22 September 2015

Memories of a Cold War U.S. Navy SIGINTer and His Secret Missions on Ships and Subs

September 20, 2015

‘Spook’ tells tales of time as Naval cryptologist

STONINGTON, Conn. (AP) - It was the winter of 1963 and George Cassidy was in the midst of the Navy’s boot camp in Great Lakes, Michigan, when he was told to go see the psychiatrist.

“This knocked the socks off of me,” Cassidy said recently from his home in Stonington. “I didn’t think I was stupid or crazy or something … you think all sorts of things.”

The psychiatrist asked him personal questions and more broad ones about communications and whether he could keep secrets. He left the meeting with the psychiatrist still unsure of why he’d been ordered there in the first place.

Cassidy joined the Navy in October of 1962 right around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

After the meeting with the psychiatrist, an officer approached Cassidy and told him the Navy wanted him to be a “CT.”

“And I said ‘what’s a CT?,’ and they said ‘we can’t tell you it’s classified.’ So I’m going OK why do I want to be something that nobody is going to let me know what it is,” Cassidy recalled.

“And it’s going around and around.” What’s a CT?” And nobody would tell me,” he said. Finally one of the chiefs told him “it’s something like a radioman.”

Cassidy didn’t want to be a radioman but he found out the training school for CTs, which he would later learn stood for cryptologic technician, was in Pensacola, Fla.

“This is in January 1963 in Great Lakes where it was 32 degrees below zero. I would’ve gone down there just to be a cook, you know?” he said.

He spent nine months at CT school in Pensacola, where his notebooks “and everything” we’re kept in a safe. None of the materials could leave the classroom. He graduated in September 1963.

In those days, Cassidy explained, there were several different areas of CTs. He was a “T brancher,” meaning the technical branch that dealt with radar reception, microwave reception, direction finding and signals.

Up until that point, the “rule on the street” was that CTs didn’t go to sea. So when Cassidy received a set of orders to report to the USS Oxford, he paused.

“I said wait a minute, CTs don’t go to sea and they said ‘oh yeah, they do now. This is the Navy’s first spy ship,’” Cassidy recalled. He was among the first cadre, or experimental bunch as he puts it, of CTs to be assigned to sea duty.

A World War II ship, the Oxford was converted in 1961 to a spy ship, Cassidy said. He first came aboard in 1963. What first stuck out to him was “all these antennas.’ The antennas, he explained, were “not for transmitting but for receiving.”

“We would receive microwave transmissions and to receive it you had to get in between the transmitting and the receiving antenna which meant we would go to into base in Cuba or South America (for example) and pretend we were broken down so we could receive it and then get the hell out,” Cassidy said.

He described how one room of the ship was lined with tape recorders, espionage equipment and receivers.

Cassidy was on the ship for 18 months, the best 18 months of his life so far, he said.

“We were spooks,” Cassidy said. “We were spying. We were getting stuff that nobody else had ever received before.”

The Oxford was the first vessel to successfully bounce a signal off the moon and have it received in Washington, D.C. This was to prevent anyone, including the Russian electronic intelligence trawlers that were always around the Oxford, according to Cassidy, from intercepting communications.

“We could send signals and nobody would even know,” Cassidy said.

Cassidy said he feels comfortable talking about some of his experiences as a CT because of his appearance in a few chapters of James Bamford’s book Body of Secrets, which Cassidy said went through about 18 different lawyers for the author and the Navy. The movie “The Imitation Game” brought renewed interest to the cryptology field. Though the movie has received criticism for taking too much liberty with history.

Fifty years later, Cassidy sat in an ornate room and read the orders, which list him having a top secret security clearance, he received in 1965. “George Cassidy, report aboard the USS Classified. Then in parentheses it said ‘a U.S. submarine,’” he said.

The USS Classified was a diesel submarine called the USS Halfbeak. Cassidy wore a radioman patch on his uniform to hide their mission even from the crew itself.

In August 1965, Cassidy was part of a top secret briefing with various military “brass” detailing his new assignment. At the time, there was concern about advances in Soviet ballistic missile capabilities.

When he got back to the base, Cassidy said he “looked up on a National Geographic map” where they were going “and I said Oh (expletive). It was way north in the Barents Sea.”

More specifically, it was an island where the Russians tested their missile and satellite radar.

“Our mission was to go up there and we knew from other intelligence that they were going to be testing in the month of October and November of 1965,” Cassidy. “In all the history that you’ll find online of the Halfbeak there’s nothing mentioned about this because it’s been wiped clean.”

To keep the boat quiet, the transmitting tubes and radio communications were taken out.

“So when we left we really had no way to communicate with the outside world,” Cassidy said.

The numbers on the outside of the boat identifying it as American were also painted over by Cassidy and other crew members.

The job was to record all the electronic counter measures off of other submarines, Russian submarines and aircraft, he said. And record all the telemetry they could receive from the Russian tracking station.

The first night they arrived in the area, they were able to get “some stuff,” Cassidy said, but the crew figured it’d be more active in the daytime. “And it was,” he said.

That next day they killed the diesel engines to “go down a little deeper,” and just keep the electronic counter measures mast up. They could only go about three or four knots otherwise the ECM mast would create a wake.

“We got some pretty good stuff,” Cassidy said.

One night while Cassidy was listening on the equipment and he heard a radar that he was able to identify as TU 95 Bear Bomber, the Russians long-range surveillance aircraft at the time. The CTs compiled a book that said “if you were listening on such and such a frequency and you heard a radar signal with a specific sweep sound and a sweep rotation rate, it might be this,” Cassidy explained of how he was able to identify the aircraft.

“So I call the captain, I say “Hey, I got this TU-95. Strength is really, really weak though,” Cassidy recalled.

The captain asked him to find out where the aircraft was coming from.

All of a sudden the radar strength hit the strongest level. The aircraft was right over the Halfbeak, which promptly pulled its mast down and dove down.

“We didn’t find out until later, until these tapes went back to NSA (the National Security Agency), that the Russians had a way of reducing the power of their radar but still keeping all the parameters that they could to sweep out further,” Cassidy said.

The crew went back the next night to go in closer. The guy on the periscope noticed something bizarre floating all around in the water. It was logs. Cassidy said the crew suspected the Russians dumped the logs in the water “so we couldn’t raise anything.”

“So we played up there for a while and then sonar says I’ve got two vessels with four high speed screws approaching us. Only one thing that could be, it was a Cruckley-class destroyer … We heard this noise and sonar says drop the depth charge. We had stuff broken,” Cassidy said, but he said he couldn’t say anything further.

Halfbeak returned home with “a lot of good intelligence,” he said.

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