Eavesdropping on the world from a tiny room in Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv — In the first hours after Tuesday's coup in Nigeria, one of the world's only sources of information on developments there was a nondescript building in Tel Aviv. The brown stucco apartment house, bristling with antennas and a satellite dish, is the home of Michael Gurdus, airwaves monitor for Israel Radio and Television. Mr. Gurdus heard about the coup during a routine morning scan of international radio frequencies. Within minutes the news was broadcast in Israel and transmitted abroad.
Only two months ago, Gurdus says, he was the only other person listening when TWA pilot John Testrake radioed Athens airport that his flight had been hijacked to Beirut. Gurdus broke the news to Israel Radio and an American television network and, as the aircraft began crisscrossing the Mediterranean Sea, was first with information on Flight 847's fate.
The coup and hijacking are only the latest in a long series of scoops piled up by Gurdus at his listening post in a room near the entrance to his apartment.
Gurdus spends some 15 hours a day at his bank of radios, monitoring a full range of shortwave frequencies, airline communications channels, and news agency reports that flicker on a screen above his desk.
His command of seven languages -- Hebrew, English, Arabic, French, German, Russian, and Polish -- enables him to understand news from almost every corner of the globe.
One recent morning, the curly-haired, prematurely graying Gurdus sat surrounded by his collection of airplane models and, over the crackle of his radios, recalled some of his ``favorite'' hijackings. As he spoke, his eyes scanned the screen above him. Occasionally he interrupted himself, leaned forward, twiddled a dial or two, and listened closely, jotting down notes for his next broadcast.
``I was doing my regular air frequency scan last month when I heard the TWA 847 pilot telling Athens, `We are being hijacked to Beirut,' '' Gurdus said. ``I didn't sleep for the next two weeks.
``I heard the hijackers threatening to blow up the plane after they drew a pin from a grenade. One of them screamed they would crash into Beirut airport. The voice of one gunman was calm, but the other was completely hysterical.''
Gurdus still keeps on his desk a tape of those tense exchanges. In a brief replay, the exhausted, despairing voice of John Testrake could be heard imploring Beirut air control to allow him to land before he ran out of fuel and crashed. Occasionally he was interrupted by the hijackers' suicide threats.
``The pilot sounded awful,'' Gurdus recalls. ``He was tired, and kept making errors in his navigation reports as he flew back and forth. He kept correcting himself.''
But Gurdus doesn't consider the TWA hijacking the most dramatic he's monitored.
The most chilling, he says, was the December 1984 commandeering of a Kuwaiti airlines plane to Tehran by a group of Shiite Muslims. Gurdus listened as the hijackers executed one hostage and savagely beat the others, before finally surrendering to the Iranian authorities.
``I could hear the screams as they tortured the hostages and threatened to execute them. It was the most awful thing, I sat here shaking,'' he says.
Gurdus also monitors military communications frequencies. This has let him in on some of the most sensitive hostage rescue operations in recent years, including the United States' abortive attempt in 1980 to free American hostages held in Tehran.
After receiving a tip that an airborne operation was in the offing, Gurdus began scanning radio frequencies.
``I picked up the communications between all the planes and their command headquarters,'' Gurdus says. ``It was absolutely astounding. I heard radio reports of air crashes, and how radio contact was lost with most of the planes.''
Concerned for the fate of the US troops involved, Gurdus held back his information until publication of an official American statement. Later he provided a series of exclusive reports on previously unknown details of the operation.
Gurdus's advance knowledge of sensitive military moves almost led to disaster in 1977 when German commandos stormed a Lufthansa airliner that was hijacked to Mogadishu, Somalia.
Gurdus tuned in to German Army communications and monitored preparations for the operation. But his confidential tips to Israeli television were accidentally broadcast five hours before the attack was to begin.
``The German government immediately put out advisories to all the news agencies not to carry the Israeli report,'' Gurdus recalls. ``It was a bad business.''
His biggest story, Gurdus says, was a report that led to the British rescue of Cypriot leader Archbishop Makarios following his overthrow in 1974. After Radio Nicosia announced that Makarios was dead, Gurdus picked up the archbishop's calls for help, which were broadcast from a makeshift transmitter in the coastal Cypriot town of Paphos. After Gurdus broadcast the appeal, a Royal Air Force plane was dispatched to take Makarios to Malta.
When Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982, Gurdus's reports became the only source of information for Israelis about their country's military moves. While an officially imposed news blackout allowed only carefully censored stories to be filed from the front, Gurdus's broadcasts of foreign reports were at the top of local newscasts.
``The most dramatic was PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] radio, which broadcast from a west Beirut bunker during the Israeli siege of the city,'' Gurdus remembers. ``It was an FM broadcast, very clear. I could actually hear how they were being shelled, the explosions. It was very dramatic.''
``They broadcast until the last minute, even in Hebrew. It was mostly propaganda, news of the battles and encouragement to fighters in the field, like, `We shall never surrender. We'll fight to the last man.' ''
The list goes on and on.
Michael Gurdus says he was the first to hear and report the 1976 hijacking of an Air France plane to Entebbe, Uganda, which ended with a daring rescue by Israeli commandos. He heard the first civilian air contact between Israel and Egypt when former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat flew into Tel Aviv in November 1977. In 1980, Gurdus was the first to report the Libyan invasion of Chad.
During the 1980 strikes in Poland by the now-banned Solidarity trade union, Gurdus monitored and broadcast ham radio transmissions from Polish industrial plants reporting on the strikes and violent clashes with security forces. He also reported their messages of concern over an imminent Soviet invasion, and picked up a high-level Soviet air alert put out over the Air Force's communications network.
Gurdus says he has even been able to hear private conversations aboard US Air Force One, picked up by its communications equipment.
Gurdus believes he has established himself as the only one-man international monitoring service in the world. He attributes his success to a life-long love of radio and journalism. This love began in his childhood home where his father, a journalist, cluttered the house with radios and teleprinters.
In his teens Gurdus monitored Soviet radio broadcasts of Russian space flights for Israeli newspapers, and after serving in the Army and graduating from college, went to work at Israel Radio.
He hasn't stopped listening since.
During a recent conversation in his monitoring room, Gurdus suddenly perked up and began fiddling with the dials as his receiver picked up a conversation between a pilot and a control tower.
``Did you hear that?'' he asked with ill-concealed anticipation. ``That was TWA Flight 844 -- talking to Athens.''