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Operation Easy Chair
Bugging the Russian Embassy in The Hague 1958-1959

In 1958, in a joint covert operation of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Dutch Internal Security Service (BVD) and the Dutch Radar Laboratory (NRP), an attempt was made to place a covert listening device (bug) in the office of the Russian Ambassador in The Hague (Netherlands).
 
In the early days of the Cold War, both the Dutch Security Service (BVD) and the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), regularly mounted operations against members of the Soviet Union and its satellites, operating on Dutch territory. As the CIA was secretly operating in a guest country, it was agreed that they would seek the BVD's permission for each covert operation. 1

In late September 1958, the BVD was informed 2 that the Russians had ordered new furniture for their embassy in The Hague, via the National Procurement Office (Rijksinkoopbureau, or RIB).
  
The Russian Embassy in Villa Demangan at the Andries Bickerweg 2 in The Hague around 1946 (author unknown).

As this offered the possibility to plant bugging devices in some of the furniture, the Dutch BVD developed plans to install an EASY CHAIR device (EC) in one or more pieces of furniture [1]. The EC devices were made by the Dutch Radar Laboratory (NRP) in Noordwijk (Netherlands), and had been developed in a top secret project for the CIA. As the EC devices were owned by the CIA, the BVD had to get their permission first [11]. Obviously, the CIA was also interested in this target.
 
Getting access to the actual furniture turned out to be quite difficult. The RIB had ordered the items from a supplier, who in turn had them made by an external Dutch manufacturer [2].

After contacting various people at the RIB, the supplier and the manufacturer, an R.P. agent 3 finally succeeded in persuading someone 4 at the manufacturer's to offer his cooperation [4].
A custom-made desk appeared to be the most interesting piece of furniture, as it was probably intended for the ambassador himself and would therefore offer the best eavesdropping potential.
  
EASY CHAIR bugging device. Click for further information.

On Saturday 22 November, the desk was located and appeared to be nearly finished. It would be sprayed and polished sometime during the following week. As this was the ideal moment to plant the bug, it was agreed that the BVD would install an EC the next day, on Sunday the 23rd [4].
 
The following morning at 11:00, the BVD got access to the workshop. After locating the desk, it was confirmed by its drawings that it was indeed intended for the Russian Embassy. The desk was turned over, and the EC was carefully installed in its rear left corner, as shown in the original drawing on the right, leaving no traces.

The desk was sprayed a few days later on the 26th. That night, a BVD operative reopened the tiny 1 mm hole for the microphone that got blocked by the spraying. He tested the device. The sound quality wasn't perfect, but that was thought to be caused by the receiver [5].
  
Original drawing of the location of the bug, made by the BVD in 1958 [9]. Click for further information.

A day later, the bug was checked again after the desk has been polished [6], and finally the BVD received confirmation that the desk would be delivered to the Russian Embassy on 10 December 1958. Meanwhile, a suitable Listening Post (LP) had been setup at the Zorgvliet observation post.
 
Zorgvliet is a rather tall building, approx. 125 metres from the front of the Russian Embassy, at the other side of a canal. Although it is two streets away from the embassy, it offered a clear view of the front of the building and its entrance.

Several years earlier, the BVD had acquired a small room at the attic of the Zorgvliet building, which was used to observe and photograph everyone who went in and out of the Russian Embassy. As the room offered a clear view of the target building, it was thought to be a suitable location for the EASY CHAIR antennas as well.
  
The BVD observation post at the attic of the Zorgvliet building

Several days after the new furniture had been delivered and installed at the Russian Embassy, BVD operatives tried to activate the EC bug, but to no avail. Presumably the distance between the target and the Listening Post (LP) was to large, or the device had been discovered by the Russians.
 
In order to check the device at a shorter range, an inconsipcuous lorry with a canvas cover was acquired and parked in front of the Russian Embassy by BVD operative Herman, predending to have motor trouble. Hidden under the canvas hood was a 40 Watt transmitter from earlier NRP experiments plus a suitable receiver, powered by batteries and a noise-proof rotating inverter.

