Phat Earth Society

Operation Happy Days

The year is 1987, and you are in a small town close to the border of Nevada. Nearby, the gleaming lights of Las Vegas pulsate. You can see these lights if the night air is just right while sitting in one of the booths of Peggy Sue's 50's Diner. As you gaze out east, to the city of promise and heartbreak, you will undoubtedly be listening to your own tableside jukebox. These little chrome boxes can be found in diners, new and old, across the United States. They are wonderful windows to the past and are part of the greater American culture at large. They play songs from The Beach Boys and Elvis and Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole. The speakers sound shiny and warm, just loud enough for you and your booth buddy to hear. Never loud enough where you have to raise your voice, but never too quiet. Although these tiny boxes to the past are charming, they are hide a nefarious past.

Recently, a declassified document released by the state department has given rise to a few eyebrows here and there. Well everyone is raising their eyebrows really, due to a program conducted by the CIA in the 1970's called "Operation: Happy Days."

"Operation Happy Days" was a program designed to place listening devices in the most obvious of places. This was a time before cell phones and cell tower triangulation methods. However, people were already aware that phones could be bugged and directional mics could pick up conversations clear as day from across a busy street. Spies could simply point a microphone at the bodega shop window and pick up the vibrations from the glass. They could hear as you and fellow ne'er-do-wells were conspiring under a false shroud of secrecy. With people involved in the criminal underworld and conspiring against the state in a game of international espionage, all knew to keep clear of these potential mechanisms employed by the state. The CIA developed a method of information gathering that was so overt, that it was in fact covert. In the form of the once ubiquitous table top diner jukebox.

The CIA created a couple of shell companies to disguise their conversion processes. They acquired a company in Japan (Hanzo, Ikagawa LTD): a generic electronics and fixture company. Hanzo, Ikagawa LTD produced the blank ‘music-less' jukeboxes and shipped them to Macropol LLC and BuzzerMatics Electrics and Distributors (both shell companies bankrolled by the CIA). The only people in the know, in regards to not only installing the correct music but also installing moderately-sized listening devices in the form of just another speaker, were the “CEO's”, who were in fact, CIA analysts all using fake monikers. The very real employees of these two companies, along with everyone from line workers, accountants, and floor managers, had no idea they were in fact assembling tiny listening posts to be spread and distributed across the United States, to spy on their fellow Americans.

The beauty of this was, that just like today with arcade cabinets and jukeboxes, the establishment rarely owns them. They are usually rented out to the business owners by a distributor. This gave the CIA ample opportunity to go into the field, change the music, and also remove the high density surveillance tapes or reel-to-reel steel wire recording components to be analyzed. If high value targets were in the area and the diner restaurant or bar fell on the list of consistent meeting points, the CIA singled out individual recording devices and collected what was called "active surveillance."

In order to get a certain tabletop jukebox in a specific place to “malfunction", an agent would simply go into the establishment and activate a shutdown feature built into the jukebox. This was accomplished by inserting a coin, identical to a US quarter except by weight. This false coin would slide down an adjacent shoot, because of its altered weight, and disable the machine. The field operative would complain to the owner and the owner, in turn, would call the shell company to send in a "repairman." Sometimes several complaints had to be made to the owner of establishments before the “repairmen” were sent in to fix and recover the data. This covert surveillance operation ran from the mid 1960's to the 1980's.

This practice continued up until the invention of cellular phones. Cellular phones drastically reduced the required logistics to keep these operations going by the CIA. Over time, business owners modernized their establishments, thus returning the tabletop jukeboxes to their distributors, effectively covering up the CIA’s tracks for them. And simply put, later generations of people just thought they were more of a nuisance than a positive addition to the ambiance.

Sometime, in your travels, you may stop into a nondescript diner in a midwestern town and see some unaccounted-for tabletop jukeboxes. Go ahead, put in a quarter, listen to the Beach Boys as you tuck into that greasy omelet.

Why be scared? You don’t have anything to hide, do you?