118. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Intelligence Cases; Jailed Soviets and Embassy Penetration; U.S.-Soviet Relations


  • U.S.
  • Dr. Marshall D. Shulman
  • Sherrod McCall, Acting Director, EUR/SOV
  • U.S.S.R.
  • Minister-Counselor Alexander A. Bessmertnykh

Bessmertnykh came in at his request on instructions from Foreign Minister Gromyko and Ambassador Dobrynin. He opened by saying [Page 379] that the matters he had to discuss were potentially explosive for the relationship. The fate of the two Soviet UN employees arrested and jailed had started it,2 but the Secretary had then raised the matter of listening devices in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Firyubin3 in Moscow had given the Soviet part of the story and view of the matter, which was quite different from the U.S. assertion of the case.

Bessmertnykh stressed, and returned to the point several times, that there should be no linkage of the matter in the Embassy and the two jailed Soviets. He wanted first to discuss the Embassy matter. Gromyko had promised some information on U.S. acts of the same calibre against the Soviets here in Washington, New York and San Francisco, and Bessmertnykh was instructed to give some brief information on that subject. Reading from a Russian language nonpaper, which he did not hand over, Bessmertnykh said:

Begin Quote. In the last several years there were found in Soviet installations in the U.S. more than 50 various special electronic devices which were used for listening to conversations held in buildings and over telephones.

—1977: a special cable was discovered, and a special device, which was connected to the internal telephone system at the country residence of the Ambassador at Pioneer Point.

—1975: in the building occupied by the Soviet Trade Mission in the U.S., on Connecticut Avenue, several radio transmitters were discovered, designed for listening to conversations in working offices, including the office of the Trade Representative himself. Earlier, several special preamplified microphones were found in the former trade office building at 1511 16th Street, N.W. (these were found when the Soviets were moving out of that building).

—1973 and 1974: in the building of the Soviet Consulate General at San Francisco, there were found several radio transmitters, preamplified microphones and two cables used for listening to conversations in the offices and living quarters.

We informed U.S. authorities and the U.S. side requested no publicity. This is the same way we have proceeded in cases of agents, acting at the specific request of the U.S. side in giving no publicity. End Quote.

Turning to the two jailed Soviets, and reiterating the hope that the U.S. side would separate that case from the matter he had just addressed, Bessmertnykh said the Soviet side was very much concerned. As Gromyko had said, it was potentially very dangerous for the relationship. If not handled in a mutually acceptable way, the Soviets [Page 380] would be forced to make public what the U.S. special services were doing in Moscow.

Bessmertnykh urged that account be taken of what Gromyko had said. Gromyko would expect the Secretary to have a response from the U.S. side when they met on Wednesday.4 Any attempt to connect the two arrested Soviets with the matter at the U.S. Embassy was unnecessary and would complicate the whole thing. On May 26, Bessmertnykh said, two U.S. personnel had been caught in a closed zone of East Germany using spying devices to spy on a training activity. This was just an illustration that we should act responsibly in matters. He hoped the U.S. side would close the whole thing.

Dr. Shulman said that the two incidents were not linked, but separate and only by chance of discovery had they occurred in near proximity of time. We were frankly astonished by the report we had of Firyubin’s remarks to Charge Matlock,5 and Shulman thought Bess-mertnykh would be, too. Firyubin had said the Embassy’s actions violated health and fire codes affecting a neighboring Soviet building. This was not true. The chimney was wholly within the U.S. Embassy property and did not touch the Soviet building.

Shulman showed a copy of a Soviet drawing of the Embassy floor plan and located the chimney for Bessmertnykh to see. Looking up from the drawing, Bessmertnykh grinned and said he understood that, indeed, some protective system had been located in the chimney by the Soviet side. Nothing directed at the Ambassador’s office—something—a protective device on the Soviet side. Gromyko had some more information on this; it was not at all a device to listen into the U.S. building, but maybe to follow what was going out from there.

Shulman said we had to reject what Firyubin said as being ridiculous. We are taking the matter seriously and considering what to do. The tunnel, which runs for 20 and more feet on our property, was clearly a serious intrusion. We have not wanted to act hastily, and we wanted to have the facts before expressing ourselves. But we would have to express ourselves, and forcefully. We would do so at the proper time.

Turning to the two jailed Soviets, Shulman reiterated that there was no connection with the Embassy matter. The Secretary and the Deputy Secretary had responded to Dobrynin’s request and had the Grand Jury arraignment postponed until May 30. The U.S. position was that while Soviet UN Mission personnel were immune, these two UN [Page 381] headquarters men were not covered for activities which were not part of their UN duties. The two were engaged in espionage, for which they were not exempt from action under the law. The USG cannot countenance this kind of use of the UN. Matters could become much worse if the practice continued. This was the broader issue: the use of UN-based spies could create an episode and exascerbate relations in a way neither of us wanted, creating strong feelings.

Bessmertnykh replied that there were differences on the definition of diplomatic immunity. Regarding use of that cover, Dobrynin had mentioned five Americans who had used diplomatic cover in Moscow, and Bessmertnykh believed some names could be provided. If it came to publication, which he hoped it would not, the U.S. intelligence services would not look so nice. He mentioned the case of a Soviet named Ogorodnik6 which he said was very dirty. He had just seen the file on that case and, boy, was it unpleasant. Given the current situation in the U.S., the publication of the whole thing in that case could be very damaging to the U.S. intelligence services.

In concluding Bessmertnykh returned to the two jailed Soviets. They were in a difficult and worrisome position being in jail. But their bail had been set at $2 million, which in itself was a provocation, for which the USG was responsible. Unofficially Bessmertnykh wanted to ask if something could be done to lower the bail. That however, was not the key question, which was to have the two released at once and proceedings against them dropped.

Shulman said he noted what Bessmertnykh had said, and he would pass it along and see if anything were possible. The matter was in the hands of the court, and he could not say what the situation with regard to posting bond might be. We were watching it closely and would continue to watch it closely at various junctures in the proceedings.

  1. Source: Department of State, Office of the Secretariat Staff, Special Adviser to the Secretary (S/MS) on Soviet Affairs Marshall Shulman—Jan 21, 77–Jan 19, 81, Lot 81D109, Box 3, Shulman/Bessmertnykh, 5/29/78. Secret. Drafted by McCall; cleared by Shulman. The meeting took place in Shulman’s office.
  2. See footnote 6, Document 109.
  3. Not further identified.
  4. May 31.
  5. Transmitted in telegram 11987 from Moscow, May 28. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P890106–1028)
  6. Reference is presumably to Aleksandr Ogorodnik, a Soviet diplomat.