The Pioneering Age of Radio & Security (Part Two)

Terrorism at 1972 Olympic XX Games

On September 5th people worldwide enjoyed the 1972 Olympic XX Games on television until terror struck. Members of the group known as Black September stormed the living quarters of the Israel athletes in Munich. They kidnapped and killed eleven Israeli Olympic athletes and one German policeman. The Israel-Palestine conflict had just been elevated to a whole new level with international terrorism as its weapon of choice.

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If the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 was the “dawn of terrorism,” then the 1972 Munich massacre was the “wake up call” for the Western world. It slowly became apparent to the State Department that the American embassies and consulates around the world were vulnerable to terrorist attack. By the mid-1970’s SECURITY ENHANCEMENT had become a buzzword at Foreign Service posts worldwide, especially in the Middle East and South Asia.

The Handheld Two-Way Radio Comes of Age

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To help counteract the threat of international terrorism the U.S. Foreign Service relied on handheld two-way mobile radio as “lifelines” at U.S. missions abroad for a variety of reasons. Especially in third world countries, telephone systems were often unreliable (or “off-the-hook” in the event of a national emergency, such as a coup d’état). While FSO’s were on the go, public phones in third world countries were unreliable at best.

The handheld radios were at the forefront of the pioneering age of radio and security at U.S. missions abroad. The handhelds used dedicated frequencies, allowing the U.S. mission complete control over its radio communications in the host country. The handheld followed the tradition of the transistor radio, that an electronic device, besides conveying information, could be a personal item. It was compact, durable, and a lifesaver. In the words of an FSO at Am Embassy Dar es Salaam, “It’s my baby.” For that reason, we OC’s radio techs were treated well after opening up a diplomatic pouch containing handheld radios at a third world post.

The handheld radios were a much more secure form of communication than the telephone. They could be reached several miles away by a powerful base station radio at the Marine Security Guard, the MSG, at the embassy. The MSG soldiers controlled the radio network and were dispatchers, too. They would conduct weekly radio checks with Foreign Service Officers and their families who lived off post.

The handhelds had several frequency channels. OC techs implemented multiple radio “nets” at larger embassies. For example, the Marine Security Guard (MSG) had their own net to talk over regarding protection of the Ambassador and his armored vehicle (more on that later). Certain agencies (USAID) had their own radio net. Receive-only pagers became popular as they were about the size of a pack of cigarettes. A Foreign Service Officer could get “paged” (short messages) in a restaurant without anyone knowing it. Spies preferred  pagers due to their easy concealment.

The RSO and Physical Security

Physical security is defined as that part of security concerned with physical measures designed to safeguard personnel; to prevent unauthorized access to equipment, installations, material, and documents; and to safeguard against espionage, sabotage, damage, and theft.

The Office of Security, S.Y., was formed in 1945 (later, in 1985 it would become Diplomatic Security Service or DSS). Most of SY’s agents were recruited from police forces and the military. The Office of Communication, O.C., worked closely with S.Y.’s Regional Security Officers (RSO’s) at overseas missions. O.C. techs relied on RSO’s for logistics and threat assessment.

The RSO, the embassy policeman, was responsible for the physical security at each post among other things. With the growing threat of terrorism in the late 70’s, posts around the world were evaluated for vulnerability from potential terrorist threats. The FSOs’ living off post at higher threat level posts had a room in their dwelling designated as a “safe room.” It was specially fortified to protect the FSO (and family) in the event of an attack for X amount of time (the average time it took for a local response). The RSO office provided physical security for the U.S. missions, once again based on priority (more on this later).

E&E, Escape & Evacuation, became another buzzword when political turmoil or terrorist attack called for immediate evacuation of personnel. The VHF radio nets deployed by OC techs at posts played an important role.

General Electric Company, OC’s primary contractor, produced two-way radios for overseas posts. G.E.’s contract provided base stations, radio repeaters, mobile radios, pagers, and, of course, handhelds spearheaded the pioneering age of radio and security at U.S. missions abroad. Ask any Foreign Service Officer during this period and they would tell you that the G.E. PE-66 handheld was far more precious to them back then as an Apple iPhone is to the public today. Motorola radios were used also utilized.

Long Haul Radio | Escape & Evaluation

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OC techs also implemented High Frequency (HF) radio systems designed to communicate with U.S. missions over long distances. The HF E&E was particularly effective in Africa and South Asia. OC radio techs were responsible for maintaining the HF radios, typically located in the embassy or consulate Communications & Records Unit, the CRU, and at the ambassador’s residence. Collins Radio Company was the primary contractor for the rugged KWM-2A (above photo). Weekly radio tests were conducted by the CRO at the designated net control station to a cluster of neighboring countries.

During this time period the Office of Communication/Radio employed a staff of technicians at its radio depot at Springfield, Virginia, as well as technical positions at Regional Communications Offices located at strategic embassies such as Accra, Ghana; Nairobi, Kenya; and Karachi, Pakistan. OC also supported “lone wolf” assignments. For example, a tech was assigned to the American Consulate General Istanbul for the sole purpose of maintaining a strategic (and confidential) microwave link (more to come).

International terrorism simmered during the 1970’s until it rose to a boiling point in 1979 when militant students supporting Iran’s Islamic Revolution stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took over fifty Americans as hostages. They were held for 444 days. (Note: the Iran hostage situation will be the subject of more messages in the coming months).

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