(CP note: August 9, 1985, John Walker was found guilty of passing United States secrets to the Soviet Union. It was the first in a series of trials related to the Walker family spy-ring. The arrest of Arthur Walker, a brother and the ring-leader, is detailed below.)
The climax to the bureau’s effort to perfect its counterintelligence program came in 1985, known as the Year of the Spy, when the FBI arrested eleven spies. They included John A. Walker Jr., a Navy warrant officer; Jonathan J. Pollard, the Israeli spy; Ronald Pelton, a former NSA employee; and Lawrence Wu-Tai Chin, a spy for the Chinese. All pleaded guilty or were convicted.
Not included on that list was Edward Lee Howard, a former CIA officer who escaped FBI surveillance in 1985 and fled to the Soviet Union. An inexperienced FBI agent conducting the surveillance of Howard’s home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, simply did not notice Howard leaving. The agent was suspended for forty-five days and then left the bureau. After the Cold War ended, Howard became an insurance agent in Moscow.
Because of the FBI’s initial handling of the case, Walker—one of the most damaging spies in American history—almost did not make the list either. On November 17, 1984, six weeks after John Martin authorized the arrest of Richard Miller, Walker’s former wife Barbara called the Boston Field Office of the FBI. Since 1968, when she inadvertently discovered his activities, Barbara Walker had known about her husband’s spying. She had even accompanied him on two trips to northern Virginia to leave documents at dead drops. Scorned by her husband, she had often thought about turning him in. Finally, she took the step.
The FBI clerk who took her call referred it to an agent in the FBI’s Hyannis office. He interviewed her and was unimpressed. She rambled on, downing one glass of vodka after another and slurring her words. Her story seemed dated. She had not lived with Walker for ten years. And she made no secret of her hatred of her former husband, who was living with a pretty blonde young enough to be his daughter. The FBI’s greatest slipup was sending an agent with no experience in foreign counterintelligence. He failed to recognize that the details she cited were genuine signs of a Soviet spy operation.
The agent could have obtained more corroboration by interviewing Barbara’s daughter, Laura Walker, who was aware of her father’s activities and had urged her mother to turn him in. Instead, the agent wrote up the report and recommended that it not be pursued. As a result, the FBI almost missed catching Walker, just as the bureau had failed to detect him walking into the Soviet embassy at Sixteenth and L streets NW in Washington when he began his spying activities in 1968.
Back then, to show the Soviets he was genuine, Walker had brought with him a top-secret list of cryptographic key settings that would enable the Soviets to decode messages sent by the Navy’s KL-47 cipher machine over a period of thirty days. That let them read naval commands that would be given in time of war. Impressed, the Soviets gave him $2,000. In return for more information, Walker asked for $1,000 a week. The Soviets agreed. After meeting for an hour, the Soviets bundled him between two Russians in the backseat of a car. They sped away from the rear of the embassy. Walker would make his first drop the following month, leaving top-secret documents in a locker at National Airport.
Three months after the Hyannis agent interviewed Walker’s ex-wife, an agent in Boston reviewed his report. Thinking it worth pursuing, the agent sent a copy to FBI headquarters and to the FBI’s Norfolk Field Office, where Walker lived. Officials in both offices immediately recognized details of spy operations that Barbara Walker could not have picked up from reading spy novels. The Norfolk agents ordered new interviews with her and one with Laura Walker, who corroborated many of her mother’s allegations. After both women passed lie detector tests, FBI counterintelligence officials were convinced the case was real.
Walker had retired from the Navy in 1976 and now, at age forty-eight, ran his own private detective agency, Confidential Reports Inc. in Virginia Beach. Because of his new occupation as detective, Walker was likely to be on the lookout for surveillance. Above all, the agents assigned to the Walker case—code-named WINDFLYER—did not want to tip their hand.
The FBI obtained approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to wiretap Walker’s home phones at 8524 Old Ocean View Road in Norfolk and his business phones at 405 South Parliament Drive in Virginia Beach. After six weeks, the intercepts produced no hint of his spying activities. But during the week of May 13, 1985, the agents heard Walker chatting about a business trip planned for Sunday, May 19. To some of his friends, he said he was going to Charlotte. To others, he said he was going elsewhere. When his favorite aunt died that week in Pennsylvania, Walker insisted he could not attend the funeral. His business trip could not be postponed, nor could his partner in the detective agency handle the assignment.
