“Across the globe, there are more than 400 cables running along the seafloor, carrying over 95% of all international internet traffic … These data conduits, which transmit everything from emails and banking transactions to military secrets, are vulnerable to sabotage attacks and espionage …”
“U.S. and China wage war beneath the waves”
“Undersea cables are a ‘surveillance gold mine’ for the world’s intelligence agencies … When we talk about U.S.-China tech competition, when we talk about espionage and the capture of data, submarine cables are involved in every aspect of those rising geopolitical tensions.”
“It’s like each side is arming itself with bandwidth …”
Unnamed telecom executive
As I mentioned on frequent occasions to my former college students—as well as in more recent previous missives—today, the United States and its allies are arrayed against an opposing coalition of anti-democratic governments including China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran, in an actively unfolding war in the shadows. One of the more interesting theaters of this techno-secretive war is unfolding on the world’s ocean floors.
In today’s world, many of us remain transfixed on the more obvious (and superficial) aspects of this competition. From the recent visit of China’s President Xi Jinping to meet with Putin in Russia, to the increasingly sophisticated drones and weaponry used in the Ukrainian conflict (now well over 400 days old); from diplomatic somersaults in the Middle East and violence on the Temple Mount, to Israeli airstrikes in Gaza and Lebanon; mass street protests in Paris; Pyongyang’s threat to launch more missiles over Japan; from the highly publicized testimony of TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew on Capitol Hill to the carefully orchestrated counter-visit of Apple’s CEO Tim Cook to China; from the increasing global centralization of regional and Central Banks in the wake of recent bank failures; and, even perhaps, the rash of weather-related emergencies.
With all this, and the distracting media circus surrounding Trump’s indictments, maybe you haven’t noticed what’s going on underneath the waters.
You’re not the only one.
Today, in another part of the world, there is an “intensifying tech war between Beijing and Washington,” waged underseas that “risks tearing the fabric of the internet.” What is happening? China’s state-owned telecom firms are now developing an extensive undersea fiber-optic internet cable to link Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Known as EMA (Europe-Middle East-Asia), the proposed cable would link Hong Kong, Hainan, Singapore, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and France, according to people knowledgeable of the plan. The project would receive subsidies from the Chinese state.
The proposed EMA is in direct response to last month’s successful U.S. government effort—the last of several in the past four years—to thwart Chinese companies from participating in a number of undersea cable projects. Another massive cable project, constructed by the U.S. firm SubCom LLC, is called SeaMeWe-6 and also connects Singapore to France (via Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and several other countries along the way).
Why this underwater competition?
At one level, there is Washington’s growing concern about Beijing’s eavesdropping on internet data and its subsea espionage capabilities. Washington’s tech officials are also concerned about China’s strategic tech gains: the project would create a super-fast new connection between China and the rest of the world, as well as giving China’s state-backed telecom carriers greater reach and protection in the event they are excluded from future U.S.-backed cables.
How has China responded? According to a statement released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry: “The U.S. should stop fabricating and spreading rumors about so-called ‘data surveillance activities’ and stop slandering and smearing Chinese companies.”
As a result, we are rapidly approaching a point where countries will have to decide: “It seems we are headed down a road where there will be a U.S.-led internet and a Chinese-led internet ecosystem,” says Timothy Heath, a defense researcher at the RAND Corporation.”
At a deeper level (pardon the pun) the competition is but the latest iteration of an ongoing tech war in the shadows.
From a historian’s perspective, all of this is hardly new. Among the opening gambits of this underwater technological game of chess—or is it Go?—in the shadows dates back, at least, to the 1970’s and Operation “Ivy Bells.” The story involves a joint mission, at the height of the Cold War, by the U.S. Navy, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and National Security Agency to place wire taps on Soviet underwater communication lines in the Sea of Okhotsk. Divers from a specially equipped submarine, USS Halibut (SSN 587), left their decompression chamber, found a five-inch diameter cable in the frigid waters 400 feet below, and installed a 20-foot-long listening cable.
