Lessons unlearned: The legacy of John Walker
Convicted spy John Anthony Walker, Jr., died on August 28, 2014, while serving one of the longest sentences for espionage ever handed down under a plea agreement. He was the mastermind of what has been called the single-most damaging Soviet spy ring in history.
Prior to joining the U.S. Navy, Walker experienced an upbringing that can best be described as “no picnic.” His father, a violent alcoholic, drove the family into bankruptcy and then abandoned them. Walker became a troublemaker and a petty criminal, and at age 17 was caught by police for burglarizing a gas station and a men’s clothing store. His older brother, Arthur, had joined the U.S. Navy out of high school. To keep his brother from going to jail, Arthur intervened with the judge to suggest that he allow Walker to join the Navy.
Walker enlisted in the Navy in 1956 as a radioman and seemed to thrive. There were no discipline problems, and he made a very favorable impression on his superiors. He made rank quickly, achieving a rating of RM1 (E-6) in only six years, and his evaluation reports were almost perfect (4.0) ratings. He married, had his first child and then a second, and in June 1960 was accepted for submarine training. This was followed by an assignment to the USS Razorback (SS-394), a World War II-era diesel submarine based in San Diego, California.
My two questions post Boyce and Lee have always been “why?” and “how?” What prompts a young college student from a well-respected family such as Christopher Boyce’s to enter the world of espionage? What was the final push for Walker? Clayton Lonetree, Richard Miller, Jonathan Pollard, James Harper, Aldrich Ames. The list goes on and on and on. From 1975 to 2008, there have been in excess of 142 cases of espionage in this country and a security system that still can’t catch spies and appears to make it easy for the disenfranchised, the weak, and the greedy to commit a crime that is, by its very nature “one of the rarest crimes on the books.”
So what drives a man with a seemingly happy life to suddenly become a spy for the Soviet Union? Walker, a U.S. Navy Chief Warrant Officer at the time, spied for the Russians from 1968 to 1985 and most likely (based on the shoddy security of the U.S. Navy) would have continued spying had his wife not turned him in. Alcoholism, mounting debt, an acrimonious marital relationship, and ever-growing greed fueled Walker’s espionage.
Much has been said about John Walker prior to his death and will continue long after. I didn’t know the man. I stood on the outside watching, as did millions of other Americans. I was in high school in San Diego during the latter years of the Vietnam War when the USS Pueblo was seized. By the time of the Walker family’s arrest in 1985, I was deeply committed to freeing two other spies: Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee.
John Walker didn’t spy alone. He dragged his alcoholic wife, Barbara, kicking and screaming into the game by forcing her to be with him during “drops.” In 1969, he befriended and recruited Jerry Whitworth, a young student stationed in San Diego. Whitworth, who would become a Navy senior chief petty officer/senior chief radioman, agreed to assist Walker in accessing highly classified communications data in 1973. In 1984, Walker recruited his older brother, Arthur, a retired lieutenant commander working as a military contractor. He even recruited his own son, Michael, an active duty Navy seaman.
The litany of overt acts and startling revelations that came to light after the arrest of Walker simply boggle the mind, to this day. When I compare the Walker espionage with that of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee, the egregious security issues that came to light in 1977 during the infamous Falcon and the Snowman trials had still not been corrected eight years later by the time of Walker’s arrest.
There was ample evidence available to authorities at the time to indicate that a serious breach of national and communications security had occurred:
1. In January of 1968, the Koreans captured the USS Pueblo, just one month after Walker had betrayed the information. While there remains much debate about the exact role Walker’s espionage played in the seizure of the Pueblo, former KGB head Oleg Kalugin claims that Walker’s case officer, Andrei Krasavin, was able to build a working replica of the KW-7 crypto machine based on information provided by Walker. Krasavin later received the Lenin Medal, the highest honor granted by the Soviet government.
2. After Walker’s arrest, Theodore Shackleton, the CIA station chief in Saigon, asserted that Walker’s espionage may have contributed to diminished B-52 bombing strikes, and that the forewarning gleaned from Walker’s espionage directly impacted U.S. effectiveness in Vietnam.
