Sunday, November 18, 2012

Russian Fish intelligence – A case of quantity over quality

As I’ve mentioned before the internal Soviet radioteletype network was intercepted during the 1930’s and 1940’s by the Germans and postwar by the Americans.

The intercepted plaintext traffic concerned economic and military matters and was of vital importance in finding out what was happening inside the Soviet Union.

However the Russian Fish intelligence was definitely a case of quantity over quality. This is clearly mentioned in several TICOM reports and matches the American assessment during the early cold war period.

Alexis Dettmann, head of cryptanalysis at the German Army’s cryptanalytic centre in the East -Horchleitstelle Ost, says in TICOM DF-112:

The monitoring and deciphering of internal radio traffic was not an assignment of army signal intelligence units but necessarily messages of internal networks were solved and worked on. Special offices in the former German army were occupied among other things with the reception of messages of Baudot circuits, the value of the results however belonged in a different sector. Even in the years 1938/39 a relatively simple devise was constructed which made it possible to reproduce directly on typewriters the Baudot messages which in part ware transmitted by high-speed transmitters. The results from the point of view of content in no wise corresponded to the expectations. Of the entire traffic monitored at great expense at best 10% was useful for economic leaders while military-political matters constituted hardly 1%.. The major portion of these messages was like the content of the long distance telephone messages and contained private or business affairs. It was learned that all these circuits were not only monitored and controlled by the NKVD but in many cases were directed by it, and that in all probability the GUP-NKVD was also responsible in large measure for the issue of cryptographic material for internal radio traffic.’

Otto Buggisch, a member of the cipher machine department of the German army’s signal intelligence agency, gives the same percentage in TICOM I-58:

Further on Russian Baudot – B. says that one Dipl. Ing. Gramberg came to group IV with him from In 7/VI (Army Signal Intelligence) and was used to translate the intercepted clear text in Russian Baudot. ‘’ 90% of it was unimportant’’.

The relative lack of importance of each individual message was also recognized by the Americans. According to NSA history ‘The Invisible Cryptologists: African-Americans, WWII to 1956’:

‘The ASA. effort to exploit Russian plaintext traffic began in 1946 with the part-time assignment of several linguists to the target. At that time, however, the Agency's emphasis was on the translation of encrypted messages, and the employment of scarce Russian linguists on plain text was judged to be unwarranted. Later, in May 1947, the effort was revised at the Pentagon. Individuals without security clearances or with partial clearances would sift through volumes of messages and translate all or parts of those determined to have intelligence value. Placed in charge of this group was Jacob Gurin, an ASA Russian linguist who had immigrated to the U.S. with his parents at the age of three.


From the Agency's inception under William Friedman, its business was the breaking of codes and ciphers. Once the underlying text was revealed, individual messages were translated, and, after a reporting mission was established, selected ones were published on 3" x 5" cards. While individual decrypted messages could be extremely valuable, plaintext messages were most often preformatted status reports that were insignificant when considered singly. Jack Gurin was convinced that if these messages were assembled and analyzed in the aggregate, they could yield valuable information on Soviet defense capabilities.

For both the Germans and Americans the limited value of single messages was leveraged by the huge intercept volumes.

FMS P-038 ‘German Radio intelligence’ says: ‘At the experimental station the volume of recordings, which were made available to the cryptanalysis and evaluation sections of the Armed Forces Cryptographic Branch and the Evaluation Control Center of OKH, averaged ten million transmissions a day.

Information on the  Anglo-American interception is available in NSA history ‘On Watch: Profiles from the National Security Agency’s past 40 years’:

In addition to manual Morse, the Soviets were using a good deal of [redacted] among others. The Soviet plaintext problem was a SIGINT success story from the beginning, from the design of electro-mechanical processing equipment that could handle each new Soviet development to the painstaking analysis of the intercepted communications. A joint American-British effort against these communications in the nineteen-forties led to high intercept volume and new engineering challenges in the face of proliferating Soviet [redacted] techniques.

At one time the United States and Britain together were processing as many as two million plaintext messages a month, messages containing everything from money orders to birthday greetings. The production task was awesome, with analysts manually leafing through mountains of page copy, meticulously screening millions of messages. [redacted] The investment paid off, leading, to an encyclopedic knowledge of what was going on in the Soviet Union. Over 95 percent of what the United States knew about Soviet weaponry in the nineteen-forties came from analysis of plaintext radioprinter traffic. Almost everything American policy makers learned about the Soviet nuclear energy and nuclear weapons programs came from [redacted] radioprinter traffic, the result of fitting together thousands of tiny, selected pieces of the jig saw puzzle.’

1 comment:

  1. Hello Christos,
    Fantastic blog.

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