Did the United States Booby-Trap a Vital Soviet Gas Pipeline?

The flags of the USSR and USA hang over chairs on stage at the 1985 Geneva Summit. (Photo by Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Is it a tale too far-fetched to be true, or too bizarre not to be? Allegedly, a disgruntled KBG agent code-named “Farewell” gave away Soviet secrets to the French, who then promptly shared them with the US — giving the American government a veritable shopping list of the US technology most coveted by the Soviets. Enter Gus Weiss, an eccentric and brilliant insider in the US intelligence community. According to Alex French at Wired, Weiss devised the perfect plan to thwart the Russians: sell them what they want, but first make sure that technology is programmed to self-destruct, taking down a natural gas pipeline vital to the cash-strapped Russians.

Weiss proposed using the Farewell shopping lists to supply the Soviets with the products they sought.

But Weiss wanted the gadgets altered, pre-improved so that they would eventually fail. “The scheme was so goober-pea simple that nobody had come upon it,” Weiss wrote of his solution. Even if the Soviets sniffed out the American trickery, Weiss wrote, “the stratagem would still work as the Agency’s Red Star clientele would be forced to test and retest each recalcitrant unit, provoking delays and finger pointing in the Center, its puffed up potentates sniffing a Gulag behind their next performance appraisal … Real fake devices, false fake devices … The Soviets had set themselves up in exquisite fashion.”

That alternative plan is at the core of the legend of Gus Weiss. The best-known version of the tale goes like this: High up on the Soviet tech shopping list was software to regulate the pressure gauges and valves for the critical Siberian gas pipeline. According to Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, the Soviets sought the software on the open market. American export controls prohibited its sale from the US. However, a small industrial software company located in Calgary called Cov-Can produced what the Soviets wanted. As Weiner writes, “The Soviets sent a Line X officer to steal the software. The CIA and the Canadians conspired to let them have it.”

The faulty software “weaved” its way through Soviet quality control. The pipeline software ran swimmingly for months, but then pressure in the pipeline gradually mounted. And one day—the date remains unclear, though most put it in June 1982—the software went haywire, the pressure soaring out of control. The pipeline ruptured, igniting a blast in the wilds of Siberia so massive that, according to Thomas C. Reed’s At the Abyss, “at the White House, we received warning from our infrared satellites of some bizarre event out in the middle of Soviet nowhere. NORAD feared a missile liftoff from a place where no rockets were known to be based. Or perhaps it was the detonation of a nuclear device. The Air Force chief of intelligence rated it at three kilotons.”

The pipeline explosion is said to have cost Moscow tens millions of dollars it could ill-afford to waste.

You be the judge