Operation Ivy Bells

In the early 1970's, US intelligance pointed at the possibility that the Russians have laid an underwater communication cable between two important naval bases in the Far East. The dangerous mission of installing a listening device on that cable was given to the navy most secretive and unusual submarine.

Hosted By

Ran Levi

Co-Founder @ PI Media

Born in Israel in 1975, Ran studied Electrical Engineering at the Technion Institute of Technology, and worked as an electronics engineer and programmer for several High Tech companies in Israel.
In 2007, created the popular Israeli podcast, Making History, with over 15 million downloads as of July 2022.
Author of 3 books (all in Hebrew): Perpetuum Mobile: About the history of Perpetual Motion Machines; The Little University of Science: A book about all of Science (well, the important bits, anyway) in bite-sized chunks; Battle of Minds: About the history of computer malware.

Operation Ivy Bells

You know, it never ceases to amaze me just how much energy and resources the United States and the Soviet Union were willing to devote to hacking each other and other countries during the Cold War. We told some of the crazier stories in previous episodes of Malicious Life, like how the Russians planted a listening device – nicknamed The Thing – in a plaque that hung right above the ambassador’s desk in the American embassy in Moscow, or how the NSA secretly bought a Swiss crypto-machines manufacturer – Crypto AG – and sold flawed devices to dozens of countries all over the world.

It’s clear that the two superpowers were willing to go to great lengths to learn their rival’s secrets – but this week, we’re taking you back more than 50 years to an amazing operation — a joint enterprise of the US Navy and the NSA — that really raises the bar in that regard. Or should I say – lowers the bar?… Grab your wetsuits, and let’s dive right in… 

An Underwater Cable

It’s 3am in the morning, and James Bradely – Director of Undersea Warfare at the Office of Naval Intelligence – is sitting in his office, deep in thought.

In the early 1970’s. Ten years or so have passed since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, but the world wasn’t a much safer place: both two superpowers had thousands upon thousands of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles aimed at one another, poised for launch at the figurative press of a button. Many of these missiles were installed on submarines which quietly prowled the oceans, hiding beneath the waves. It’s no wonder, then, that It was absolutely vital for the US to know the location – or at the very least the approximate patrol routes – of Soviet nuclear armed submarines. 

 The information he received did not specify the telephone line’s route, but Bradely had a strong hunch. The two naval bases – one situated near North Korea’s border with the Soviet Union, and the other in the Kamchatka Peninsula – were many thousands of miles apart by land, but only a few hundred miles or so by sea. It would make geographic and economic sense for the Russians to lay an underwater cable between the two bases rather than a much longer land line – especially since an underwater cable would be much more secure against eavesdropping than a landline. 

…But that was exactly the problem. 

Bradely was an experienced seaman. He served as a ship’s captain in the Pacific theater during World War II and the Vietnam war, and knew very well how difficult it would be – in fact, nearly impossible – to find a single underwater cable in the vast, empty expanse of the Pacific ocean floor. It would take literally years of searching. 

And what’s more, the Sea of Okhotsk – the body of water that separates the Kamchatka Peninsula from the Russian mainland – although formally designated as ‘international waters’ by maritime law, was aggressively claimed by the Soviet Union as territorial waters. Russian warships regularly patrolled the area, and the Soviet Navy even deployed a network of sound detection devices along the seafloor to detect any unwelcome, snooping visitors. Any encounter with a US warship sailing in the Sea of Okhotsk would definitely spark a serious international incident between the two rival superpowers. 

So how does one go about finding a single telephone cable, no wider than five inches, running along the ocean floor at a depth of up to 11,000 ft. in a 600,000 sq. miles wide body of water, right next to the Russian coast – without being noticed?… If it were a television drama, the theme music of Mission: Impossible would surely be playing in the background. 

