The Telegraph claimed in 2004 that the CIA blew up a Russian gas pipeline in Siberia, by tricking the operator into installing booby-trapped software.

Thomas Reed, a former US Air Force secretary who was in Ronald Reagan's National Security Council, discloses what he called just one example of the CIA's "cold-eyed economic warfare" against Moscow in a memoir to be published next month.

Leaked extracts in yesterday's Washington Post describe how the operation caused "the most monumental non-nuclear explosion and fire ever seen from space" in the summer of 1982.

Mr Reed writes that the software "was programmed to reset pump speeds and valve settings to produce pressures far beyond those acceptable to pipeline joints and welds".

They quote a "Thomas Reed" and the Washington Post as a source, but that site is behind some kind of paywall or geoblock so I can't actually access it.

Did this actually happen?

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    I am not sure this can be definitely answered, but some say it didn't happen or at least not as described: meaww.com/… ogas.kiev.ua/perspective/vzryv-kotorogo-ne-bylo-581
    – Rsf
    Jun 17, 2019 at 13:39
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    The book seems to be At the Abyss by Thomas C. Reed. You could try to get it from a library if you want Reed's full account. There is a Wikipedia article about it, including a brief discussion of the controversy over the pipeline explosion claim. Jun 17, 2019 at 14:53
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    Software? With direct control? In 1982 USSR? On the equipment designed in the 70s? Extremely unlikely.
    – Zeus
    Jun 19, 2019 at 3:12
  • 3
    @Zeus - I think that depends on what you mean by "software." Programmable logic controllers were developed in the 50's and were taken for granted for controlling things like pumps and valves in environments as mundane as small wastewater treatment plants by the time this happened. I don't see it as a stretch at all that there would have been at least some programmable industrial equipment in an industry as lucrative as oil.
    – dwizum
    Jun 19, 2019 at 18:36
  • 1
    ... and oil was one of them, earning the country nay the Party net sums in hard currency.
    – Will Ness
    Jun 20, 2019 at 1:27

1 Answer 1


It seems unlikely.

While this claim was widely copied, it derived from a single source in the espionage community: Thomas C. Reed in At the Abyss: An Insider's History of the Cold War.

There was no confirmation from other sources. The book Cybercrime explains:

[…] Reed's book is the only public mention of the incident and his account relied on a single document.

There are three problems inherent to the story:

  1. Russian sources do not corroborate this. Vasily Pchelintsev, a former head of the KGB in Tyumen region, promptly denying it when the Reed story came out.

    A KGB veteran said a new U.S. book that credits the CIA with causing a powerful explosion on a Soviet natural gas pipeline in 1982 is off the mark. An explosion did take place, but it was caused by poor construction, not by planted software.

    "What the Americans have written is rubbish," said Vasily Pchelintsev, who in 1982 headed the KGB office in the Tyumen region, the likely site of the explosion described in the book, "At the Abyss: An Insider's History of the Cold War."

  2. The CIA disclosure of the Farewell Dossier – which lists similar plans and attempts – makes no mention of this.

  3. Technology available at the time should have made such software tampering at the same time difficult to implement and still easily detectable for the Soviets (who did uncover a lot of such attempts, of much more primitive nature).

Expanding on the last point:

Lieutenant General Nikolai Brusnitsin published a noteworthy and highly detailed small book, translated as Openness and Espionage. Brusnitsin was the deputy chairman of the USSR’s State Technical Commission at the time. His book has a short chapter on “computer espionage,” where he discusses several devices that Soviet intelligence had discovered over previous years. He recounts three different types of discoveries: finding “blippers” inserted into packages to monitor where imported equipment would be installed; finding “additional electronic ‘units’ which have nothing to do with the machine itself,” designed to pick up and relay data; and finding “gimmicks which render a computer totally inoperative” by destroying “both the computer software and the memory.” Brusnitsin even provided examples. The most drastic example was a “virus,” the general wrote, implanted in a computer that was sold by a West German firm to a Soviet shoe factory.
–– Above 3 points summarise Thomas Rid: "Cyber War Will Not Take Place", Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York, 2013. (Quote from p 4–6, link added by LLC for convenience)

A review of Reed's book compared the contents with known and established history and concluded:

Sometimes, Reed distorts history by simple omission. His criticism of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for overestimating the robustness of the Soviet economy conveniently ignores the fact that hardline Cold Warriors on Team B (many of whom later took posts in the Reagan administration) were vigorously pushing the CIA in that direction. Similarly, Reed’s claim that the supposed “disintegration” of U.S. strategic forces, beginning in 1961, led to the Cuban missile crisis turns reality on its head. A much better case can be (and has been) made that U.S. strategic superiority in the early 1960s was one of the main factors that prompted Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to resort to what he hoped would be a quick and easy way to redress that imbalance. Finally, near the end of the book, in an ominous sign of Cold War redux, Reed claims—without offering any substantiating evidence — that post-Soviet Russia may have secretly resumed nuclear testing.
Nonetheless, despite all the book’s faults — editorial, historical, and geopolitical — At the Abyss remains a fascinating and remarkably forthright tour d’horizon of two generations of the Cold War.
–– Thomas C. Reed, At the Abyss: An Insider’s History of the Cold War. New York: Ballantine Books, 2004. 368 pp. $25.95. Reviewed by Gregg Herken, University of California, Merced. Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring 2007, pp. 144–185 (DOI)

Other researchers dispute the story:

I have not been able to find independent confirmation of Reed’s story. Although the CIA apparently had a program to corrupt software stolen by the Soviets, and there was an explosion on a Soviet natural gas pipeline in Siberia in 1982, it is not clear that they were related. Reed has an unsure grasp on how natural gas pipelines operate and of Soviet geography, and there are alternative accounts. One, in the Moscow Times in 2004, confirms that there was an explosion along the pipeline in 1982, but claims it was due to operator error, not sabotage. An account by a Soviet scientist who worked on pipeline safety in the 1980s states that Soviet natural gas pipelines in the 1980s did not have computer controls and that Reed’s claim about the size of the explosion is inaccurate.
–– David Painter, Georgetown University, "Query: 1982 Siberian Pipeline Explosion", 2017

Political scientist, Thomas Rid was dismissive of the story:

In June 1982, the rigged valves probably resulted in a ‘monumental’ explosion and fire that could be seen from space. The US Air Force allegedly rated the explosion at three kilotons, equivalent to a small nuclear device.

But when Reed's book came out in 2004, Vasily Pchelintsev, a former KGB head of the Tyumen region where the alleged explosion was supposed to have taken place, denied the story. He surmised that Reed could have referred to an explosion that happened not in June but on a warm April day that year, 50 kilometers from the city of Tobolsk, caused by shifting pipes in the tundra's melting ground. No one was hurt in that explosion.

There are no media reports from 1982 that would confirm Reed's alleged explosion, although regular accidents and pipeline explosions in the USSR were reported in the early 1980s. Even after the CIA declassified the so-called Farewell Dossier, which described the effort to provide the Soviet Union with defective technology, the agency did not confirm that such an explosion took place. If it happened, it is unclear if the explosion resulted in casualties. The available evidence on the event is so thin and questionable that it cannot be counted as a proven case of a successful logic bomb. This means that there is no known cyber attack that unequivocally meets Clausewitz's first criterion: violence. No cyber offense has ever caused the loss of human life. No cyber offense has ever injured a person. No cyber attack has ever damaged a building.
–– Thomas Rid: "Cyber War Will Not Take Place", Journal of Strategic Studies, Volume 35, 1, 2012. DOI

Another example:

Therefore, when the explosion was discovered through satellite imagery, Reagan, along with other CIA officials, was led to believe that it was their doctored data which single-handedly brought down what was considered to be the biggest natural gas pipeline discovered at the time. However, after all these years, historians have finally figured out the lie that CIA agents, along with Reagan, had been living with all this time.

