“Sed quis custodiet ipsos Custodes?”

On November 29, 1984, an FBI agent in Massachusetts took extensive notes from a long conversation with an alcoholic woman about the alleged Soviet spy activities of her former husband, John Walker. Barbara Walker initiated the meeting with a phone call on November 17. Her story was filed and forgotten. On January 24 Laura Walker, the Walkers’ daughter, called the FBI office in Boston to ask why no action had been taken. The phone call was logged, and it too was buried. Finally, in February, a Boston FBI agent, making a routine three-month file review, noticed the initial report of Barbara Walker and sent reports to Washington, DC, and to Norfolk, Virginia, where John Walker lived. The FBI office in Washington, DC, buried the report. Fortunately, Joseph R. Wolfinger, director of FBI operations in Norfolk, saw the notice and set in motion the plan which led to the May 21, 1985, arrest of perhaps the most effective spy operation since the theft of the Anglo-American blueprints for the atomic bomb.

Breaking the Ring by John Barron is an easy-to-read story about the Walker family spy ring, how it was exposed, and its significance to the national security of the United States. With the advent of smiling Mike Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost and the nine-month political orgy of the Iran/Contra hearings, it is difficult to recall the intense concern America had over Soviet spying just a short time ago. In 1984-85 the U.S. successfully prosecuted 16 spies—eight times the number in the 10-year period between 1966-75. In March of 1986 the United States demanded the removal of 105 Soviet diplomats at the UN in a phased withdrawal ending in April of 1988. The U.S. also shrank the number of Soviet diplomats to the U.S. from 325 to 251—the same as the U.S. had in Moscow. In October of 1986 the Soviets pulled out their 261 “workers” from the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

None of this has really made a significant change. Among the 2,100 Soviet bloc officials living in the U.S., about 1,000 are estimated to be spies—of course, many of the rest are suborned. These figures do not include spouses. The United States has about 300 to 400 FBI agents to track them.

In addition to their greater resources, the Soviet Union makes public heroes of their spies. Richard Sorge, a Soviet WWII spy, has his own postage stamp. Rudolph Abel, a Soviet spy in the 1950’s, later traded for U-2 pilot Gary Powers, received the Order of Lenin. In the American culture, working for the CIA or the FBI borders on the disreputable at our major universities and perhaps even in the U.S. Congress. These are some of the reasons that explain why John Walker, a particularly venal mercenary, could operate for 18 years and was only caught when his former wife came forward.

Did Walker give away important secrets? All too often we read of Americans who have given away secrets to the Soviets for $3,000. In a nine-year period from 1975-84, John Walker gave his accomplice Jerry Whitworth 50 percent of the take, $332,000. That should tell us something about the value of the information.

After Walker, his brother Arthur, his son Michael, and Whitworth were apprehended, a story ran in the New York Times quoting government officials to the effect that what Walker got was “serious” but “not catastrophic.” Senator David F. Durenberger, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that “it wasn’t of such significance that there’s any kind of alarm.” Would that it were so. James Alsup, a communications expert from the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, said that “there are no cryptographic or communications data of any importance to which he did not have access. It means that if he gave them everything he could have given them, there is nothing of importance about the U.S. Navy they do not know.” As Walker himself commented, “If I had access to it, color it gone.”

Part of the problem in evaluating the extent of the losses is the arcane nature of cryptography. Vitaly Yurehenko, a high level KGB defector (who later redefected), summed up the Walkers’ contribution: “If there had been a war, we would have won it.” Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger concurred. In a speech given in April of 1987 Weinberger declared that the KGB considered this spy ring to be the “most important” operation in its history and indicated that more than one million messages may have been intercepted.

In addition to being able to read all top secret Navy communications, it is possible that with access to all of our Navy cryptography devices and over 1,200 daily key lists, the Soviets were able to break the communications for the other armed services and branches of government. The structure and logic of all these systems are closely related. Of course, it is always possible that some Army, Air Force, FBI, or CIA employee had already provided it.

Barron illustrates the value of the information by comparing it to Allied successes in WWII. By understanding only 10 to 12 percent of the Japanese communications. Admiral Nimitz defeated a vastly superior Japanese naval force at Midway. In that contest, we had no battleships against their 11; we had eight cruisers versus their 23, and we had three carriers compared to their eight. To know the “Japanese strengths, weaknesses, and intentions” greatly affected the outcome of this battle and throughout the war in the Pacific.

When in 1939 Polish intelligence delivered Enigma, the German cryptography system, they unquestionably hurt the Germans’ air attack in the Battle of Britain in 1940. To know where, when, and in what strength the luftwaffe attacked made it possible to marshal resources in the most efficient manner.

In addition to providing the technical specifications for all key Navy ciphers and their daily key lists, the Walker ring provided the actual messages sent and received so the Soviets could check their deciphering. The ring also gave information on Navy targeting priorities, planned reactions to emergencies, threshold points for going nuclear, and detection avoidance tactics. This type of data obviously is not to be obscured by filling in some nifty new key list for a cipher. Barron believes the information given over 18 years was a major factor in the modernization of the Soviet navy.

That the exposure of the Walker ring depended on the decision of a suffering alcoholic woman is appalling. This weakness in counterintelligence is not a reflection on American agents, most of whom are exceptional, but on a strategic imbalance between Soviet and American intelligence forces: Our people are simply outnumbered three or four to one on their home turf. The CIA’s counterintelligence used to be at about 280 in the 1960’s, and it was reduced to 80 during the tenure of William Colby in the mid-1970’s. According to the deceased James Angleton, former director of CIA counterespionage, it was never brought back to strength.

Security in the armed forces also has failed the challenges of the last decade. When John Walker was to be reinvestigated in 1971 for his security clearance, he forged his own investigation form, stamped it with a seal he bought for $2.98, and inserted the form in his record. He was clear for another five years. When we spend $100 billion on 20 new Trident submarines and their weapons systems, it seems obvious that we should spend a small fraction of this on security in the armed forces and in counterintelligence. Tripling the number of agents would be a small price to pay compared with the benefits that would accrue from insuring the security of these multi-billion dollar weapons systems. One can only hope that Congress, once it has got the Iran/Contra hearings out of its system, will spend nine months on America’s counterintelligence needs.


[Breaking the Ring by John Barron (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin) $17.95]