Whenever we think of spies (well, those of us who aren’t spies, anyway), we think of men and women in expensive suits slipping into secure rooms, applying clever tools to locked filing cabinets, and walking off with secret documents. Sometimes it’s war plans, and sometimes it’s the names of every agent in MI6 or the Impossible Mission Force. (That was the plot of pretty much every Mission: Impossible movie.) But that’s thinking small. Over the years, spies have managed to steal some very big things. Here are a few of them.
The Space Shuttle
When the United States decided to send the space shuttle to Russia’s Mir space station in 1995, you would think there would have been a nontrivial problem with linkage. Parking a spacecraft isn’t like docking a seafaring vessel—one little error and you’ve got astronauts being sucked whole through cracks the size of a matchstick. Perhaps unexpectedly, however, NASA had no problems establishing a docking clamp at all. In fact, they used the same plans from the Russian space shuttle.
How? The Russian shuttle was the same as the American one. The KGB stole our plans.
The spy operation was the result of an alarming 1974 message from the Soviet Military-Industrial Commission to Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union. The message noted that the United States was working on a “winged space vehicle,” that was “capable, through a side maneuver, of changing its orbit in such a way that it would find itself at the right moment right over Moscow, possibly with dangerous cargo.”
Brezhnev was led to believe that the U.S. space shuttle was an apocalyptic weapon, and decided that he wanted one, too. After giving up on a design of their own (and after it became clear that, no, the Enterprise was not a space bomber), Soviets began mining commercial databases for everything on the space shuttle they could find—and they found quite a bit. Enough, in fact, to save billions on research and development. We did all the testing for them. Nobody ever called the space shuttle a good design (in fact, it’s a downright terrible design), so it’s more than coincidence that the Soviet equivalent is pretty much identical.
An entire spy agency headquarters
In what has been called a “security blunder of epic proportions,” the Australia Security Intelligence Organisation had the floor plans for its $630 million headquarters stolen by Chinese hackers. Why is this even worse than you might think? As one Australian security analyst explained, from the floor plans, “you can start constructing your own wiring diagrams, where the linkages are through telephone connections, through wi-fi connections, which rooms are likely to be the ones that are used for sensitive conversations, how to surreptitiously put devices into the walls of those rooms.” Apparently, the Chinese targeted one of the steel contractors working on the building’s construction.
The atomic bomb
The Manhattan Project had a Soviet master-spy in its ranks, and he managed to walk away with the secrets of the atomic bomb. Iowa native George Koval, who operated under the codename Delmar, was a devoted communist who had a backdoor into the atomic program. As a sergeant in the Army, Koval was stationed at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during the uranium enrichment phase for the Hiroshima bomb. By chance, he was then transferred to Dayton, Ohio, where scientists were developing the highly advanced polonium trigger for the Nagasaki bomb. He was able to steal information not as a scientist on the inside, but as a health physicist whose job it was to protect Manhattan Project workers from radiation poisoning. In that role, he had full access to the key facilities, and could walk out with all the files he needed. Koval cut five years from the time it would have otherwise taken the USSR to build the Bomb. So effective was his tradecraft that his work was only a rumor until 2002, when his identity was at last revealed. In 2007, Vladimir Putin awarded Koval a posthumous gold star for Heroes of the Russian Federation, the nation’s highest medal.
The computer industry
In the 1960s, the importance of supercomputers in war planning was undeniable, and the United States had the best computers. The IBM System/360 was the workhorse that helped put a man on the moon, and just the kind of machine the Soviet Union needed. The problem for the East was that IBM wasn’t exactly taking orders from them, so Soviet spies did what they are good at—they stole the plans. Later, the Soviets aggressively filched the schematics to microcomputers and personal computers. The reproductions were so faithful to the originals that the machines actually ran Unix, DOS, and Microsoft Windows. (Eventually, the CIA got wise to the operation and began leaking intentionally flawed microprocessor and operating system designs.)
The F-35 Lightning II fighter jet
Aside from a few appearances in movies based on Marvel comics, nothing has gone right for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. To make matters worse, during the jet’s development, Chinese spies managed to download terrabytes of data on the F-35’s electronic systems, in a case of cyber espionage at its best. Specifically, according to the Wall Street Journal, “the system responsible for diagnosing a plane’s maintenance problems during flight,” which is exactly the kind of thing you never want to get out, ever—especially for a plane with as many maintenance problems as the F-35. More might have been stolen, but it’s impossible to say because of the encryption method used by foreign intelligence.