In 1982, operatives from the USSR’s Committee for State Security⁠—known internationally as the KGB⁠—celebrated the procurement of a very elusive bit of Western technology. The Soviets were developing a highly lucrative pipeline to carry natural gas across the expanse of Siberia, but they lacked the software to manage the complex array of pumps, valves, turbines, and storage facilities that the system would require. The United States possessed such software, but the US government had predictably turned down their Cold War opponent’s request to purchase the product.

Never ones to allow the limitations of the law to dictate their actions, the KGB officials inserted an agent to abduct the technology from a Canadian firm. Unbeknownst to the Soviet spies, the software they stole sported a little something extra: a few lines of computer code which had been inserted just for them.

Over the years the scientists of the Soviet Union had proven themselves highly adept at engineering feats such as space flight, but they lacked the technical know-how of American industry in areas such as computers and microelectronics. So agents of the USSR had procured pipeline technology from outside sources in order to tap the Urengoi natural gas field in Siberia and transport its bounty to Europe. But none of the USSR’s fellow governments were willing to sell the sophisticated control software⁠—largely due to the US’s efforts to block the sale of Soviet gas in Europe.

In July 1981, during a conference in Ottawa, French President Francois Mitterrand took US President Ronald Reagan aside to share some intriguing information. Mitterrand told him of a mountain of secret Soviet documents which detailed the penetration of KGB spies in US industries. The source of these documents was Colonel Vladimir I. Vetrov, a fifty-three year old engineer working for the KGB’s Directorate T, a department dedicated to the acquisition of Western technology. Vetrov’s duties included the evaluation of the intelligence procured by the department’s Line X field agents. Vetrov had become disillusioned with the Communist ideal, however, and in 1980 he defected and began supplying French agents with copies of Directorate T documents. The French assigned him the codename “Farewell.”

Vladimir Ippolitovitch Vetrov
Vladimir Ippolitovitch Vetrov

As members of the US Central Intelligence Agency began to receive and digest these documents, it became abundantly clear that the KGB was making up for their country’s computer technology shortcomings by employing a vast and efficient network of spies. During the Nixon administration the US government had favored a policy of diplomacy and cooperation known as détente, and the “Farewell” documents showed that Soviets had taken advantage of this openness as a means to insert hundreds of Line X operatives into visiting delegations. During a visit to Boeing, for instance, Soviet scientists secretly applied adhesive to the bottom of their shoes in order to covertly collect metal samples from the floor. The documents also indicated that one of the Soviet Cosmonauts working on the joint Apollo-Soyuz spacecraft project was a KGB operative.

In all, Vetrov provided approximately four thousand documents to the French comprising a collection of data which exposed an astonishing degree of Soviet subterfuge. Ironically, the US had not been engaged in a true technology race with the Soviet Union, rather the US researchers had been constantly attempting to outdo themselves as the KGB cunningly pilfered the progress. The defector’s documents also provided a detailed list of all of the technologies the Soviets had set out to gain through such means, consisting primarily of radar, computers, machine tools, and semiconductors. By all evidence, the Line X agents had already fulfilled over two-thirds of the requirements.

Rather than immediately arranging the deportation of the 200+ covert KGB agents named in the “Farewell” documents, CIA officials opted to ply their counter-intelligence trade. Perhaps the most useful data to fall out of Vetrov’s leaked intelligence was a list of the technologies which Directorate T was seeking but had yet to acquire. Working in concert with the US Defense Department and the FBI, the CIA began to organize a large-scale conspiracy to plant deliberately defective information for the Line X operatives to stumble upon. Inaccurate-yet-convincing plans for stealth aircraft, space shuttles, machine parts, and chemicals were peppered throughout US industry. Over the following months the polluted intelligence found its way into Soviet manufacturing and military, causing inexplicable problems in tractor factories, chemical production, and aircraft research among other things.

French President Francois Mitterrand and US President Ronald Reagan
French President Francois Mitterrand and US President Ronald Reagan

After the US government denied the USSR’s request to buy the software to automate their new trans-Siberian pipeline, a KGB agent was covertly sent to a Canadian company to steal the software. A new batch of Farewell Dossier documents brought these efforts to the attention of the CIA, prompting US agents to tailor a special version of the software for the Soviets, and plant it at the company in question. Delighted at the ease of procuring the program, the Soviets tested their complete pipeline automation system and everything seemed to hum along smoothly. By about the middle of 1982, the pipeline was pumping massive amounts of natural gas across Kazakhstan and Russia to Eastern Europe, bringing in a tidy profit for the USSR government.

Some weeks after going online, in the summer of 1982, the clandestine code in the pipeline control program asserted itself. Disguised as an automated system test, the software instructed a series of valves, turbines, and pumps to increase the pipeline’s pressure far beyond its capacity, putting considerable strain on the line’s many joints and welds over a period of time. One day, somewhere in the cold loneliness of Siberia, the overexerted pipeline finally succumbed to the pressure.

As satellites for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) watched from orbit, a massive explosion rocked the Siberian wilderness. The fireball had an estimated destructive power of three kilotons, or about 1/4 the strength of the Hiroshima bomb. Initially NORAD suspected a nuclear test, but there was only silence from the satellites which would have detected the telltale electromagnetic signature. US military officials who were not privy to the Farewell Dossier activities were understandably concerned about the event⁠—one of the largest non-nuclear blasts ever recorded⁠—but the CIA quietly assured them that there was nothing to worry about. It would be fourteen years before the real cause of the event would be revealed.

It was impossible for the CIA to predict which section of the pipeline would fail once their trojan horse released its payload, but fortunately the failure occurred in a remote location. In spite of the massive energy that was released when the line ruptured and ignited there were no injuries or deaths reported. But the Soviet economy itself was severely injured by the blast. When investigators in the USSR eventually discovered that the event had been triggered by sabotaged software, the KGB leadership were furious, but unable to lodge any official protest regarding the deliberate defect since that would also expose their own large-scale espionage efforts.

An example of a pipeline rupture
An example of a pipeline rupture

Upon realizing that the CIA was serving imitation intelligence, the other recent problems with US-derived designs were no longer so mysterious. Given the dramatic results of the pipeline bug, all of the burgled Western technology was immediately cast under suspicion, a situation which mired the Soviet’s borrowed progress in a pit of uncertainty and suspicion.

Colonel Vladimir I. Vetrov fed vital information to French intelligence officials for well over a year, ultimately providing over 4,000 photographed documents. In January 1982, however, the French intelligence agency stopped receiving any more information from him. Later they learned that he had been walking in a Moscow park when he stabbed a fellow KGB operative and a woman for reasons unknown. His espionage activities were exposed during the ensuing police investigation, and he was executed for treason in 1983 on 23 February 1985.

The following year, as the Soviet economy struggled to recover, the United States and NATO dealt a further blow to the USSR by executing a massive deportation of all of the Line X agents named in the Farewell Dossier. With their US and European technology-gathering network in shambles, their giant technology espionage machine ground to a halt.

The documents regarding the CIA’s Farewell disinformation campaign were declassified in 1996, finally revealing the truth about the massive Siberian pipeline explosion fourteen years after it happened. The orchestrated subterfuge was one of the most successful US inter-agency efforts ever undertaken, and it was executed with such skill that it was never detected. Some condemn the deliberate explosion as thinly veiled terrorism given the lack of an open war with the Soviet Union, while others insist that ill-gotten goods are the plunderer’s problem. In any case, it clearly demonstrates that software piracy can have very serious consequences.