3. During his time as a Soviet spy, Walker helped the Soviets decipher more than one million encrypted naval messages for use against the United States.
4. Navy intelligence officers noticed a number of indicators, beginning in the early 1970s when Soviet Navy submarines suddenly got dramatically quieter and developed an ability to stay just outside the effective range of U.S. sonobuoys – exactly as if they knew the full details of how the U.S. was detecting them. They also started showing up outside U.S. submarine bases just before American submarines were scheduled to put to sea.
The Soviet Navy showed an uncanny ability to get intelligence collection ships at the right place and time to capture data from fleet exercises, “as if they had a copy of the OpPlans or something.” In fact, the Walker spy ring did have a copy of the OpPlans, and everything else of any importance to the U.S. Navy, for a period of almost 20 years.
Richard Haver, the deputy director of Naval Intelligence, said they had “wondered” if there was a communications security breach, but could find no proof. In retrospect, it is not clear how they could have gotten such proof because the setup of Fleet Broadcasting System (FBS) was such that, even if a Soviet spy had brought verbatim copies of FBS intercepts to the CIA, it would have been impossible to produce a comprehensive list of potential suspects – even a list that was tens of thousands of names long. This is an example of yet another failure on the part of the U.S. Navy to safeguard its operations.
5. In approximately November of 1984, fearing that Michael Walker would never be able to extricate himself from the web of deceit, John Walker’s daughter, Laura, convinced her mother to report him to the FBI. Barbara told the FBI field office in Boston that she had important information, and on November 29 a special agent from Hyannis interviewed her. The spy’s ex-wife told the agent of her husband’s dealings as far back as the 1960s, his admissions to her that he was spying, and the fact that she had been forced to accompany him to dead drops near Washington. She described in detail the deliveries of information from Walker to his Russian handlers that dovetailed with KGB techniques.
Instead of acting on the information, the FBI agent notated his report with the fact that Barbara appeared to have been drinking when he arrived to speak to her, and that she consumed a large glass of vodka during the interview. Later, he stated he felt she had been “evasive” when asked why she had waited so long to come forward. Without much more thought, the agent made the unilateral decision that Barbara Walker had a drinking problem and that the allegations against her husband were simply “sour grapes.” He graded the information she had provided as meriting no follow-up and sent the report to Boston, where it was filed away.
A month later, during a routine check on inactive files, an FBI supervisor read the Barbara Walker report. Noting that the espionage allegation was focused in Norfolk, the supervisor sent the file on to that office. Norfolk obtained headquarters’ approval to open an investigation, but it was not assigned to an agent until February of 1985.
Barbara Walker provided the FBI with explosive information that could have been used to rescue what was left of Naval Intelligence and put what has been described as the “single-most damaging Soviet spy ring in history” behind bars.
6. While Walker worked closely with hundreds or even thousands of sailors over a 20-year spying career, many of those sailors had firsthand knowledge of his unethical behavior and suspiciously large financial expenditures. So much so that Walker was actively probing a number of them to see if they were good candidates for recruitment into his spy ring. Yet not one of them ever considered that he might be spying.
Michael Walker was released in 2001 after serving 15 years in prison. John Walker died on August 28, 2014, in the Butner Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, North Carolina. Walker’s older brother, Arthur, died on July 5 in the same facility. The remaining Walker conspirator, Jerry Whitworth, is serving a 365-year prison sentence with the possibility of parole after 60 years.
Some years ago, I spoke with Judge John P. Vukasin, who presided over the Whitworth trial in San Francisco. While I looked for the complex issues at sentencing to help my clients, Vukasin’s reasoning in sentencing Whitworth was actually quite simple: “Mr. Whitworth did not believe in what he did. He didn’t believe in anything at all. Jerry Whitworth is a zero at the bone. He believes in nothing.”
John A. Walker, Jr. leaves behind a legacy, for good or for bad, that has shaped the lives of his children – Laura Walker, Margaret Ann Walker, Cynthia Walker and Michael Walker – and will continue to shape military intelligence and national security in this country for many years to come.
Cait Boyce is a legal professional with over 35 years of experience representing non-violent criminal offenders. She is the co-author of the book American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman, which documents her efforts to free Cold War spies Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee.