There was a time when I was intrigued by the technology of spying, especially the incredible devices developed for Agent 007 by Q in the James Bond movies. While Q was explaining to Bond how to use his latest fictional gadget, I was trying to figure out how to make a working version. I did not want to be a traditional spy; I just wanted to design their instruments.
When I was growing up, I spent hours experimenting with invisible ink and devising secret codes. When I was a senior at Texas A&M, a CIA recruiter learned about my miniature radios and light-wave communicators and encouraged me to apply for an intelligence position.
I took a different path in the Air Force, but an interesting spying opportunity arose in 1975, when a letter arrived from the National Enquirer to my book publisher Howard W. Sams and Co. seeking my advice for an article “outlining the growing role of lasers in the everyday life of the people of America.”
The National Enquirer had a terrible reputation, but I was curious about what seemed to be a serious journalism project, so I called Enquirer editor Bernard Scott and mentioned twelve topics related to lasers. Scott asked whether I was aware of reports that a laser could intercept conversations in a closed room by detecting the reflection of the laser beam from a window. Voices in the room would cause the window to vibrate in step with the sound, thereby imposing the voices as amplitude variations in the reflected laser beam.
Scott was surprised when I told him I could build a laser apparatus for this purpose. He then shifted the conversation to billionaire Howard Hughes, whose private life the National Enquirer was investigating to uncover what Scott described as suspicious business practices. Would I be willing to assist by building a laser bugging device? When I said maybe, he asked me to send him a proposal. He also strongly emphasized that our discussions should be kept secret.
The Laser Eavesdropping Proposal
I quickly sent an eight-page proposal that described twenty laser applications that could be covered in a major article to be titled “The Laser Comes of Age” or “There’s a Laser in Your Life.” The laser-bugging proposal Scott requested was also included. I titled it “Listening in on a Personality.”
On September 5, Scott called. He ignored the article proposal but was highly interested in the laser eavesdropping proposal. He said the plan was for me to build the apparatus, fly it and me to Florida, and impress the publisher by using it to intercept conversations in the publisher’s office. He provided a detailed description of the office, including its dimensions, the windows, and the location of the desk. Scott said that “this capability” would provide an important method for the National Enquirer to verify some of its major stories. He emphasized that the project must be considered “top secret” — a phrase I had not heard since working in the Air Force Weapons Lab.
Days later, I called Scott to report my tests, in which the sound of a radio was detected by pointing the very narrow beam of a helium-neon laser at the window of the room in which the radio was playing. Scott asked me to make a tape recording of these experiments. He then said that “the device” should be reliable and easy to use “when it’s needed.” That’s when it became clear they wanted to keep whatever I built — and that they were seriously planning to bug Howard Hughes.
I sent Scott the tape recording with a letter explaining my concern: “I do not want any involvement with illegal operations but see an exceptionally unusual article in exposing the security weaknesses in various government offices … and describing our little technique for the public.”
Scott responded positively and said the National Enquirer had contacts who were close to Sen. Barry Goldwater. He suggested we might get permission to spy on Goldwater’s office in the Senate Office Building to demonstrate the security problem posed by Soviet laser eavesdropping.
I continued to work on the laser apparatus and prepared a detailed progress report for Scott. On November 12, he agreed in writing that the National Enquirer would pay for the purchase of a telescope and precision micrometer for the project for up to $350 ($1,890 in 2023 dollars). He also agreed to pay a weekly rate for my time. I explained that while the red helium-neon laser worked well, it was so bright, it would be easily seen at night. Therefore, I needed to assemble a near-infrared laser illuminator that emitted an invisible beam.
The optical supplies arrived in late December, and on January 8, 1976, I wrote Scott that a battery-powered laser system with an invisible beam was completed. I then began work on a receiver system having much more sensitivity than the one used previously. On January 22, I called Scott to inform him that all the equipment was finally assembled.
Laser Eavesdropping System for National Enquirer, 1976
The laser source and receiver were mounted together to simplify operation in the field. What was then a state-of-the-art, continuously operating near-infrared diode laser (Laser Diode Labs LCW-10) was powered by a 6V battery through a current-limiting resistor that protected the laser by limiting its emission to 6mW. The invisible (850nm) emission from the laser was focused into a tightly collimated beam by a small f1 lens mounted on the large heat sink that dissipated heat from the laser.
The receiver’s detector employed a phototransistor with or without a lens, for the reflected laser beam was very small. The phototransistor was connected to a FET op amp having a peak amplification of 100,000, followed by a low-pass filter that removed noise from the laser and stressed the frequencies of human voice, and finally an audio amplifier connected to either a small speaker or an external earphone.
It was essential to mount the receiver on a sturdy tripod, wear dark glasses when looking at the target, and avoid pointing the system at people.
Laser Bugging the National Enquirer Headquarters
On February 9, I arrived in West Palm Beach and assembled the laser apparatus in my briefcase at a Howard Johnson hotel. The following morning, Scott and reporter Tony Brenna drove me to the National Enquirer’s main building.
