In this Spy Ships series, Holmes begins with the early days of naval espionage and brings us through to the present. (See articles listed below.) Today we begin looking at the Cold War Spy Ships.
Press Photo of 1964 Russian Fishing Trawler from ebay.
Cold War Spy Ships
After World War Two, Spy Ship activity by the United States and the USSR grew by at least a factor of twenty and incorporated rapidly changing technologies at a dizzying pace. Along with the United States and the USSR, countries* in Europe, South America, Central America, Asia, and Africa used maritime platforms to varying degrees for intelligence gathering operations.
A nation’s degree of participation in Spy Ship activities was, for the most part, determined by financial considerations rather than ethical or philosophical concerns. The USA and the USSR remained the pre-eminent players in seaborne intelligence activities, as well as in other types of intelligence.
Both nations had large economies, and in an age when nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them were becoming more deadly every year, they both had massive amounts of money to spend pursuing their respective intelligence goals. In terms of both expense and man power, both countries made a commitment to spy ships on a whole new scale involving thousands of people and many millions of dollars.
Westerners over the age of fifty will likely associate the term ‘Spy Ships’ with with the numerous modified Soviet fishing trawlers that prowled the seas and US coastlines, and with two particular incidents involving US ships.
The first US Spy Ship incident that looms large in America’s collective memory occurred on June 8, 1967 when Israeli jets and torpedo boats attacked the USS Liberty. The assault resulted in the deaths of thirty-four American sailors and civilian NSA employees, and several serious injuries to surviving members of the crew. That incident remains a major diplomatic problem for Israel in her relations with the US today.
What happened with the USS Liberty requires careful examination to begin to understand what we know occurred, and to question what we are uncertain about. Because of the complexity and importance of the incident and its impact on US foreign policy, we will deal with the details of the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty in a subsequent article.
The second major US Spy Ship incident that remains an angry memory for many Americans occurred less than seven months after Israel assaulted the USS Liberty. On January 23, 1968, North Korean Dictator Kim Il Sung ordered the North Korean Navy to attack and capture the USS Pueblo, an unarmed US Navy Spy Ship.
The North Koreans claim that the Pueblo entered North Korean waters. The Pueblo crew and the US Navy maintain that the USS Pueblo was and had been in international waters when a North Korean patrol boat set upon it.
Like the USS Liberty, the attack on the USS Pueblo deserves its own article, and we will deal with that incident in detail after we publish the USS Liberty article.
Due to the intense news coverage of the USS Liberty and the USS Pueblo, they are what most Westerners remember about US spy ships of the modern era. Those two incidents represent two failed operations; however, there were many fantastic successes for the US in its Spy Ship operations during the Cold War. We don’t usually hear as much about those, though, because successful intelligence operations are kept secret for as long as possible to avoid rendering them useless by announcing their success.
Because they constituted 96% of what the average voter knew about US spy ship operations, the USS Liberty and USS Pueblo incidents had a disproportionate impact on US foreign policy for several years after the incidents occurred.
On several occasions, the modified Soviet fishing trawlers that prowled the US coasts ended up at a US Coast Guard bases on the Atlantic or Pacific coasts or in Guam. Those Soviet Spy Ship crews had several advantages over US Spy Ship crews. For one thing, the Soviets were always confident that US Navy and Coast Guard vessels would act reasonably and consistently. Even when they were impounded to US bases, the crews had no reason to fear torture or abuse, and in many instances the greatest headache involved in capturing Soviet trawlers was convincing the Soviet crews to return to the USSR. Given that the defection of Soviet sailors from captured Spy Ships left the US open to charges of kidnapping, the White House and State Department preferred defections to take place under less ambiguous circumstances.
After examining the USS Liberty and USS Pueblo incidents, we will also look at an incident when a defecting Soviet sailor was forcefully returned to his ship by a US Coast Guard vessel based on orders from the Commandant of the US Coast Guard. Many Coast Guardsmen consider this incident the low point in the long and proud history of the US Coast Guard.
If anyone has questions about particular Spy Ship incidents, feel free to ask so that we can be sure to cover those incidents or debunk any myths.
*France, Great Britain, East Germany and Poland, Spain, Argentina, Chile, The South African Republic, China, Viet Nam, Canada, Israel, Egypt, India/Pakistan, and Cuba
The Spy Ship Series: