When a Trash Can Becomes a Counterintelligence Nightmare


In the intelligence business, it pays to know history. If Julius Rosenberg never stole a single secret of the atomic bomb, which he did through compromising his brother-in-law in the 1940s, he would still have been one of the most successful Soviet spies ever. One of the projects Rosenberg, an electrical engineer, compromised was a proximity fuse. This is a fuse which, when fired at an aircraft, does not have to hit the target to be a success. It only has to get near it to detonate and then destroy the bomber.

Unlike the Manhattan Project which developed the American bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, the proximity fuse was far less complicated. Whereas the theft of the Manhattan Project plans required many spies working in tandem, the proximity fuse theft was relatively easy. Rosenberg volunteered to take out the trash at night, and did so. On each trip, he secured the components of the part, and delivered them to his Soviet espionage handler. Then the Soviets would reverse engineer parts they received. They didn’t have to worry at all about proper metallic content because they already had the components, measurements, design, and balance.

Why should intelligence officers know this? Why should you, a security clearance holder, care? For several reasons, some of which are obvious, others not. To begin with, Rosenberg was an electrical engineer. He was not a sultry, sophisticated spy. He simply took what was laying around. And ‘laying around’ is quite literally where he found the parts of the proximity fuse. Over several nights he collected shards of metal, sending them along. Why shards? Shards show metallic composition. Then as the project developed, he’d collect the various components. Why? No need to create a balanced part if one is simply available, not controlled, or even ‘seen’ by those who walk past them on the production floor every day. It was simplicity itself to steal these parts.

Time passed and Rosenberg, together with his wife, were captured in 1950, tried and executed in 1953 for espionage by the U.S. Government. No one was executed for stealing the proximity fuse. The only persons who died as a result of that espionage were U.S. pilots who were shot down over Korea by the remarkable new Soviet proximity fuse, provided to North Korean gunners.

Clearance holders must to be aware of their surroundings. Plans must be protected. And items themselves, no matter how, or where, or by whom constructed, are protected if their loss would compromise them. Do so by knowing the entire process of disposal of components of classified materials. To do that, you have to know what is a protected component. Don’t rely on anyone to get rid of something for you. Know where it goes. If you don’t, you may find it  coming at the people it was made to protect.

John William Davis was commissioned an artillery officer and served as a counterintelligence officer and linguist. Thereafter he was counterintelligence officer for Space and Missile Defense Command, instructing the threat portion of the Department of the Army's Operations Security Course. Upon retirement, he wrote of his experiences in Rainy Street Stories.

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