According to an informed source from one of the three-letter agencies mentioned above, the pipeline explosion had nothing to do with CIA sabotage. It was a Russian engineer who, when discovering a leak in the pipeline, simply kept increasing pressure to maintain the flow of natural gas. When the gas leak kept building up following the engineer's efforts, a passing Russian train sparked the gas cloud, causing a massive explosion in the middle of Siberia. According to multiple reports, despite the explosion’s visibility from space, it resulted in no known physical casualties whatsoever.
–– Vidisha Joshi: "America's Hidden Stories' tackles CIA's alleged involvement in the Trans-Siberian Pipeline explosion of 1982", meaww, Apr 8, 2019

Soviet scientists were also dismissive:

However, let's return to the main question – was there an explosion on the gas pipeline in Siberia in 1982?

Let's quote Expert Opinion:

"During the period 1980–1982 I worked annually for 250 days annually as a member of the team of the Institute of Electro-welding for them EO Paton of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine on gas pipelines from Ufa to Tyumen. We worked on the technology of blasting the damaged, emergency sections of the gas pipelines, blasting the taps and welding new pipes to the place of the damaged. We took part in the elimination of all major accidents on gas pipelines, oil pipelines in those years, but I did not hear anything about this mythical grandiose explosion. I do not argue - there were a lot of accidents, but no more than in similar latitudes of America and Canada. These were accidents mainly due to violations of safety and technology of laying pipelines in difficult geological conditions of marshes. I was responsible for the fire and explosion safety of explosive technologies during the repair of pipelines and introduced a compact device there that reliably prevents fires and explosions on gas pipelines.

Judging by quotations from Thomas Reed's book "Above the Abyss." The story of the Cold War, narrated by its participant", presented on the Internet, approved the CIA's diversionary plan for the transfer of technology from the Soviet Union to a latent defect, a computer program for the automation of the gas pipeline.
Here I would like to emphasize especially that at that time pipelines were controlled mainly in manual mode with minimal automation. Computerization of pipeline management appeared at the end of the 90s, and then the dispatcher always remained the main one, checking all the automatic signals before they were put into operation. I believe that this is the main confirmation that the "explosion-82" of the gas pipeline in Siberia is a common invention of the Cold War.

Further, let's say, in the same article of Wikipedia, foreign authors tell about the creation of a special unit of the KGB intended to steal technology abroad. Perhaps the people who described this "fact" and worked at high positions, but did not understand the specifics of intelligence - any intelligence in any country, including the United States, was always involved in the theft of new technologies. However, in the USSR in this direction, the GRU of the Ministry of Defense of the USSR worked more successfully than the KGB, whose main task was counterintelligence within the USSR. Everyone knows that the purpose of the intelligence, especially during the Cold War, was to obtain information on what might come into the hands of a likely enemy in the near future as well as in the distant future. In contrast to the USSR, it did not primitively copy the existing in the West, but used its technologies, trying to get ahead, to make it better and more powerful than what became known through intelligence.

Stories about explosions similar to the described mythical explosion of the gas pipeline in 1982 were many in the 70's and 80's. But a lot of them appeared in the 90s, when any legend began to be perceived in the post-Soviet countries under the brand of "declassified information", pouring out tons of dirt during the times of perestroika and the first years of choosing a new way of development of the countries of the former USSR.

I would like to pay special attention to some amateurish remarks of those who created the legend about the explosion.

The code, which supposedly changed the settings of the speed of pumps and valves, which led to an increase in pressure in the gas pipeline to such indicators that could not withstand the seams and joints of the gas pipeline – this is the statement of the absolute amateur. In the gas pipeline, the pressure can vary for a number of reasons, so in cases of pressure jumps, pressure relief valves have always existed throughout the length of the pipeline, which operate independently of the main control systems, especially the operation mode of the pumps.

It is also noted that the power of the explosion was three kilotons. I dare to notice that there can not be an air-gas explosion with a capacity of three kilotons, because voluminous explosions, including volumetric detonating weapons, are limited in terms of power, especially in open space. This limitation is due to the fact that this kind of explosion strongly depends on the weather conditions, first of all - from the wind 8. With large gas leaks, complex systems of buildings and structures of the refinery are needed to create explosive local clouds, as was the case in Flixborough (England).
–– Zakhmatov V.D., Glushkova V.V., Kryagich O.A.: "EXPLOSION, which … WAS NOT!", OGAS, Kiev, 25 June 2011.