The devices were operated by NRP engineer Thijs Hoekstra and a CIA operative, who were also in the back of the truck. After aiming the antennas at the embassy, the transmitter was turned ON.
  

The receiver was tuned-in and after some time they managed to catch the EASY CHAIR bug. The first thing they heared was the ambassador's 'big belly laugh' coming through loud and clear. The EC worked and had not been detected. This meant that the LP antennas were insufficient [12].
 
Two new antennas were built, each measuring 2 by 2 metres and providing a gain of 20dB. They hardly fitted the narrow space at the Zorgvliet observation post. In addition, the isolation between transmitter and receiver was improved.

Every day, field engineer Thijs Hoekstra did his experiments at the attic of the Zorgvliet flat. His findings were then passed to Gerhard Prins at the NRP, who spent his evenings improving the system and developing solutions to Hoekstra's problems. Finally, the work began to pay off and the EC could be activated reliably from the attic.
  
Observation post

According to Prins [12], the operation lasted for about six months, after which time the bug had either been discovered, or the Russians had become wise, as they had built a sound-proof room in the attic of the embassy. From then on, only the German language classes of the ambassador and his assistents were picked up by the bug. By that time however, it had produced sufficient intelligence to make the covert operation of the CIA, the BVD and the NRP a successful one.

 Historical context
 
  1. Although it was agreed that the CIA needed the permission of their host (i.e. the BVD) before each covert operation - a permission which was sometimes refused - it is known that the CIA sometimes carried out such operations outside the view of the BVD, without seeking their permission.
  2. It is unknown who tipped-off the BVD. It could have been an informant, but it is also possible that the information came from the CIA.
  3. We assume that R.P. stands for Rijkspolitie (the Dutch National Police), which existed at the time. RP officers were often used by the BVD in covert operations, as the BVD itself had no law enforcement capacity.
  4. The identity of this person is unknown, but we assume it to be one of the directors of the company, or someone operating with the consent of one of the directors, as he had access to the premises, the workshop, the offices and the files.

Main entrance of zorgvliet - the observation post is at the top left BVD observation post, seen from street level Observation post Russian Embassy seen from the rightmost window of the observation post Russian Embassy seen from the observation post between the two houses at the opposite side of the street Close-up of the Russian Embassy, as seen from the observation post The Russian Embassy in 2017 Russian embassy and residence (left)
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Main entrance of zorgvliet - the observation post is at the top left
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BVD observation post, seen from street level
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Observation post
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Russian Embassy seen from the rightmost window of the observation post
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Russian Embassy seen from the observation post between the two houses at the opposite side of the street
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Close-up of the Russian Embassy, as seen from the observation post
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The Russian Embassy in 2017
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Russian embassy and residence (left)

De Correspondent
The story above is largely based on a confidential letter written by NRP developer Gerhard Prins shortly before his death in April 1993 [12]. The letter was published on 24 September 2015 by the Dutch online magazine De Correspondent, as part of the article Operatie Leunstoel (Operation Easy Chair), written by Maurits Martijn and Cees Wiebes [10]. We are grateful for their work. The story is complemented by the results from our own investigations in 2016 and 2017, in particular the descriptions of the Zorgvliet listening post and the actual Easy Chair listening device itself.
 
Position of the bug
The diagrams below show how and where the EASY CHAIR bug (EC) was built into the furniture. As part of the order to the RIB, the Russian Embassy had ordered a large mahogany wooden desk, which was likely to be used by the ambassador himself. The desk consisted of two deep cabinets each containing three drawers, hidden behind a hinged door. Each cabinet was raised somewhat by a black wooden pedestal, that was 10 cm high. The total height of the desk was 76 cm [8].