We only know the details of the operation because of an act of treason. Ronald W. Pelton, a former National Security Agency (NSA) analyst, was convicted in 1986 of selling secrets to the Soviets in one of the most damaging intelligence breaches of the Cold War. (Pelton died of cancer in September 2022, at the age of 80, in a nursing home in Frederick, Maryland.) Pelton grew up in Benton Harbor, Michigan, and spent four years in the Air Force in the 1960s, learned Russian in the language school in Bloomington, Indiana and afterwards became a cryptologic technician with NSA.
Less than a decade later, at the height of the Vietnam War, my Chinese linguist friends and I attended the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and received many of the same clearances and much of the same training as Pelton.
Loyalty to one’s country is a choice.
And an honor.
At any rate, Pelton, in his mid-40’s at the time, approached officials at the Soviet embassy in early 1980, (he had resigned his NSA job in July 1979 after declaring personal bankruptcy) offering them his knowledge of NSA operations in exchange for $35,000. From 1980 through 1983, Pelton met twice in Vienna with Anatoly Slavnov, a KGB intelligence officer. Pelton’s espionage may have gone unnoticed except for the KGB defector Vitaly Yurchenko who provided details that led the FBI to Pelton.
Doesn’t seem like much to sell out your country, does it?
I wonder what it would take today?
At the time, U.S. intelligence sources said Pelton’s betrayal was one of the “gravest intelligence losses to the Soviet Union.” Pelton’s information passed to the Soviets compromised a costly, long running, and highly successful U.S. underseas operation that used sophisticated technology to intercept Soviet naval communications.
In short, obtaining data from underwater cables.
Only later did U.S. authorities discover that a high-tech device used in the operation fell into Soviet hands. The original tap discovered by the Soviets was placed on exhibit at the then-KGB museum in Moscow.
The information uncovered during Pelton’s public trial in the U.S. was so sensitive that then-Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William J. Casey threatened prosecution of The Washington Post (under a never used 1950 law against news organizations) by the Department of Justice if details were released. The newspaper delayed running the story for almost three weeks.
I wonder what types of Operation Ivy Bells missions are on the drawing books today?
 Joe Brock, “U.S. and China wage war beneath the waves—over internet cables,” Reuters, Mar. 24, 2023.
 Justin Sherman is a fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Cyber Statecraft Initiative of the Atlantic Council. Quote is cited in Brock, “U.S. and China wage war.”
 Quote appears in Joe Brock, “Exclusive—China plans $500 million subsea internet cable to rival U.S.-backed project,” Reuters, Apr. 6, 2023.
 Akers, “Wading Into The Nord Stream Pipeline Controversy,” (missive), Mar. 2023.
 See, for example, Johan Ahlader, “State actor involvement in Nord Stream pipeline attacks is ‘main scenario’, says Swedish investigator, Reuters, Apr. 6, 2023; and, “Suspicions Multiply as Nord Stream Sabotage Remains Unsolved,” DNYUZ, Apr. 7, 2023.
 Joe Brock, “Exclusive—China plans.”
 Brock, “U.S. and China wage war.”
 Ibid, and Brock, “Exclusive—China plans.”
 Brock, “Exclusive—China plans.”
 The decision making around such operations during the Casey years are covered in Bob Woodward’s book Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987, (Simon & Schuster, reissue 2005). I can’t speak to the book’s other sections, but it has good coverage of Operation Ivy Bells based on Woodward’s coverage of the Pelton trial.
 “The Mission Behind Operation Ivy Bells and How It Was Discovered,” Military.com, (n.d.)
 Emily Langer, “Ronald Pelton, spy convicted of selling secrets to the Soviets, dies at 80,” The Washington Post, Sep. 16, 2022.
 Bob Woodward, et.al., “Eavesdropping System Betrayed,” The Washington Post, May 21, 1986.
 At the time, President Ronald Reagan—and a number of other leading security officials—urged Katherine Graham, then-chairman of the board of The Washington Post, to delay publication because the information could damage national security. My, how times have changed.