The risk for USS Pueblo to operate in international waters off North Korea was considered minimal because of the following:
(1) Her sister AGER, USS Banner, was operating in the same area at that time and had previously operated in the Yellow Sea off the North Korean coast without problems;
(2) The AGTR Oxford had operated in the same area as proposed for Pueblo in February 1967, again without problems; and
(3) There had been no information indicating any sort of aggressiveness by the North Korean navy other than against fishing vessels or South Korean navy ships in North Korean territorial waters.

CDR Bobby R. Inman, pictured as an Admiral

The Foreign Broadcast Information Service had monitored North Korean broadcast of January 8 and 11 1968 that warned against provocative acts in territorial waters by “spy boats” disguised as fishing boats. CDR Bobby R. Inman (A), Chief of the Current Intelligence Branch, CINCPACFLT, later said that such warning were an annual event occurring when South Korean fishing boats moved north in January and that they would cause no reevaluation of the risk.  A director National Security Agency (DIRNSA) message of December 29, 1967, which noted activity by North Korean against aerial reconnaissance, the sinking of a South Korea Patrol Escort (PCE), and increased border and fishing craft incidents, evaluated the North Korean threat situation as being on the increase. CDR Inman did not see the message until February 1968; he believed that, had he seen it prior to the Pueblo incident, it would have triggered an all-out review of existing intelligence.  Iman doubted, however, that the DIRNSA message would have changed his risk evaluation.

At the time of the USS Pueblo capture, USS Banner was at sea but was recalled because of communication problems.  USS Banner was  then sent into the Sea of Japan with a task force including the carriers USS Enterprise (CVAN 65) and USS Ranger (CVA 61) and their escorts, with the constraint that the AGER remain closer to the center of the task force than to any Communist-held territory.  USS Banner was used as a sort of picket for early warning and to collect any other pertinent information.  Subsequently, USS Banner operated in the Sea of Japan during an antisubmarine task for transit.

The third AGER conversion, USS Palm Beach, patrolled in the Norwegian Sea and the eastern North Atlantic area from June 27 to July 22, 1968 to collect SIGINT, and to conduct visual surveillance of Soviet naval units operating off the coast of Norway.  Similar surveillance operations were carried out by USS Palm Beach during the period August 1-12, 1968.

The first phase of an AGER study, providing the rationale for the procurement of three medium-endurance SIGINT collection ships and their associated equipment, was completed in June 1968.  Phase II of the study was to have provided a rationale for out-year procurement of AGERs through 1970.  Money had been requested for Phase II, and the draft report was scheduled for completion by November 1.  The ships, however, were never acquired.

Soviet helicopter-carrying cruiser Moskva

In 1969, USS Palm Beach operated in the eastern Mediterranean from June 4 to 25 to maintain SIGINT surveillance of Soviet naval units at or near anchorages at Kithira, Alexandria, and Crete.  During August 11-28 and from August 30 to September 11, USS Belmont conducted surveillance of the Soviet helicopter-carrying cruiser Moskva in the eastern Mediterranean.  The patrols gave the officers of the deck of USS Belmont an opportunity to train at formation keeping with the Soviet ships.

The following surface SIGINT reconnaissance ships were decommissioned in 1969 and 1970:

Ship                                                    Decommissioned
USS Oxford (AGTR 1)                      19 Dec 1969
USS Georgetown (AGTR 2)            19 Dec 1969
USS Belmont (AGTR 4)                   16 Jan 1970
USS Banner (AGER 1)                     14 Nov 1969
USS Palm Beach (AGER 3)             1 Dec 1969

Intelligence gathering ships like USS Belmont and USS Palm Beach had been withdrawn in 1969 from service with the Sixth Fleet in favor of portable SIGINT AN/SSQ-70 Operational Intelligence Collection System (OICs) vans mounted on destroyers.

USS Barnstable County LST-1997 1982 (LST-1197) Operation Smokey Topaz:”Spook Central” OICS Van mounted aft of flight deck. Notice foul weather lifeline leading to the van’s hatch.
Photo courtesy Dan Bj Devlin

(A) Inman, an intelligence officer, retired from the Navy as an Admiral. He served as the Director National Security Agency, Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Vice Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.  He retired from the Navy and government service in 1982.

Source: A Century of U.S. Naval Intelligence
Edited by Mario Vulcano