Governor Thinks Lasers Being Used For Eavesdropping

Please see my note at the bottom of this page, explaining why I thought reporters were horribly naive in not believing why Governor Mecham should be concerned about wire-tapping and electronic eavesdropping. Also, see the column by E. J. Montini in which he demonstrates his ignorance about surveillance techniques while dismissing Mecham’s concern about “laser beams”. And see “Mecham complained 26 years too early about laser beams.”

– Ken Smith


January 21, 1988

Associated Press

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Embattled Gov. Evan Mecham shocked some guests at a breakfast this week when he remarked he was concerned that laser beams are being used to eavesdrop on his office and home.

Mecham made the comments Tuesday to six people sitting at his table before he addressed the Phoenix Forum Breakfast Club, the Arizona Republic reported in today’s editions.

Ernest Calderon, a lawyer who was sitting at the table, said he did a double take when the governor spoke of his concern about laser eavesdropping.

“We looked at each other aghast,” said Calderon. “I thought my hearing was failing. I couldn’t believe it.”

Mecham had called in to participate in a Phoenix radio station’s talk show Monday and was explaining why he had been listening to the program, said another man at the table, who asked not to be identified.

“Then he (Mecham) said, ‘Do you want to know why I had the radio on at home?”‘ the man said.

Again quoting Mecham, the man said, “Whenever I’m in my house or my office, I always have a radio on. It keeps the lasers out.”

The man said the governor was deadly serious.

“We said, ‘What lasers?’ and he said, ‘The lasers for eavesdropping. They’re eavesdropping on me. They’re shooting lasers through the windows.”‘

The man told the Republic that Mecham declined to identify who “they” are.

Ken Smith, Mecham’s press secretary, said that there is continuing concern that the governor’s office is the target of some sort of electronic surveillance.

Smith said no evidence of such eavesdropping has been uncovered, but he said the suspected device would be more like a microwave than a laser beam.

“It looks a lot like a dish that the TV stations use,” Smith said, “and they’re not that expensive.”

An Arizona House committee is considering whether Mecham should be impeached for allegedly concealing a $350,000 campaign loan and borrowing $80,000 of what the House special counsel contends is state money. He also faces a likely recall election in May and is to be arraigned Friday on six felony counts of fraud, perjury and filing false documents in connection with his failure to report the $350,000 loan.

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Comment:

The reporters did not quite quote me correctly on this one, possibly because I used some terminology they did not know or I did not make myself clear. It was immediately apparent that Mecham would soon be the national target of a new round of jokes and my hastily developed strategy was to talk about the theoretical possibilities of high tech eavesdropping, wire tapping, and generally communications intercept. On this story, all the journalists struck me as incredibly naive in not even thinking about the possibilities that Governor Mecham might be under some sort of high tech surveillance.

I am familiar with the concepts and procedures of message intercept technology. I am not an expert in electronic surveillance. However, when I was an enlisted serviceman in the Navy, I was detached from the regular Navy and then attached to the National Security Agency as a cryptographer and I worked in telecommunications. Later, as a civilian, I worked for the Army for a year as a code clerk at nights while I was an undergraduate student during the day. Because of my military experience and exposure to various technologies, I had a layman’s interest in crypto and intercept. One of the books I had read and recommended to reporters was James Bamford’s “The Puzzle Palace: a Report on America’s Most Secret Agency”, published in 1982.

When the “laser” story first broke, I told the reporters that there actually were several technologies on the market which would permit someone to pick up conversations from a distant room by reading the vibrations from a window pane. I told them it was not laser technology, but rather was closer to the parabolic dishes used at football games to pick up the audio track from a distance.

One reporter did not understand the word “parabolic” and asked me to explain. I said it looked like a small satellite antenna. Somehow, this conversation got distorted by the time it wound up in print.

There was general disbelief by the reporters. By the next morning, I provided the news media with photocopies of advertisements from a security trade magazine which advertised similar equipment. I also offered to take a bunch of reporters to an electronics parts retail store such as Radio Shack to show them how such equipment could be put together rather inexpensively. Frankly, I was bluffing because I didn’t really know how to assemble such devices, but I was fairly sure that I could find a store clerk who could answer questions. None of reporters responded to this invitation to see how to buy retail parts for a sonic listening device.

There was one possible bit of evidence which may have changed the nature of this entire story. To this day, I do not know the facts here. But, following up on a hunch and a tip, I would not have been surprised to learn that an investigative arm of a state agency, such as the Attorney General or the Department of Public Safety, had a variety of intercept and eavesdropping equipment.

One sympathetic state worker told me confidentially that there were state invoices for electronic equipment to outfit two panel trucks disguised as Mountain Bell service vehicles. Just the existence of such equipment within Arizona government would have given some validity to Mecham’s otherwise loony comment about being bugged by lasers. But, when I tried to retrieve this invoice from the state’s computer system, I could not get access to that directory. It could have been a glitch in the system, or maybe the invoice never existed. I never found any such documentation of state-owned panel trucks disguised as telephone service vehicles. But, it would be foolish to think that such surveillance vehicles were impossible.

Also, I have often wondered why the electronics expert on the stand in the Senate impeachment trial looked so nervous, changed his testimony, and was declared a hostile witness in the middle of his testimony. He had been subpoenaed to testify about the “laser beams” that Mecham was worried about. I was especially curious why no reporter ever followed up with this witness, whose name escapes me for the moment. It seemed like a good news story to me.

– Ken Smith