Washington — Bit by bit, pieces of the puzzle known as the Walker espionage ring are falling into place. Already, in comparison with other publicly disclosed US espionage cases, the case involving former naval officer John A. Walker Jr. and several alleged associates qualifies in terms of longevity and manpower as one of the most extensive Soviet spy efforts on record in the US.
What remains to be established -- and what is very worrisome to US officials -- is how badly the spy efforts may have damaged US national security. With each new revelation about what is now described as at least a four-man conspiracy to gather, transport, and sell sensitive US Navy documents to the Soviets, another question looms larger: How could such an operation continue undetected for so long?
While US officials are reluctant to declare a new surge in Soviet espionage activity, Justice Department officials note that records have been set over the past year for prosecutions of alleged spies. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), 16 individuals (including suspects in the Walker case) were charged with espionage or related activities for the Soviet Union or other East-bloc countries.
An FBI official (who declined to be cited by name) said that there are about 4,000 Soviet or Soviet-allied diplomats in the US, and that US counter-intelligence officials as a rule of thumb estimate one-third of them are involved in intelligence activity.
The FBI official said it's hard to determine whether American counterintelligence efforts are improving or whether the Soviets ``are getting sloppy,'' or both. In any case, experts fear US antisubmarine and secret communications capabilities have been seriously harmed by the recent case.
According to retired Rear Adm. Eugene J. Carroll, deputy director of the Center for Defense Information, a private research organization generally critical of the Pentagon, such capabilties rank very high in importance -- even above nuclear-weapons secrets.
``I would give the Soviets our current nuclear striking plans in detail before I would give them any information about our cryptographic [secret code] capabilities,'' Admiral Carroll says.
The nuclear plans wouldn't assist the Soviets nearly as much as detailed information about US communications and how the US tracks Soviet submarines and avoids detections of its own submarines, he adds. The United States deploys most of its strategic missile warheads on subs and is therefore potentially more vulnerable to antisubmarine technology than the Soviet Union, which bases most of its nuclear missiles on land.
Pentagon officials acknowledge the vast number of government personnel applying for security clearances has overburdened the offices that conduct background checks and interviews for security clearances.
In some cases, according to a recently retired senior Pentagon official, quotas have been established and shortcuts have been taken in an effort to meet what has been a growing demand for security clearances for government workers and defense contractors. Estimates are that about 4.3 million Americans currently hold a security clearance.
According to US officials, the Soviets are constantly watching Americans in sensitive posts or with access to military secrets in an effort to find a weak link. Officials say they look for character deficiencies such as marital problems, alcoholism, promiscuity, or significant financial debts, and then attempt to exploit the deficiency to recruit an agent.
Sometimes the Soviets don't have to work very hard. In some cases, disgruntled employees have sought out the Soviets and turned over secrets, according to government reports. In others, the US secrets were simply sold for the cash they could bring.
Counterintelligence officers count on spotting the same character deficiencies through background investigations and personal interviews. A man on a military salary who is a known big spender is a natural tip-off, government officials say. Harder to detect is the spy who maintains a conservative life style and a low profile. Some analysts think this may be why John A. Walker Jr. was able to elude suspicion for so long.
Had a thorough background security check been completed on Mr. Walker in the early 1970s, others say, he would have been discovered.
The most recent addition to the spy ring allegedly headed by Walker, a retired Navy communications warrant officer and Norfolk, Va., private detective, was Jerry Alfred Whitworth of Davis, Calif. Mr. Whitworth, who retired from the Navy in 1983 as a senior enlisted radioman, was charged Monday with conspiracy to commit espionage as part of the alleged Walker ring. He is said to be an old Navy buddy of Walker's.
Authorities are now saying that Walker and some of his associates may have been spying since 1965. Previously the FBI had said it believed Walker started spying in the late 1960s or early '70s.
Walker was arrested two weeks ago after FBI agents watched him place a paper bag of documents at a suspected Soviet drop site along a secluded road in Maryland. He had been under FBI surveillance for the past six months. In addition, John Walker's brother, Arthur, and his son, Michael, have also been charged in the spy conspiracy.
Arthur Walker, a retired Navy lieutenant commander, was employed with a Navy defense contractor and held a ``secret'' clearance. Michael Walker, who graduated from high school in 1982, worked as an operations clerk on the aircraft carrier Nimitz and also was cleared to work with secret material.
The FBI expects more arrests.
While the credibility of the Navy's counterintelligence efforts continues to slide, the stock of the FBI is holding strong.
FBI agents have maintained the lead in the case from the beginning six months ago, when a confidential informant, reported to be the former wife of John Walker, told an FBI agent on Cape Cod, Mass., that her husband had been a working as a spy for the Soviets since at least the early 1970s.
The wider scope of the investigation sprang in part from a letter the FBI recovered from Walker when he was arrested. Other clues were gained from papers found during an extensive search of Walker's Norfolk home. Key figures in alleged spy ring: The FBI charges that John A. Walker Jr. and some of his accomplices have been spying for the Soviets since 1965.
John A. Walker Jr. Alleged ringleader who was under FBI scrutiny for the last six months.
Arthur J. Walker. John's brother, who worked for a navy contractor and held a ``secret'' clearance.
Michael L. Walker. John's son. Arrested while serving as operations clerk on the USS Nimitz.
Jerry Alfred Whitworth. Retired from Navy in 1983 as a senior enlisted radioman.