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Seabees support the Department of State and the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) by assisting security engineering officers with the installation and maintenance of specialize equipment, including closed-circuit TV cameras, alarm systems, electromagnetic door locks, vehicle barriers, and other special equipment in sensitive areas of U.S. embassies and consulates.

With their reputation for excellence, Seabees are often tasked with a wide range of special projects such as installing public access control systems, establishing post communications centers, and armoring embassy vehicles.

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As tensions between the U.S. and Eastern Bloc countries escalated during the Cold War, the State Department’s Office of Security (SY) – the predecessor of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and DSS – expressed grave concerns about Soviet espionage at U.S. diplomatic facilities.

There was reason to worry: U.S. officials had been finding small networks of microphones in U.S. embassies in Eastern Bloc nations. In April 1956, SY technical officers discovered a partially installed network of microphones with wires leading to the attic in the U.S. Embassy in Prague.

By 1959, the security officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow admitted that “Soviet radio and electronic technical capabilities are quite advanced,” and that the Soviets were “keeping abreast of new technical developments in the United States.”

At the time, the State Department did not have  equipment that could detect these new electronic threats. SY Officers found most electronic listening devices – or bugs – by searching spaces and tracing out wiring and additional microphones.

Concerns about technical security at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow continued, resulting in several security improvements in 1962 and 1963, like installing plastic acoustic conference rooms and removing all furniture and fixtures from an existing room and sweeping it for bugs.  In 1964, however, a tip from a Soviet defector prompted SY officials to return to the Moscow Embassy and look for bugs.  At the end of their extensive search, the security officers found 52 bugs, some even hidden in the radiators.

As a result of these discoveries, SY adopted three changes: developing new countermeasures equipment to better detect Soviet bloc listening devices, accelerating the installation of secure conference rooms, and assigning a group of U.S. Navy Seabees to the State Department to find existing listening devices and prevent Eastern Bloc workers from installing them in U.S. embassies.

As SY had already used Seabees at the embassy in Warsaw to repair the damage caused by the removal of a microphone network, they were perfectly suited for the job, With their training and expertise as construction specialists, they could recognize the unusual or unnecessary aspects of construction which might conceal bugs.

Major building and renovation projects were slated for the following years and SY decided to create a permanent Seabees detail to provide close surveillance of construction projects, and in some cases, complete work in sensitive areas.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future