studying aspects of the problem of Soviet intercept of U.S. telephone communications. The first report of the Panel is at Tab B.3 Basically the report addresses defensive measures (to protect our circuits—government and private—from interception) and offensive measures (jamming) to neutralize Soviet efforts.

Defensive Measures

As mentioned above, all government circuits are being shifted from microwave to non-interceptable cable. The Panel has highlighted in particular, however, the need to protect defense contractor communications as soon as possible. For the next few years the only feasible measure is to move defense contractor circuits from microwave to cable, as was done to protect government circuits. By far the greatest part of the defense contractor private line communications are carried by AT&T and can be moved to alternate cable routing without disclosure or explanation. The other common carriers, unlike AT&T, have no alternate cable routing to offer. Should the small number of defense contractor circuits now carried on the microwave links of these carriers be moved as well, these carriers could be expected to protest publicly since a substantial part of their current and future business would be denied by government action. We propose to move only the AT&T circuits. Pending a detailed circuit analysis, the cost of this action is estimated to be about $10 million, and is accommodated within the current DOD budget. Approximately one year will be needed to complete moving these circuits.

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There are no practicable measures to secure the telephone communications of other key institutions in the private sector at this time. Protected Radio Modulation (PRM) technology is being developed to protect all circuits on microwave links; however, this technology will not be ready for initial application in the Washington, D.C. area for about two years. In the intervening time, further planning is needed to define necessary government actions in the areas of policy, regulation, and standards; to describe the role of government in developing technology and providing oversight of the program; and to determine what facts will be disclosed to the communications industry and to the public, and at what time.

The Panel has pointed out that some government role will be necessary in a program to protect the private sector, since NSA is currently the only repository of the essential cryptographic technology. Government mandated standards and regulations will also be needed to define the degree of protection and to assure that a fully integrated public telephone system, that is, one where any user can speak to any other user, is retained. However, a highly intrusive government role is not envisioned. Instead, the commercial communications carriers would be encouraged to provide secure communication service with the costs of protection borne by the users.

The basis for undertaking such a program is the principle that U.S. citizens and institutions have a reasonable expectation of privacy when using the public telephone system. We need to develop further the rationale for privacy, including its ramifications with respect to communications policy and regulatory and legislative actions. A detailed strategy for public disclosure will also be necessary, both to explain government actions in extending communications security to the private sector and to encourage private sector utilization of secure communications services. The attached NSDM (Tab A)4 would direct the Office of Telecommunications Policy, in conjunction with DOD and NSA, to prepare a plan encompassing these elements for your consideration prior to further decision on implementation of communications security.

Offensive Measures

Jamming of the Soviet intercept sites is not judged to be an appropriate measure at this time. Such an action would be provocative, would be only partially effective for the existing intercept sites, and would not prevent the Soviets from establishing new intercept sites at unknown locations. Jamming could also escalate into a “jamming war” where we might have more to lose worldwide than the Soviets. On the [Page 849] other hand, a capability to initiate jamming as a contingency measure in the event of a crisis or other need to react quickly to Soviet intercept operations could be useful and relatively inexpensive.

The proposed NSDM directs the Secretary of Defense to develop contingency plans and acquire necessary equipment to initiate jamming operations at [4½ lines not declassified]

[6 lines not declassified] FCC approval is required; however, these approvals are normally granted on a routine basis. While this approach may be only moderately effective, it can be implemented quickly, is unlikely to draw an undesirable reaction from the Soviets, and would not be likely to result in further public disclosure.

I believe the actions contained in the proposed NSDM go as far toward securing private sector communications as is prudent and technically feasible at this time. These actions will protect critical defense contractor communications and will provide a contingency capability to jam the Soviet sites if desired. The planning actions, in conjunction with the ongoing technology program, will provide the additional information needed to make future decisions on broader protection of the private sector.

DOD, NSA and OTP actively participated in the Telecommunications Panel deliberations, coordinated on the Interim Report, and concur in the actions in the attached NSDM. OMB has reviewed the NSDM, as well as the Panel Report, and also concurs.

One other point will eventually require your decision if protection is extended to the private sector—that is the question of the government agency which should take the lead in providing oversight to a program which straddles government and private interests. The Office of Telecommunications Policy can appropriately initiate the planning function—and is so tasked in the draft NSDM—but neither it nor any other agency is now structured and chartered to carry out the management, funding, and regulation that will be required to implement those plans.

This organizational question will be considered further in an NSC-chaired ad hoc group within the Executive Office, including representatives of OMB, the Domestic Council, OTP, and the White House Counsel’s office.


That you authorize me to sign the NSDM at Tab A.5

  1. Source: Ford Library, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box 67, NSDM 338 (1). Top Secret; Sensitive. Sent for action. A note at the top of the memorandum reads: “The President Has Seen.”
  2. Cherne opened PFIAB’s June 9 meeting with President Ford by mentioning the problem: “The Board has been concerned with the Soviet microwave intercept problem for two years. We stimulated the NSC to convene the David panel. We understand a NSDM will be forthcoming shortly.” Later, Cherne closed the meeting with the following comment: “We don’t know when the Soviet intercept issue might blow. We need a damage assessment to see if what we are getting and what the Soviets are getting here are equal. We really need a net assessment made.” Ford responded: “We will take this up. Please keep on watching this sort of thing for us and we will be in touch with you on this issue.” The record of the meeting, held in the Oval Office, is ibid., National Security Adviser, Outside the System Chronological File, Box 4. It is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, Vol. XXXVIII, Organization and Management of Foreign Policy; Public Diplomacy, 1973–1976.
  3. Tab B, a June 1 letter to Ford from David summarizing the panel’s findings is attached, but not printed.
  4. Tab A, as signed, is Document 180.
  5. Ford initialed his approval.