To the agents assigned to the case, it meant Walker might be planning a drop. On Saturday, they placed him under constant surveillance. The next day, they watched as Walker, wearing blue jeans, a dark blue pullover, and a black nylon windbreaker, got in his blue-and-silver 1985 Chevrolet Astro Van and began driving into driveways and dead ends. Clearly, he was dry-cleaning himself—spy jargon for shaking surveillance—and was about to go operational. Overhead, a single-engine FBI plane radioed scrambled reports to the command car. At 2 P.M., the plane radioed that Walker was driving north, not south toward Charlotte, along Interstate 95 toward Washington.
Twenty FBI cars followed him. Never looking directly at him, the agents would pass him, turn off the road, then come back and pass him again. In case they were observed during that time, agents changed disguises en route.
Because the FBI had decided that Walker probably would continue dealing with the Soviets in Washington, it had devised a special surveillance plan. Joseph Wolfinger, head of operations in Norfolk, called the Washington Field Office to activate the command center—a cluster of secure phones, television screens, radio transmitters, and blackboards on the tenth floor of the Washington Field Office, then overlooking the Anacostia River. The command center, in turn, notified another forty agents assigned to the two FBI squads targeting operations of the GRU, the Soviet military intelligence, which usually targets military personnel like Walker. Members of the FBI’s Special Support Group also went into action. Known as Gs, they are lower-paid surveillance people used in counterintelligence cases. They might pose as joggers, derelicts, skaters, priests, or secretaries. Instead of using FBI cars, they employ anything from skateboards or bicycles-built-for-two to moving vans, bulldozers, and helicopters.
At 4 P.M., Walker crossed the Potomac River on Route 495 into the Maryland suburbs outside of Washington. To blend in, many of the agents changed their license plates from Virginia to Maryland tags. They changed into Camouflage garb.
Walker began traversing the countryside in Potomac, Maryland, just off River Road, slowing down at certain intersections and peering at utility poles. Having received instructions from the Soviets on where to leave documents and pick up his cash, he was casing the locations first so he could find them easily later that night. Just in case he returned, the agents noted the locations.
The lush area has long steep hills and multimillion-dollar homes equipped with lighted tennis courts and swimming pools. Ponds dot the front yards, and golden retrievers romp near the swing sets. It is hunt country, and the residents groom their horses on the lawn.
The site was not only beautiful, it was perfect for the Soviets’ purposes. Because it was so deserted, Walker could easily detect anyone following him. At 4:45 P.M., the agents lost him. To avoid being spotted, they had to stay two to three blocks behind him. The agents later learned that Walker had checked in at a Ramada Inn in nearby Rockville, registering as “Joe Johnson.”
Behind the Safeway at a shopping center at River and Falls roads, the agents regrouped. There, more than fifty agents and Gs were wringing their hands until William P. O’Keefe and A. Jackson Lowe, the supervisors in charge of the two FBI squads in Washington that tracked Soviet GRU officers, came up with a plan. Figuring that Walker would return, the two ordered the agents to conduct picket surveillance—a fence of stationary surveillance at intersections leading to the area. At 7:48, their hunch proved right. Over the radio, the agents heard the voice of a female G exclaiming that she had spotted the target.
Walker was driving up River Road near the shopping center. By now, another FBI reconnaissance plane was flying overhead. Since Walker had turned on his headlights, the agent in the plane could easily locate him.
Walker began following a set of instructions his Soviet handlers had written. The instructions described an intricate dance that Walker would follow for the next four hours. While spies may communicate using the most modem equipment available, the preferred way is still through dead drops.
“Normally, you have physical evidence,” said J. Stephen Ramey, a counterintelligence agent who worked the Walker case that night. “In a bank robbery, for example, the individual hands over a demand note. He has written it in longhand, and there are fingerprints on it. Sometimes they touch the countertops. You have a dye pack that explodes as they run down the street. You have surveillance cameras taking their photographs. Even though they may wear a mask, you can pick out an unusual feature or type of clothing.” In an espionage case involving the Russians, the only physical evidence is usually documents that are already in Moscow, he said.
The instructions to Walker included a way of communicating by placing 7-Up cans in particular locations. If for any reason Walker could not leave his documents where he was supposed to leave them, or the Soviet could not leave his cash, the instructions included alternate sites. While the drop points were within a twenty-square-mile area, it would take two hours of driving to hit them all.