As the construction of the 10 cm pedestal was separate from the rest of the desk, it was decided to build the bug into the rear left corner of the desk, with the microphone picking up the sound in the room throung a tiny 1 mm hole, approx. 6 cm above the pedestal. To understand how the bug was built into the mahogany desk, we will examine a bottom view of its rear left corner [9].


In the drawing above, the side and rear panels of the desk have been left out for clarity. In the corner of the desk, holding the side and rear panels together, is a mahogany timber (A) to which the rails of the drawers are mounted. Glued into the corner of the pedestal is a small mahogany block (B) on which the desk rests. The pedestal is reinforced by two support battens (C).


The mahogany block (B) and one of the support battens (C) are removed temporarily, in order to get access to the mahogany timer in the corner of the desk (A). Next, a half inch hole is drilled into the timber (A), which is deep enough to hold the entire EC bug. A 1 mm hole is drilled from the side of the desk into big hole, so that any sound in the room is guided to the microphone of the EC. Finally, the desk is reassembled and the EASY CHAIR bug is ready for use. This example clearly shows that bugging devices do not always have to be extremely small. In this case, the fact that the bug had a virtually unlimited life and was difficult to detect, was far more important.

 Check out the original drawing of the desk
 Detail drawing of the position of the bug

 
The Easy Chair bug
Easy Chair (EC) was the name of a top secret research project, carried out at the Dutch Radar Laboratory (NRP) on behalf of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It was also the name of a series of covert listening devices (bugs), that emerged from this research. The EC devices were of a passive nature, which means that they did not need a local power source such as a battery.
 
Instead, the EC was powered by the energy from a strong Radio Frequency (RF) signal beamed at it from a nearby Listening Post (LP). In the case of the Russian Embassy in The Hague, the LP was located at Zorgvliet, approx. 125 metres from the front of the embassy building, which means that a very strong activation signal was required.

By the time the bugging operation at the Russian Embassy took place, EC was already in its third incarnation, which means that the EC III Passive Element (PE) was used. It is shown in the image on the right and features subcarrier modulation.
  
EC III Passive Element (PE)

As a result of this, the EC III was far more difficult to detect as its predecessors and could not be picked up accidently by someone scanning the radio bands. During the covert operation against the Russian Embassy, the EC III system was going through its final stages of development. In fact, the experiences gained from the operation, were used to improve the LP and its large antennas.

 More about the EC III bug

 
The Zorgvliet listening post
The satellite image below shows the position of the Zorgvliet observation post back in 1958. The listening post (LP) was located in a very small room in the east corner of the attic of the Zorgvliet building at Alexander Gogelweg, approx. 125 metres west of the Russian Embassy, which itself was located at Andries Bickerweg 2, The Hague (Netherlands). It is still located here today (2017).

Satellite image of the area in which both Zorgvliet and the Russian Embassy are located (obtained via Google Maps) [13]

The observation room is located in an unused part of the Zorgvliet appartment building. Behind several forgotten doors is a small utility room with a narrow staircase that leads to a trapdoor in the floor of the actual observation room. The room measures approx. 5 x 3 metres and has five narrow windows, of which one offers a clear view of the Russian Embassy, 125 metres to the east.

At the time, the room offered a clear line of sight between the houses at number 8 and 10, across the small canal, onto the front of the Russian Embassy. It allowed BVD operatives to watch every­one who entered or left the embassy. If necessary, visitors were photographed using a strong tele­photo lens. For this reason, the room was also considered to be suitable for positioning the EASY CHAIR antennas. The two large 2 x 2 m antennas must have barely fitted the small room.

Today, the observation post is no longer in use. The room is deserted and no longer offers a clear view of the Russian Embassy, as the trees in the line of sight have grown considerably over the years. Not a single trace in the room reminds us of what happened here during the Cold War.

