Sorting out Walker spy-case damage
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.