Finally, Reed himself summarised the situation of truthfulness for this supposed incident twice – with different outcomes each:

Soviet spies stole software needed to operate the pipeline, not knowing that "it had a few lines of software added that constituted a Trojan horse," said Reed. "They checked it out, it looked fine, and ran just fine for a few months. But the Trojan horse was programmed to let it run for four or five months and then the pumps and compressors are told, 'Today is the day we are going to run a pressure test at some significantly increased pressure.'"

He continued: "We expected that the pipeline would spring leaks all the way from Siberia to Germany, but that wasn't what happened. Instead the welds all blew apart. It was a huge explosion. The Air Force thought it was a 3-kiloton blast."[…]

[About Pchelintsev's assessment:] "I have the greatest respect for Russian old-timers trying to piece together the shards of history," Reed responded. "I do not know Vasily Pchelintsev, and his use of the word 'rubbish' is a little strong, but if he really was there 25 years ago, in Tyumen, he may have access to some pieces of the story.

"On the other hand, the KGB is hardly a repository of factual reporting, and the findings of any 'government commission' from the Soviet era should be discarded prima-facie. Protection of 'state secrets' was their mission, not truth or accuracy."

Reed said the details of his account had been thoroughly vetted by the CIA and approved for publication. He said several former top Reagan officials had confirmed the reliability of Weiss, his source on the story. Weiss died in November 2003.

Reed only learned of the pipeline explosion in recent years. At the time, he was one of many White House officials scrambling to figure out what had caused the massive explosion.

"Gus Weiss came down the hall to tell me and others, 'Don’t worry about it,'" Reed recalled. "I asked why. He said, 'Some things in the White House you don't ask why.'" –– Wired Staff: "Soviets Burned By CIA Hackers?", 03.26.04.

But later he distanced himself somewhat from that stance:

Reed’s account of the pipeline explosion, the first to be published, has taken on a life of its own and been re-reported many times as fact, though no reporters have been able to substantiate it. There are reasons to doubt the story. According to Reed, the explosion was captured by US infrared satellites and caused a stir among members of the National Security Council at the time, who were trying to determine whether the Soviets had detonated an atomic device in Siberia when Weiss told them not to worry about it.

Weiss never explained why they shouldn’t worry about it, but twenty years later when Reed was writing his book, Weiss told him the cause of the explosion they had been concerned about was CIA sabotage. But Vasily Pchelintsev, the former head of the KGB in the region where Reed said the explosion occurred has said it never happened, and that Weiss may have conflated his memory of the Farewell Dossier incident with an explosion that occurred in April 1982 in a different region. But that explosion, Pchelintsev said, was caused by shifting pipes that moved when snow melted, not by CIA sabotage. […]

Asked if he believed Weiss’s account of the pipeline, Reed told me in a phone interview in October 2010, “I don’t really know if it happened.… Clearly the whole Dossier episode happened. The agency had a very major campaign to adjust the tech of stuff that was being sent off to the Russians.” He said he does recall that an explosion occurred at the time he was on the NSC. “I remembered there was a great event that puzzled the intelligence community.” But whether that was in fact a pipeline explosion, “that was thirty years ago,” he said, acknowledging that both his and Weiss’s memories may have been altered in the ensuing years. “I have respect for Russian historians who say there was no explosion in connection with Dossier. … So it could be there was an explosion, but it was not a result of a Trojan horse. … Whether it was true or not I do not know.”

It may be too much to hope, however, that any future retellings of the pipeline tale will be done with the appropriate caveats.
–– Kim Zetter: "Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon", Crown: New York, 2014.

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    I'll add that as someone who was a computer hobbyist during that time, and a software professional in the employ of DoD contractors from '89 on, the idea that the Soviets had computer-controlled pipeline control software in 1982 seems ... quite amusing. Computers doing serious things back then took up whole rooms, and that's in the US where state-of-the-art hardware was in use. The Soviet MO was generally to avoid computerizing things that didn't need it, since that was always going to be a losing game for them.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 19, 2019 at 18:06

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