At 8:20, the agents noticed a 1983 blue Malibu with diplomatic plates. It was driven by a man accompanied by a woman and a child. Running the tag number through an FBI computer, the agents learned that the car belonged to Aleksey Gavrilovich Tkachenko, third secretary of the Soviet embassy and a KGB officer. Because Walker was so important, the KGB, rather than the less powerful GRU, had taken over running him. A few minutes later, the agents again spotted Tkachenko. Then, a mile and a half away at 8:30, Walker dropped the 7-Up can at the bottom of a utility pole on Quince Orchard Road at Dufief Mill Road, signaling that he was ready for the exchange of documents.
Over the scrambled radio, Lowe told the agents to make sure to preserve the can as evidence. They misinterpreted what he said and scooped up the 7-Up can immediately after Walker drove away. This was a mistake, since the can signaled that the coast was clear and Tkachenko could pick up the documents. If he had gone to the place where Walker had hidden the documents, and the FBI had left the documents in place, the agents could have taken the KGB officer into custody. Instead, the Soviet took off without retrieving any documents or leaving any cash for Walker.
Walker sped off toward Partnership Road and got out of his van. After he left, a member of one of the squads found a brown paper bag near a large tree. The bag was filled with what looked like trash—empty Coke bottles and cereal boxes. But the bottles had been carefully rinsed out, and there was no food inside the discarded boxes. The garbage concealed another bag. Inside that bag, the agents found 129 classified documents and a note to Walker’s handlers.
Agents rushed the documents to the command center at FBI headquarters. The documents were from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and were marked top secret. By letter code, a note to Walker’s KGB handlers referred to others who were supplying him with documents now that he had left the military. Using a technique that employs lasers to detect fingerprints on paper, the lab found a print of Walker’s son, Michael L. Walker, a sailor aboard the Nimitz.
Still not realizing anything was amiss, Walker drove to a forked tree where he was to get his cash at 10:30. Walker searched for his money but couldn’t find it. He directed a flashlight at the nearby trees. Ramey, a powerfully built agent, was standing behind a small tree. He was sure Walker saw him. Ramey pointed his .357 Magnum at Walker as the spy shined the light directly on him. Somehow, Walker didn’t see him and continued to search for the money.
Finally, at midnight, Walker gave up looking and headed back toward the Ramada Inn. He entered the hotel at 12:17 A.M. and went directly to his room on the seventh floor. By 3:30, Walker was presumably asleep. Special Agent William Wang posed as the hotel clerk and called him in his room. Wang apologized for waking him but said another guest had smashed into his van. Would he mind coming down to look at the damage and exchange insurance information?
Warily, Walker opened the door. He saw no one. He closed the door, walked to his window, and looked out. He couldn’t see his van. Shoving a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver in his belt, he opened the door and walked into the hallway. As he approached the elevators, Robert W. Hunter, the case agent from Norfolk, and James L. Kolouch, the case agent in Washington, accosted him, their guns drawn.
“FBI, freeze!” Kolouch said.
Walker drew his gun and pointed it at the agents, who were both wearing bulletproof vests. There was no way he could have gotten away. Agents had surrounded the hotel and blocked off the stairways and elevators. Others waited in a room near Walker’s.
Walker hesitated a moment, then dropped the gun, along with a manila envelope. The envelope turned out to contain instructions from his Soviet handlers. Throwing Walker against a wall, the agents ripped off his toupee and searched him. Placing handcuffs on him, Hunter told him, “You are under arrest for violation of the espionage laws of the United States.”
For eighteen years, Walker had been giving the Soviets information on future naval plans, ship and submarine locations, weapons data, naval tactics, covert military and counterintelligence operations, and emergency plans in the event of a nuclear war. In all, Walker received more than $1 million from the Soviets.
As he did in other cases where a family member was involved in spying, John Martin offered a reduced sentence for the relative if the principal pleaded guilty. As a result, Walker’s son Michael got twenty-five years. John Walker and his brother Arthur, who was involved in giving John classified information, got life in prison.
The fact that the Navy later said the U.S. could have lost a war with the Soviets because of Walker’s spying underscored the importance of uncovering and deterring espionage.
Excerpted from The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI by Ronald Kessler.
Copyright © 2002 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
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