US Embassy in Sofia Was Tapped by Communist Bulgaria’s Intelligence till 1990 Resulting in Funny ‘Tug of War’ Incident, Ex Spy Reveals

The building on the Saborna Street in downtown Sofia which used to house the US Embassy until 2004. File photo

The US Embassy in Sofia was tapped by the counter-intelligence services in communist Bulgaria, which was discovered by the US intelligence agents only in 1990, resulting in a somewhat funny incident resembling a “tug of war" or “rope pulling", a former top Bulgarian spy has revealed in a new book.

The story has been revealed by Gen. Todor Boyadzhiev, a former intelligence officer and former Chief Secretary of Bulgaria’s Interior Ministry in an interview for Dnes.dir.bg.

In his new book, “A Spy’s Confession – Part 3", he also tells the story of how an “ensemble cast" from international terrorist groups came together to carry out a terrorist attack with a RPG launcher against the US Embassy in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia in 1991 as a warning against the United States before the launch of the land Desert Storm operation against Iraq’s former dictator Saddam Hussein (essentially the second stage of the First Gulf War or the First Iraq War).

According to Boyadzhiev’s revelations, the US intelligence discovered in 1990 that the American Embassy in Sofia had been bugged.

It appears that the tapping had been going on for quite some time during the Cold War in which communist Bulgaria, formally known as the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, was a stanch satellite of the Soviet Union, and the then Bulgarian intelligence and secret police, the DS (“State Security") even operated as a de facto arm of the KGB.

The communist regime in Bulgaria formally ended on November 10, 1989, the day after the Berlin Wall was destroyed, when the regime of communist dictator Todor Zhivkov was brought down through what essentially was a palace coup plotted by a wing of the Bulgarian Communist Party.

Subsequently, Bulgaria emerged from under the former control of the Soviet Union, and started to build new relationship with the United States, not unlike the other countries from Central and Eastern Europe. Today’s Republic of Bulgaria, a pluralistic democracy established after the end of the communist regime in 1989 became a member of NATO in 2004, and of the European Union in 2007, restoring the country’s status as a Western nation.

The tapping story revealed by former intelligence office Boyadzhiev concerns the old building of the US Embassy in downtown Sofia, near the Bulgarian Presidency and the Bulgarian National Bank.

At the end of 2004, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., the US Embassy in Sofia relocated to a new and seemingly more secure compound (said to be the largest US Embassy in the Balkans) in the city’s Losenets Quarter.

“[My book tells the story of] the case in which in 1990 the Americans discovered a CCTV camera and microphones in the US Embassy which had been skillfully brought in and camouflaged by the Bulgarian counter-intelligence," Boyadzhiev says.

“It turned out that our [intelligence] serviced had been learning a lot of things that the Americans wouldn’t have wanted them to [know]," he adds, explaining, however, that both the Bulgarian and the US parties decided to shy away from making the story public.

“At the end of the day, both sides decided that it would be better not to “make noise" about this case. If such a scandal had been blown open, the CIA would have become a laughing stock as our counter-intelligence officers had managed to outsmart them," Boyadzhiev goes on.

An old newspaper photo showing the former US Embassy building in downtown Sofia from another angle. File photo

The new compound of the US Embassy in Sofia was inaugurated in December 2004. The Vitosha Mountain is in the background. Photo: US State Department

He points out that the “interesting thing" was that during the Cold War, the “bug sweepers", i.e. the officers who “swept" electronically the US Embassy in Sofia twice a year to seek out tapping devices, had not found anything.

“Yet, then [in 1990] they did. The Bulgarians found out [the tapping devices had been discovered] and rushed to the apartment which shared a wall with the secret room of the Embassy,” the former intelligence officer reveals.

“They were late. The Americans were already demolishing the wall. What followed was a comedy of absurd – the sweepers were pulling the cable from their side, and the Bulgarians [were pulling it] from theirs. It was like in that tale about the Gigantic Turnip," he adds, referring to a popular Bulgarian folklore tale (also known in other Slavic countries) about a grandfather’s entire family who had to come together to pull an oversized turnip out of the ground.

“However, the Bulgarian team turned out to be stronger – they managed to pull away the CCTV camera and disappear. That way the Americans had no way of giving a press conference and showing the [tapping] equipment," Boyadzhiev points out.

In his new book, he also talks about a secret communication channel between the CIA and the KGB which was operational during the Cold War in order to prevent “gaffes" or “unneeded" clashes between the two intelligence services.

“They call it the Gavrilov channel, after a Russian pre-revolutionary poet, why did they pick that name – I don’t know. There are secret meetings in Vienna, Tokyo, Helsinki – the chief of the Russian foreign intelligence and the chief of the American [foreign intelligence] meet up and talks like buddies. So in intelligence, many things aren’t what they appear. This channel was in operation during the Perestroika years, and it exists to this day," Boyadzhiev explains.

“Such a channel existed before the changes [i.e. the end of the communist regime in Bulgaria] between the Bulgarian and the American intelligence – for information that you could not exchange through diplomatic ways. Now it exists as an official information exchange between partners," he adds.

In his interview, the former spy mentions that modern-day Bulgaria’s intelligence services are much weaker than they were in the communist period because they lack the formerly large network of agents, few people today want to work for their country except for money, and the younger generations of intelligence officers do not trust the older generations.

Boyadzhiev (born in 1939) is a graduate of Sofia Technical University. He worked as an intelligence officers for 26 years, during Bulgaria’s communist period, from 1964 until 1990, spending 13 years in the so called scientific and technical intelligence, and 13 years in the foreign intelligence. In 1990, after the end of the communist regime, he became the first person to hold the newly introduced position of a chief secretary of the Bulgarian Interior Ministry, a rank second only to the Minister of Interior.

The intelligence organization of Bulgaria’s communist regime – the former DS (“State Security") – was an umbrella organization including the foreign intelligence, the counter-intelligence, and the secret police. All in all, it is notorious for partaking in massive political repressions, outrightly criminal acts, and even international terrorist plots, mostly at the directions of the KGB of the former Soviet Union.

Examples in hand are the assassination by DS agents of dissident Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov on the Waterloo Bridge in London in 1978 (which gave rise to the infamous “Bulgarian Umbrella" notion), and DS’s only recently revealed plot to cause a conflict between Greece and Turkey in 1971 by setting on fire the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul.

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Relevant Books on Amazon.com:

KGB: The Inside Story of Its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev

KGB vs CIA Documentary

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA

Inside a U.S. Embassy: How the Foreign Service Works for America

Sofia in 3 Days (Travel Guide 2018): Best Things to Do in Sofia, Bulgaria: What to See and Do, Where to Stay, Shop, Go out. Local Tips to Save Money and Time. Includes Google Maps to all Spots.

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