This being 3am, Bradley let his mind drift in the muted clam of the empty offices around him. He returned, in his mind’s eye, to his childhood in St. Louis, Missouri. To the small boy who walked along the banks of the busy Mississippi River, watching the many boats cruising along the wide waterway, occasionally dropping their anchors along its shores…

And that’s when it hit him. There WAS a way to find the elusive cable. It would be extremely dangerous – even foolishly dangerous, some might argue – but it was doable, at least in theory. It would require a submarine, and not just any submarine.

Bradley, who also served on a sub in his days in the navy, was very familiar with the US submarine fleet – and he knew that there was only one sub, in the entire US fleet, which was capable of carrying out such an exceptional mission: a mission christened “Operation Ivy Bells.”

The Halibut

The USS Halibut, aka SSN-587, was somewhat of a disappointment when it was first launched in 1959. 

It was designed as a missile platform, and carried up to five Regulus I nuclear cruise missiles – the first sub specially designed to carry such missiles. But by the time the Halibut made her first dive – the Regulus I missiles it carried were already made obsolete by the much improved Polaris Ballistic Missile, which could be fired from underwater – while the Regulus missiles could only be fired from the surface. The Regulus program was promptly canceled, and the Halibut spent the next four years idly patrolling the Pacific ocean until the missiles it carried were finally retired for good. 

But the Halibut itself was great sub: true, at 5000 tons of underwater displacement, it was rather small by contemporary standards – but it had an innovative nuclear reactor and a respectable maximum speed of 20 knots underwater. The navy’s chiefs decided, then, to refit it for a different role: finding stuff underwater. 

And so in 1968 the Halibut underwent a complete overhaul. It was fitted with side thrusters that allowed it to hover in place underwater, a lateral sonar and a two-ton, 5M$, video-camera equipped mini-sub called ‘The Fish’ – one of the most advanced underwater technologies at the time. The missile hangar was converted to a high-tech lab where special support equipment was installed, such as a 24-bit UNIVAC computer (the first time a digital computer was installed in a submarine) and a full blown photo-development lab. The Halibut’s crew jokingly referred to the lab as The Bat Cave.

The Halibut’s first test came shortly after, when on March 8th 1968, K-129, a Soviet ballistic missile submarine, sank in the Pacific due to an internal explosion whose reason remains unknown to this day. The Soviets were unable to locate the lost sub, but the Halibut discovered it in only three weeks using its robotic remote-controlled cameras. The CIA was later able to recover part of the K-129 in what’s known as ‘Project Azorian’ – a fascinating tale that probably deserves a dedicated episode of its own. 

The Halibut’s advanced capabilities and proven success made it perfect for James Bradely’s plans, and after asking for and obtaining the needed approvals from his superiors, he met with the Halibut’s captain – Commander John E. McNish – and explained his idea. 

Bradley recalled from his youth that the Mississippi River banks were dotted with signs carrying the warning: ‘Cable Crossing – Do Not Anchor.’ This was because marine anchors were the most serious threat to the underwater cables that crossed the river, and frequently tore or damaged them. Bradley guessed that the Russian engineers would be worried about the same thing happening to their precious underwater telephone line – and so would surely position similar signs on the beach next to where the cable entered the water. He wanted the Halibut to covertly scan the Russian coast for such a placard, follow the cable as it left the shore into the sea – and attach an electronic listening device to it. 

This was obviously an extremely dangerous mission. The Halibut would have to silently cross the Sea of Okhotsk, evading the network of sound detection devices and any Russian vessels that might patrol it, and sail right up to the Soviet coastline. It was widely believed that the Soviets would not immediately sink a surface vessel discovered inside the Sea of Okhotsk – but that they would have no qualms sinking a submarine, especially one detected within 3 miles of the coast – which is an internationally recognized Soviet sovereign territory. 

This was also a top secret mission, which meant that only Commander McNish and a handful of his officers were allowed to know its real goals. The rest of the crew – some 100 seamen – were not even allowed to know the voyage’s destination: all they knew was that they would be out at sea for at least three months. 