Because of the paper’s sleazy reputation, I was surprised by the impeccable landscaping and the neatly organized desks and offices inside. Sensing my concern, Scott and Brenna claimed they were much more careful about fact-checking than other major newspapers. That was why they were so highly interested in laser eavesdropping, they explained, for they hoped it could be used to surreptitiously verify facts.
Before setting up the laser gear, I spent an hour at Scott’s desk discussing the project. Had they contacted Senator Goldwater’s staff about arranging a demonstration in Washington? But Scott had only one topic in mind: Could the laser equipment be used to spy on Howard Hughes? He produced photos of the 13-story Xanadu Princess Resort & Marina in the Bahamas and pointed out Hughes’s bedroom on the right side of the top floor, the parapet that shielded the top floor from the one below, and the pyramid-like structure atop the roof that blocked helicopters from landing there.
I explained how the laser system could be used only against a normal window and not one set at an angle. This meant that a laser beam pointed at Hughes’s thirteenth-story bedroom window would be reflected toward the sky instead of the receiver on the ground. Scott then casually said that the National Enquirer would pay $100,000 (over $500,000 in 2023) for a full-face photo of Howard Hughes.
I suggested that they could fly a quiet, radio-controlled blimp equipped with a camera outside Hughes’s window and take a photo when he looked outside. I was smiling, but Scott took me seriously and asked if I knew anyone with such a blimp. American Modeler magazine had published an article about such a craft several years before, I suggested. Scott immediately called an assistant to his desk, and within 15 minutes, they were speaking with the blimp’s owner by telephone.
I was curious why they were so interested in Hughes and asked whether he had any connections with organized crime. Instead, they told me that the National Enquirer’s owner might have such connections, via his father. They said a quick call to the “right” person was occasionally needed to get the delivery trucks moving.
By midmorning, I had set up the laser apparatus on the carefully manicured yard outside the building, 100 or so feet (30m) from the glass window of a conference room in which we had placed a radio tuned to a talk program. As I began a series of tests, the equipment and I began to attract a growing crowd of National Enquirer staff who came outside to watch what they were told was a top-secret project. Occasionally I could see glances from a tall, distinguished-looking man when he stood up at his desk behind a window in the building. He was Generoso Pope Jr., publisher of the National Enquirer.
Back in Albuquerque, the laser system had worked reasonably well. But the National Enquirer demonstrations were temperamental. All the windows were made of extra-thick, hurricane-proof glass that refused to vibrate as well as the window glass I had tested back home. I successfully demonstrated the device by concealing a tiny laser reflector inside the conference room — but they wanted a system that did not require inserting anything inside a room being monitored.
That night, we tried again and were successful. When the window was 112 feet (34m) away from the laser and receiver, slight adjustments of the receiver lens within the reflected beam finally allowed conversations in the room to be intercepted. The next day, we had similar results using both the red helium-neon laser and the invisible-beam laser. All these tests required considerable time and careful adjustment of the position of the laser. This method might work if the laser system was installed in a van parked on a street opposite a window of interest. But that is not what the National Enquirer had in mind.
Scott gave me a check for $2,020.85 ($10,912 in 2023 dollars). This included $261.47 for the flight to West Palm Beach, electronics expenses, and $500 a week for 3½ weeks of work. The following morning, I took a walk along the beach to reflect on the events of the previous two days and washed it all away with a swim in the Atlantic.
Eight weeks later, Hughes would be dead.
Laser Eavesdropping Redux
Later I wrote several articles about laser spying, including “Surreptitious Interception of Conversations with Lasers,” the November 1985 cover story for Optics & Photonics News (doi.org/10.1364/ON.11.11.000006). The cover photo showed a miniature laser source and the receiver built for the National Enquirer project in a miniature briefcase over the headline “The Case of a Laser Spy.”
Around the same time, John Horgan, a reporter for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, published a full-page story about my National Enquirer adventures in the organization’s tabloid, the Institute, after I gave a talk at an IEEE meeting.
These articles attracted attention in the media. HBO flew my son Eric and me to New York to stage a demonstration of laser eavesdropping between two apartment windows for one of their shows. I was also approached by an IRS agent to assist with an investigation of an organized-crime group in Chicago, and by a man who claimed to be with the FBI and asked for a confidential demonstration of the eavesdropping equipment, though neither followed through.
Finally, there was a computer convention in Los Angeles, where I received a mysterious request for a private meeting. After I was escorted to a curtained-off area, a remarkably beautiful woman dressed like a movie star arrived and earnestly pleaded for my help to prove that her ex-boyfriend was bugging her house with a laser. I explained the technical difficulties and how unlikely that was. We went back and forth for 30 minutes, but she was not convinced.
None of my projects have attracted such a diverse range of people as laser eavesdropping, and this especially includes John Horgan, who became an editor at Scientific American magazine. In 1989, I sent him my proposal to take over their column “The Amateur Scientist.” Had I not known Horgan, my misadventure with that famous magazine might never have occurred, and I might never have begun doing serious science.
This article is excerpted from Forrest Mims’ new memoir Maverick Scientist: My Adventures as an Amateur Scientist, now available at makershed.com.