 View the area on Google Maps

 
Main entrance of zorgvliet - the observation post is at the top left BVD observation post, seen from street level Hardly noticed door in an unused part of the building Small utility room with staircase to the observation post Trapdoor in the observation post Observation post Russian Embassy seen from the rightmost window of the observation post View from the window at the observation post - the Russian Embassy is barely visible at the center
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Main entrance of zorgvliet - the observation post is at the top left
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BVD observation post, seen from street level
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Hardly noticed door in an unused part of the building
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Small utility room with staircase to the observation post
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Trapdoor in the observation post
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Observation post
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Russian Embassy seen from the rightmost window of the observation post
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View from the window at the observation post - the Russian Embassy is barely visible at the center

Historical context
During the Cold War, the Russian Embassy in The Hague was known to be a base of spies, all working under the cover of diplomacy. Most of the 'diplomats' were under constant surveillance of the BVD. In February 1958, three Russian Diplomats had been expelled from The Netherlands.
 
They had been found working for the KGB and kept doing so, even after several warnings from the authorities. The Soviet Ambassador to The Netherlands, Stephan Pavlovitsch Kirsanov, had protested againt the eviction, but to no avail. At the same time, Kirsanov himself had beconme a target of the BVD, due to his contacts with Paul de Groot of the Dutch Communist Party (CPN).

S.P. Kirsanov was a high ranking member of the Soviet Communist Party, and was ambassador in several other European countries before taking post in The Netherlands on 4 September 1953.
  
Russian Ambassador to The Netherlands Stephan Pavlovitsch Kirsanov on 4 September 1953, when handing his credentials to the Dutch Queen Juliana. Copyright 1953, Stokvis.

The BVD became increasingly concerned about Kirsanov's influence on the CPN and actively tried to gather intelligence about his activities. And this is where the EC device proved to be invaluable. During the first six months after its activation, it provided the BVD with first class intelligence.
 
In January 1959 it was announced that Kirsanov would be replaced. Leaving the country in July 1959, he was the longest-sitting Soviet/Russian Ambassador to The Netherlands 1 ever. Initially, the Russians wanted to replace him by former Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Molotov, but after objections from the Dutch, it was decided that former General 2 Panteleimon Kondratevich Ponomarenko would take Kirsanov's place.

Ponomarenko took up his post in The Hague on 4 November 1959. As a Stalinist, he had been an important member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Between 1953 and 1955 he was considered one of the 14 most powerful people in the USSR [14].

It is currently unclear against which Russian Ambassador the covert CIA-BVD-NRP bugging operation was mounted. However, given the fact that Kirsanov's departure had been announced in January 1959 - whilst the EC device still wasn't operational - it seems likely that the main target was Ponomarenko. Like his predecessor, he actively tried to influence the Dutch political scene via the Dutch Communist Party, the CPN.
  
Panteleimon Kondratevich Ponomarenko in 1959. Copyright Harry Post (ANP). Photograph via Wikipedia.

On Monday 9 October 1961, Ponomarenko reached the headlines after an emotional fight with police officers at Schiphol Airport (Amsterdam), in an attempt to prevent Russian chemist Goloeb and his wife from obtaining political asylum in The Netherlands [17]. After an 8-hour siege of the Aeroflot office at the airport, led by ambassador Ponomarenko, press attaché Popov and diplomat Chibaev, 3 mrs. Goloeb flew back to the USSR, whilst her husband stayed in The Netherlands. 4

Following the Goloeb-incident [14], the Dutch Government declared Popov and Chibaev persona non grata on 12 October 1961. That same day, Ponomarenko left The Netherlands to attend the 22nd congress of the Soviet Communist Party (CPSU). On the same flight was a CPN-delegation, consisting of Paul de Groot and Henk Hoekstra, also on their way to the congress [15]. A day later, Ponomarenko was also declared persona non grata and never returned to The Netherlands.
 