As yet another layer of disguise, the Halibut was assigned a second mission – a secondary mission that was presented as its primary one. It had to do with a new kind of Anti-Ship cruise missile, called SS-N-12 Sandbox, developed by the Soviet Union to be used against U.S. aircraft carriers. The Sandbox was a supersonic missile that was equipped with an advanced radar-based altimeter that allowed it to skim close to the water surface as it approached the target vessel – and so poised a serious threat to U.S. navy ships. The Sandbox was also thought to be equipped with a new Infrared guidance system that would allow it to evade all of the Carrier’s countermeasures, making it doubly dangerous. The Soviets had a missile test range in the area, and Bradely hoped that the Halibut would be able to recover fragments of the new missile that sank to the ocean’s floor. 

Planting the Pod

The Halibut secretly left its harbor in December of 1971, carrying with it a small contingent of NSA specialists which the crew nicknamed ‘spooks’. A few weeks later the sub slipped past the  Kuril Islands: an 800 mile long chain of islands that marks the edge of the Sea of Okhotsk. It was also a somber reminder of the dangers they were facing: if the submarine was discovered, the Soviets could easily block the narrow and shallow channels that separated the individual islands. The whole mission was one big gamble: not only could Bradely’s ideas regarding the warning signs turn out to be utterly wrong – the very existence of an underwater communication link itself was never conclusively proved. The Halibut and its 100 strong crew might be risking their lives for literally nothing

But after a week of searching – they found it: a sign post sitting along the beach, somewhere along the northern coast of the Sea of Okhotsk, with the words `Do Not Anchor. Cable Here.’ written in Cyrillic letters. Jame Bradley was right, after all. 

Commander McNish followed the underwater cable eastward, until they were about 40 miles off the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula, where the wire rested at a depth of some 400 feet. It took the Halibut about a day to firmly fix the cable’s position using the Fish’s cameras, and maneuver itself into place just above it. 

Now, it was time for the 2nd part of the mission – which involved an entirely different type of danger. 

Saturation Diving

Scuba diving is a recreational sport enjoyed by millions, but as any experienced diver would tell you – it can be a dangerous sport, if not practiced safely: divers need to be proficient in both handling their compressed-air equipment, and recognizing the various perils of the underwater environment. 

But when diving to depths greater than 100 feet, a new and insidious peril awaits the divers: Nitrogen Narcosis. 

It derives from the fact that roughly 70% of the air we normally breathe is Nitrogen, an inert gas. As the diver plunges ever deeper, the ambient pressure of the surrounding water rises, and with it the pressure of the gas being breathed. Breathing highly pressurized Nitrogen, it turns out, can lead to a state of drunkenness, not much different than alcohol intoxication, which can cause a severe impairment of judgment and coordination, as well as visual or auditory hallucinations. This is an extremely dangerous condition which has claimed the lives of untold numbers of divers over the years.  

In the late 1950s, Navy Captain George F. Bond set about developing new methods to allow divers to go deeper and stay underwater for longer periods of time. The result of Bond’s SeaLab research project was a new type of gas mixture, called Heliox, in which the Nitrogen was replaced with Helium – a type of inert gas that does not cause narcosis – and the Oxygen content was lowered to below 10%. The new mixture allowed divers to go as deep as 2000 feet without adverse effects. 

But deep diving brought with it a new challenge: decompression. 

It wasn’t exactly a new challenge, really: divers were already familiar with a phenomena known as Decompression Sickness, or The Bends. While breathing compressed air, the inert gasses present in it find their way into the body’s tissues and dissolve in them until an equilibrium is reached with the ambient pressure of the gasses in the divers lungs. This, by itself, is harmless: when the diver rises to the surface, the dissolved gasses will spontaneously leave the tissues and be expelled from the lungs through normal breathing. But if the diver rises to the surface too quickly, the dissolved gasses can’t escape the tissues fast enough and so form tiny bubbles inside them: these bubbles can settle in joints such as the knees or elbows, and cause excruciating pain that makes the person “bend over”, so to speak – hence the name The Bends. Decompression sickness, if left untreated, can be fatal. To avoid this, divers are told to – among other safety measures –  limit the rate in which they ascend back to the surface to about 30 feet per minute. 

