Wednesday, April 22, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: John Walker's Life As A Notorious Navy Spy

John Walker may very well be the most damaging of all the Cold War spies.

The retired Navy warrant officer was arrested in 1985, the year known as “The Year of the Spy,” because of the number of spy arrests that year.

Walker was arrested for selling classified information to the Soviet Union for 18 years. Walker was known in the trade as a “walk-in,” as he began his life as a spy by entering the Soviet embassy in Washington D.C. and offering his services. He later recruited his best friend, his brother and his son to join in his spy ring.

Walker gave away the keys to the kingdom of naval communications: key cards used for enciphering messages and encryption devices. The U.S. Navy estimates that more than one million classified military and intelligence agency messages were compromised by Walker. The Soviets were able to read vital American communications during a time of war. Had the U.S. gone to nuclear war with the Soviet Union, Walker’s security breech would have had been catastrophic.

I have a particular interest in the Walker spy case, as I served as a young seaman in the radio communications division aboard the USS Kitty Hawk when the aircraft carrier conducted combat operations off the coast of Vietnam in 1970-1971.

The Kitty Hawk served as the flag ship for Task Force 77, so we handled highly classified war traffic for the 7th Fleet, the in-country military commands, the CIA, and other alphabet intelligence agencies. Little did we know that much of what we took great pains to protect was already blown by Walker.

It is my view — a view shared by many others who served in the military — that Walker’s espionage led to the death of many American sailors, soldiers, airman and marines during the Vietnam War.

Despite personal animosity, I was curious to read Walker's autobiography, My Life as a Spy: One of America's Most Notorious Spies Finally Tells His Story.

The book is of interest primarily as a case study of a spy, best read in conjunction with other books on Walker. In his book Walker cites his reasons for spying as (a) to bring about an improvement in U.S.-Soviet relations with a view towards reducing the prospect of war, (b) his disgust with U.S. government deception, the Cold War fraud and covert misadventures, (c) adventure and (d) the psychological pressure of a failed marriage.

He fails to mention greed or his enormous ego, the two prime motives for espionage that are, it seems to me, much closer to the truth. Now serving a life sentence in federal prison, Walker has written a self-serving book, a book that is pure spin.

We had another name for it when I was in the Navy.

Walker recounts his life like it’s an adventure story rather than a tragedy. He damaged national security, destroyed his family, and in my view, he caused the deaths of American servicemen in Vietnam.

Walker was a well-rated sailor who rose quickly up the enlisted ranks to become a warrant officer. He claims his dismal marriage to an alcoholic wife and a mistrust of the U.S. government led him to steal secrets and sell them to the Soviets. He later drew his son, brother and best friend into a life of espionage and betrayal.

In 1985, “The Year of the Spy,” his ex-wife reported him to the FBI and he was arrested in a Maryland motel after making a “dead-drop” of classified documents at a nearby roadside.

Walker made a deal with the government in which he testified against his friend, Navy Chief Petty Officer Jerry Whitworth (whom he recruited to spy for him) and he agreed to reveal what he gave to the Soviets in exchange for a lesser sentence for his son (who he recruited to spy for him).

On November 6, 1986, John Walker was sentenced to two life terms plus ten years to be served concurrently. His son was sentenced to 25 years.

The book is interesting in a perverse way, but one should keep in mind that Walker is a habitual liar. He is also proud of his criminal deeds. At one point in the book, he grins to himself and thinks “If they only knew.”

Walker states that he didn’t like the James Bond movies, finding them to be Hollywood fantasies, but then he states he thought of Bond when he was with a blond only hours after a secret meeting with the KGB. But be serious, Walker was hardly James Bond.

He claims to have written the book for his children, but in the book he often brags of female conquests. He says he was concerned for his children and tried to protect them from his abusive wife, but he talked his son into committing espionage, and talked him right into federal prison. He also attempted to draw his daughter into the spy ring.

Walker sees himself as a glamorous spy, but he was in fact merely an unattractive and weaselly sneak thief. He stole classified documents and sold them to the Soviets in order to live a more prosperous lifestyle.

The book will interest students of espionage and history, but it ought to be read after one reads other books on Walker, such as former FBI Special Agent Robert Hunter's Spy Hunter: Inside the Walker Espionage Case, and journalist Pete Earley's Family of Spies: Inside the John Walker Spy Ring.

Note:  The above column originally appeared at

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