  1. By 1982, Kirsanov was still the longest-sitting Russian Ambassador to The Netherlands [14].
  2. Ponomarenko was a General of the Red Army before becoming a Soviet administrator in Belarus and then Kazakhstan. Between 1952 and 1953 he was a member of the Soviet Politburo. He was ambassador in Poland (1955-1975) and Nepal (1957-1959) before becoming ambassador to The Netherlands [16].
  3. In the Dutch newspapers of the day, Chibaev is written as Chibaef and Popov as Popof.
  4. Goloeb would later have second thoughts and return to the USSR in March 1962, claiming that he was held in The Netherlands against his will by American agents.

Glossary
BVD   Binnenlandse Veiligheidsdienst
Internal Security Service of The Netherlands (now: AIVD).  More

Bug   Covert listening device
Common name for a concealed listening device, also known as a bugging device.  More

CIA   Central Intelligence Agency
Independent US Government agency for gathering national security intelligence.  More

CPN   Communistische Partij Nederland
Dutch Communist Party.

EC   EASY CHAIR
Code name of a secret CIA project to develop passive covert listening devices (bugs). In the context of this story, the name EASY CHAIR is used for the actual bugging device.  More

LP   Listening Post
Common name for the reception station of an EC bugging device.

NRP   Nederlands Radar Proefstation
Dutch Radar Laboratory, responsible for developing the EASY CHAIR bugs for the CIA. Also carried out field work for both the BVD and the CIA, in particular where 'planting' of bugs was involved.  More

PE   Passive Element
Internal name for an Easy Chair (EC) bug, used by manufacturer NRP.

RIB   Rijksinkoopbureau
Dutch National Procurement Office. Renamed in 1990 to Nederlands Inkoopcentrum (Dutch Purchasing Centre), or NIC.

RP   Rijkspolitie
Dutch National Police from 1945 to 1993.

People
The following people are mentioned in relation to the above story:
 
Thijs Hoekstra   Field technician of the NRP, often used in covert operations.

Gerhard Prins   One of the key developers of the EASY CHAIR (EC) bugs and later co-owner of the NRP.

'Herman'   Cover name of the rather burly BVD operative who drove the truck with the mobile listening post to the Russian Embassy in The Hague, and pretended to have motor trouble.

S.P. Kirsanov   Stephan Pavlovitsch Kirsanov was the Russian Ambasssador to The Netherlands from 4 September 1953 to July 1959 onwards. In January 1959 it was announced that he was to be replaced soon. For a long time, he was the longest-sitting Russian Ambassador to The Netherlands ever.

P.K. Ponomarenko   Panteleimon Kondratevich Ponomarenko was a former General of the Red Army and also a former member of the Soviet Union's Politburo. Between 1953 and 1955 he was considered one of the 14 most powerful people in the USSR. After being ambassador in Poland (1955-1957) and Nepal (1957-1959), he became the Russian Ambassador to The Netherlands on 4 November 1959, succeeding Stephan P. Kirsanov. On 12 October 1961, following the Goloeb incident [14], he was declared persona non grata.

Events
The following events have been confirmed:
 
Late Sep 1958   Russian Embassy orders furniture
The BVD is informed that the Russian Embassy has ordered new furniture for the Ambassador's office. The BVD develops plans to place an EASY CHAIR (EC) bugging device in one or more pieces of this furniture [1].

18 Oct 1958   Contact with supplier
Contact is made with the supplier of the furniture. It appears that the furniture will be made in a factory to which the supplier has no access. From there, the furniture will be delivered directly at the Russian Embassy. This means that the supplier can not cooperate [2].

7 Nov 1958   Contact with manufacturer
Contact person at the factory seems to be willing to cooperate [2].

10 Nov 1958   Contact at manufacturer declines
The contact person at the factory has had a talk with the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and declines as the risks are considered too high. It is suggested to contact the RIB [2].

12 Nov 1958   Meeting with director RIB
The contact at the manufacturer introduces a BVD agent to the director of the RIB. Returning the goods to the RIB before delivery is uncommon and would attract unwanted attention. He suggest to contact the supplier again [3].