But as the diver goes deeper – decompression times start to grow at a non-linear rate, and at some point, so much time is spent decompressing that there isn’t enough time to do actual useful work underwater, nullifying the advantages of using the new gas mixture. 

There is, however, a silver lining. Once the inert gasses dissolve fully in the body’s tissues – i.e. saturation is reached – it doesn’t really matter if the dive lasts five minutes or five days: only a single decompression period is needed at the end of the dive. 

Thus a clever solution presents itself: If, after the dive, the divers return to a chamber whose air is kept at the same mixture and pressure as the ones they breath during the dive – saturation is maintained at all time, allowing the divers to leave the pressurized chamber and return to it as many times as needed. This makes it possible for the divers to spend weeks underwater to accomplish whatever task is needed – with only a single, long decompression phase when they are ready to go back to the surface. 

Since it was obvious that the Halibut would need to carry deep-sea divers to accomplish some tasks (such as salvage missions for example), it needed to have an external, pressurized chamber attached to its main hull. But such a chamber would be so out of place when mounted on the slick, hydrodynamic body of a submarine that it would immediately be noticed in a satellite image, thus giving away the Halibut’s special role and capabilities. 

The Navy’s solution was an ingenious one. The Halibut’s external chamber was designed to look like a miniature submarine – complete with a fake propeller in the back – and presented to the press as a simulator for a new type of Deep-Submergence Rescue Vehicle. No one suspected that the so-called ‘Rescue Vehicle’ was actually a pressurized compartment where divers lived and worked in between deep-sea dives. 

After the Halibut dropped anchor next to the underwater telephone line, it was time for its divers to get to work. Two divers exited the external pressurized chamber carrying pneumatic airguns, and began to blow away sand and debris to expose the sunken wire. It was a tough and challenging task: the water was extremely cold, a tad above freezing, and the divers had to be tethered to sub with a line that carried hot water, as well as the special gas mixture that enabled them to work at the required depth. This tether tended to get tangled, and in at least one occasion almost prevented a diver from being able to return to the external chamber. Visibility was 6 feet at best, and to top-off the hardships – the Helium-rich mixture caused the divers’ voices to become so high-pitched as to be almost ineligible for the NSA spooks who were communicating with them from inside the Bat Cave. The divers had to use a special mechanical ‘descrambler’ that lowered their voices’ pitch, but this did relatively little to improve the situation. 

Still, the determined divers were able to expose a suitable length of cable, and it was now time to install “The Pod”: the electronic listening device. It was hastily designed for the mission, with one major requirement in mind: it had to be able to read the signals running through the cable – externally, without penetrating the cable itself in anyway, since even a tiny hole in the cable’s coating would enable water to come into contact with the metal wires, damaging them and potentially alerting the Russians that something was wrong. Thus the POD was equipped with a special wire that wrapped around the telephone line and detected the signals by the electric and magnetic fields they emitted as they passed through it. 

These electromagnetic fields were quite feeble and the Pod was barely sensitive enough to pick them up, so the divers had to look for one of the many amplifiers that the Russian engineers placed along the telephone line and place the Pod right next to it. This turned out to be a challenge: It took the diver two consecutive dives to detect and uncover such an amplifier – but they finally did it. The Halibut stayed in place for a few hours as the Pod recorded the signals that went through the cable, and then the listening device was disengaged from the cable and brought back inside the submarine. 

With the Halibut’s primary mission done, it was now time to move on to the secondary mission. The sub quietly sailed to the Soviet Missile Test Range, and the Fish was sent out to look for debris on the ocean floor. After some searching, they found it: a large debris field, covered with numerous bits of metal shards and fragments of electronic circuit boards – remnants of a recent Soviet test of their new SS-N-12 Sandbox missile. Once again the divers left the external chamber, and collected some two million pieces, no larger than six inches at best. When the Navy’s engineers inspected these debris, they came to the conclusion that the Sandbox did not, in fact, have an Infrared Tracking system, making it a less severe threat to the Navy’s carriers than previously thought. 

The Beast

A few weeks later the Halibut returned to San Francisco. The NSA people were so impatient to get their hands on the recording, that they boarded the sub while it was still out in the bay, before it even docked at the harbor. 

As they examined the recordings, the investigators were thrilled to learn that the Soviets were so confident in the security and secrecy of their underwater communications line – that they did not bother to encrypt most of the conversations that went through it. But on the other hand, it turned out that the underwater cable included not one but a dozen different telephone lines bundled together – which were all recorded simultaneously, making the resulting recording a garbled cacophony. 

James Bradely turned to Bell Laboratories, a well known hub of scientific and technological innovation whose engineers were very familiar with commercial underwater phone cables, and asked the organization to develop a 2nd, more advanced, version of the recording Pod. 

Bell Labs rose to the challenges. The listening device’s 2nd iteration was massive – nearly 20 feet long, 3 feet wide and weighing 6 tons – earning it the moniker ‘The Beast’. And the Beast was powerful indeed. It was designed to pick up electronic signals from dozens of telephone lines and record them – individually – on a 3-inch tape, for months or even a year. It was powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator: a device that generated electricity from radioactive decay without any moving parts. It was also designed so that if the Russians decided to raise the cable – for maintenance, for example – it would break off and fall to the sea floor, to prevent it from being discovered. 

 gust, 1972, the Beast was ready and loaded into the Halibut. This time, Commander McNish decided to brief the subs crew about the true nature of their mission and the risks it involved. This was, in principle, at odds with the Navy’s security policy of disseminating sensitive information on a ‘need to know’ basis only – but McNish probably felt he had a good reason to tell his men the truth. The Halibut had several black boxes placed at various locations at the bow, stern and midship of the sub, and these boxes carried explosives: if the Halibut became trapped, he told his men, they would not be taken alive. The Halibut carried so much secretive and cutting edge technology, that it was simply too valuable to be allowed to be captured by the Russians. 

Of the Halibut’s 100 men strong crew, only one man – a veteran crew member who was only one year away from a full pension – chose to stay behind. He was flown back to California, where he was given an honorable discharge with a full pension. 

By the time the Halibut slipped past the Soviet detection system and came to a hover above the exposed underwater cable, a large storm was brewing above the Sea of Okhotsk. When the divers finished deploying the gargantuan listening device, the Halibut was already rocking wildly, straining against her anchors. The divers were trapped outside the sub, unable to make their way back to their pressurized chamber. 

Suddenly, a loud SNAP! As both anchors gave up. The Halibut became free from her chains and began to drift upwards, toward the surface – with the divers still tethered to it: they could not cut themselves free, since the hoses were the ones supplying them with breathable air. The officer of the deck had a tough choice: if he let the submarine rise to the surface, the divers would decompress far too quickly. If he ordered the subs ballast tanks flooded, the Halibut would violently crash to the sea floor, endangering everyone on board. It was a terrible choice, and the officer had only seconds to make the call. 

He made up his mind. “Flood it!” he shouted to his men, the water began rushing into the tanks. The Halibut crashed into the sandy sea floor. 

Some time later, with its divers safely inside the pressurized chamber, Commander McNish ordered his men to blow off a bit of ballast water, to see how his sub reacted. The Halibut didn’t budge: it was still mired in the sand.

McNish realized he had only one option left – an emergency blow out: inject all of the subs remaining compressed air into the ballast tanks, in the hope that the sudden buoyancy would free the Halibut from the sand’s tight grip. It was an all or nothing maneuver: there wasn’t enough compressed gas for a second try. And even if they succeeded in freeing the submarine – the danger would not be over: the Russians might notice the emergency blowout’s huge splash, and come after them with everything they’ve got. 

…but McNish trusted his men. When he finally gave the signal, the Halibut’s crew sprang into action like a well-oiled machine. The compressed gas was violently discharged into the ballast tanks, pushing the water out of the submarine – but right as the heavy vessel started to lift itself out of the muddy sea floor, the flood valves were opened again, just enough so that the water which rushed back into the tanks slowed the wild ascent. To call this a tricky situation would be an understatement: Too little water – and the Halibut will break the surface. Too much water – and the Halibut would descend right back into the sea floor. 

But they made it. The emergency ascent slowed more and more, until the Halibut came to a hover at mid-depth, still hidden from Soviet eyes. We can only imagine the sighs of relief heard throughout the sub. The Halibut’s men turned their sub around, and headed back home. 

Game Over

A few months later the Halibut returned to the same location, and its divers retrieved the Beast’s recording tapes and replaced them with new ones. When the tapes were analyzed at the NSA’s Fort George. G. Meade complex, they were found to hold an unimaginable wealth of intelligence information: conversations between senior Soviet field commanders about their tactics, plans and maintenance issues. Logistical reports with information about missing spare parts that hindered the Soviet’s vessels operational readiness. Details about patrol routes. “An intelligence gold mine,” as one commentator called it. 

The Halibut made several more excursions into the Sea of Okhotsk in the following years, to retrieve and replace the Beast’s tapes. When the unique submarine was decommissioned in 1975, other submarines carried on the courier missions – the USS Parche, USS Sea Wolf and the USS Richard B. Russell. 

And then, all of the sudden, one day in 1981 – it was all over. Satellite images showed a small fleet of Russian warships – including one known to have deep salvage capabilities – gathering around the exact location of the listening device. It was obvious that the Russians had learned about Operation Ivy Bells. But how? No one had a clue, but in an amazingly dangerous call, the USS Parch was sent to retrieve the immensely valuable Beast before it fell into Soviet hands. The Parch made it to the cable without being noticed – but failed: the Russians had already seized the recording device. 

For some years, the NSA was at loss as to how the Russians learned about the listening device. Could it be an accidental discovery? Few people considered it to be probable, given the underwater cable’s immense length and the depth at which it was placed. But if it wasn’t an accidental discovery – what was it then?…

The NSA learned the truth unexpectedly in July, 1985, when KGB colonel Vitaly Yurchenko decided to defect to the United States. Yurchenko would later return to the Soviet Union, claiming the supposed defection was nothing but an ‘infiltration operation’ to fool the CIA. Some experts believe, though, that Yurchenko’s initial defection was an honest one – because during his investigation, Yurchenko told his CIA contacts about two American intelligence officers that were recruited by the KGB. One was Edward Lee Howard who managed to flee to the Soviet Union before he was caught. 

Yurchenko couldn’t recall the other spy’s name, though: he told his investigators that he only met the man once, when the turncoat stepped into the Soviet Union’s embassy in Washington D.C and offered to reveal information he learned while serving in the NSA itself. All he remembered from this brief encounter was that the defector in question was red-haired. 

The FBI began a covert investigation to uncover the mole. The agents scoured the NSA personnel file for all the red-haired men they could find, and simultaneously turned to the CIA who, it turns out, was listening in on all the phone conversations coming in and out of the Soviet embassy. And sure enough, on January 14th, 1980, the CIA recorded the following phone conversation:

Caller: Ah, I have something I would like to discuss with you. I think that would be very interesting to you. 

Soviet Embassy: Uh-huh, uh-huh

Caller: Is there any way to do so, in, ah, confidence or privacy?

Soviet Embassy: I see …

Caller: I come from – I, I, I am in, with the United States government. 

