Spy work

Morse code spy work

by Duane Ausherman

During a conversation with friends on Ham (amateur) radio, one asked me how well I could work with Morse Code.  I said that I loved it and was quite good at using it.  I had tested at 65 words per minute.  He was a retired Ham from SRI (Stanford Research Institute) in Palo Alto, Ca.  He explained to his old boss that he wasn’t good at code but may know someone who could help.

He recommended me for the job, and I got it.  There were two of us doing this project.  I made good friends with my co-worker, Ron Panton, W6VG, now a “silent key.”  We were tasked with analyzing tapes of high-frequency recordings of spy signals.  They wanted us to work as many hours as possible.  One week I worked over 100 hours, and they were very happy to pay me overtime.  I had my sleeping bag in the radio room and slept on the floor.

I had no security clearance, so I wasn’t told much about the project.  We were given the frequency and time of “known” spy signals.  As a Ham Radio operator, I knew something about radio propagation, and this told me that the signals were from China.  Our job was to describe the characteristics of the signals in order for the governmental agency to replace the live humans who were listening to Chinese spies 24/7 and recording them.  They wanted to computerize the process.  We weren’t tasked with figuring out what the communications were saying.  We had no expertise in that area.

I immediately realized that some signals that were called spy signals didn’t contain any information of any kind.  The humans were wrong about what was a spy signal and what was an innocent signal.  Now that I knew what the actual spy signals sounded like, I started looking for spy signals that might have been missed.  I found plenty of them.

One might ask how trained people could do the job so poorly.  That is because they weren’t Ham operators.  They weren’t qualified to do the job because they lacked a personal passion for Morse code.  They were just doing a paid job that was super boring to them.

I was so amazed at how poorly this monitoring of supposed signals from spies was being done that I had to do something.  I bought a large sheet of cardboard poster paper and used magic markers to make up a chart of what was in error and what had been totally missed.  I did this on my own time, without pay.

I showed the boss, and he was very interested.  He asked if he could borrow the chart.  A few days later, he came back in with my chart and explained what had happened.  He had flown to Washington, DC, to confer with “the client” about what I had found.  I proved that their whole spy mission had been a waste of time and money for all of those years.

SRI got a new contract to approach this project from a different angle.  Of course, the boss was happy to get more of the government’s money with this new and larger contract.

The SRI facility had “high security,” and we were supposed to find a security guard to let us into our workplace and a few other buildings as needed.  Try finding a security person in the middle of the night.  So, I figured out how to pick the locks of every building to which I had authorized access.  Nobody ever figured out what I was doing.  “Highly secure” meant nothing at all.

It was the positive results of this task that got me a recommendation for the NEXRAD position described in another article.

I was lucky that I got the job and good fortune that I discovered the mess.  It was an accident that my ability with Morse Code got me my next job that was unrelated in any way.

I lived my life of success because of accidents, or maybe it is luck.  Skill is good, but luck is better.

Updated 30 March 2023