13 Nov 1958   Suggestion made to supplier
The BVD asks the supplier again for cooperation. He still doesn't want to cooperate, but suggests to contact the factory again. For this he gives his approval. [3]

20 Nov 1958   Meeting with RP
BVD agents contact an agent of the RP 1 who thinks he will be able to persuade 'X' 2 at the factory. 'X' is subsequently contacted and appears to be willing to cooperate [4].

22 Nov 1958   Desk about to be finished
On Saturday 22 November 1958, the desk is nearly complete. It is known that it will be sent to the finishing shop on Monday (24th) [4].

23 Nov 1958   EASY CHAIR bug planted
On Sunday 23 November, at 11:00 in the morning, BVD operatives are given access to the factory, where an EC is placed in one of the corners of the desk. A 1 mm hole for the microphone is drilled into the side of the desk. A delivery form found with the desk, confirms that it is indeed for the Russian Embassy [4][6][8].

26 Nov 1958   Desk is painted
On Wednesday (26th), 'X' confirmed that the desk had been finished by means of spraying. That night, a BVD agent re-opens the 1 mm hole for the microphone and tests the installation. Sound quality is not perfect, but this is thought to be caused by the receiver [5].

27 Nov 1958   Desk is polished
On Thursdag (27th), the desk is polished, after which a BVD operative checks the 1 mm hole again [6].

10 Dec 1958   Furniture delivered at the Russian Embassy

  1. In this context, R.P. probably means Rijkspolitie (National Police).
  2. It is unknown who 'X' was, and what his profession was, but we assume he was one of the directors, or someone operating with the consent of one of the directors, as he had access to the building, the offices and the files.

References
  1. BVD, Plans for placing bugs in furniture ordered by the Russian Embassy
    11 November 1958. Internal memo 1036-0; 1958 (Dutch). 1

  2. BVD, Report about contacts with informant
    11 November 1958. Internal memo 1036-1; 1958 (Dutch). 1

  3. BVD, Report about contacts with director RIB
    20 November 1958. Internal memo 1036-2; 1958 (Dutch). 1

  4. BVD, Report about meeting with 'X' of the RP
    27 November 1958. Internal memo 1036-3; 1958 (Dutch). 1

  5. BVD, Report that desk has been painted
    27 November 1958. Internal memo 1036-4; 1958 (Dutch). 1

  6. BVD, Report that desk has been checked
    1 December 1958. Internal memo 1036-5; 1958 (Dutch). 1

  7. BVD, Future cooperation
    5 May 1959. Internal memo 1036-2; 1959 (Dutch). 1

  8. BVD, Drawing of desk
    November 1958. 1

  9. BVD, Detail drawing of location of the bug
    November 1958. 1

  10. Maurits Martijn & Cees Wiebes, Operatie Leunstoel
    De Correspondent. 24 September 2015.

  11. Louis Einthoven, Memoirs
    Unpublished (2016), via [10].

  12. Gerhard Prins, Letter to his heirs
    Date unknown, but probably written shortly before his death in April 1993.
    Vertrouwelijk (confidential). Published by [10].

  13. Google Maps, Satellite image of area around Russian Embassy in The Hague
    Retrieved January 2016.

  14. BVD, Kwartaaloverzicht binnenlandse veiligheidsdienst
    1982, first quarter. Nr. 1598.85 (Dutch).

  15. BVD, Maandoverzicht No. 10 1961
    1961, monthly review no. 10-1961 (Dutch).

  16. Wikipedia, Panteleimon Ponomarenko
    Retrieved January 2016.

  17. Leids Dagblad, Beleg van ruim 8 uur voor Aeroflotkantoor
    10 October 1961, newspaper (Dutch). Page 5.

  18. Nieuwe Leidsche Courant, Twee Russen moeten voor morgennacht het land uit
    13 October 1961, newspaper (Dutch).

  1. Released under the Dutch WOB (FOIA) by the AIVD on 1 October 2015.

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