Soviet Embassy: Ah, huh, United States government. … Maybe you can visit.  

Yurchenko told his investigators that initially, the Russians suspected that this was some kind of CIA trap – but the information provided by the mole was found to be accurate…including, it seemed, information about Operation Ivy Bells and the secret listening device at the bottom of the ocean. 

Back then, the CIA had no way to know the identity of the caller – but by crossing the voice in the recording with the pool of red-haired NSA employees, the FBI was able to zero in on one Ronald Pelton. 

Ronald Pelton

Pelton was a 44 years old analyst who was fluent in Russian and spent 14 years working for the NSA. In 1979 Pelton failed a routine polygraph test when questioned about drug use. Subsequently, he was demoted and his salary was halved. A few months later he resigned. 

The FBI placed Pelton under surveillance, and his phone and car were bugged. During the investigation they learned that Pelton was having a deep marital and financial crisis: a failed home renovation project left him with a 65K$ debt (roughly 200K$ in today’s money) that resulted in him becoming bankrupt, which then in turn spiraled into drug and alcohol abuse that led to his divorce. After leaving the NSA, Ronald held a series of jobs, but was unable to climb out of the financial pit he was in. In other words, it seemed that Pelton had a good financial motivation to sell his secrets to the Russians – but the FBI still didn’t have any incriminating evidence against him. 

And then, in 1985, just before sitting down for a meal at a French restaurant in Washington D.C, ex-Soviet colonel Vitaly Yurchenko told his CIA bodyguard that he was going for a short walk – and never returned. He popped up several days later in a press conference called by the Soviet Embassy, following his presumed successful ‘infiltration operation.’ 

Fearing that the KGB would tip Pelton off about the ongoing investigation against him, the FBI had no choice but to act quickly. In November 25, 1985, An agent approached Pelton and convinced him to meet at a Hilton hotel, where the ex-NSA analyst was confronted with the recording of his phone conversation with the Soviet embassy. Luckily for the FBI, after a few hours of interrogation, Pelton decided to confess his actions. 

It turns out that between 1980 and 1983, Pelton visited the Soviet embassy in Vienna, Austria, several times. He sat down with the local KGB chief and recalled – from memory – details about five of the agency’s projects, one being Operation Ivy Bells. In return, the Russians paid Roland about 35K$ in total – 5K of which specifically for the information he provided about Operation Ivy Bells. 

Ronald Pelton stood trial for treason in 1986, and was sentenced to three life terms to be served in parallel. He was released in 2015, age 74, and passed away – bitter and full of regret, according to his relatives – in 2022. 

The Beast listening device is said to be displayed at the Great Patriotic War museum in Moscow.


Thus ended the story of Operation Ivy Bells. It seems a pity that such a thrilling and dramatic operation, which cost  hundreds of millions of dollars and put so many lives of brave and dedicated men at risk – was ultimately exposed and brought down for the meager sum of 5000 dollars. 

But apart from the valuable tactical information it provided for the almost 10 years in which it was active, Operation Ivy Bells might also have helped – ironically – with making the world a safer place for everyone. That’s because the information gleaned from the operation was also pivotal in aiding the successful negotiations between the US and the Soviet Union about reducing their mutual nuclear arsenals, as part of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (aka the SALT II agreement) signed by the two superpowers in 1979. As former US Navy diver Garry Matheny, who was one of the divers that installed the listening device, recalled in an interview to The Defense Post, he was told by people in the know that – 

“[In order] to have peace treaties and strategic arms negotiations with the Soviets, we needed to know what they had. Not what they told us they had, but what they really had.

We were told it was like playing poker with someone. You would have the obvious advantage if you knew what the other guy was holding in his hand. He couldn’t bluff you. When our arms negotiators faced off with the Russians, our guys had the best and most up-to-date information. And when the Russians want to trade off some missile system we knew didn’t work, then our guys could tell them, ‘That’s okay. You can keep it!’”