Federal prosecutors have gained far more in striking a deal with accused Soviet spy-ring leader John A. Walker Jr. than if they simply sent a convicted spy to prison in stubborn silence. In a plea bargain, announced in federal district court Monday, John Walker pleaded guilty to charges that he masterminded a four-man United States Navy spy ring that is alleged to have operated undetected for 18 years.
Under the agreement, John Walker will receive a life prison term and is required to detail for US officials the full extent of secrets sold to the Soviets. He may also be required to testify against his former Navy buddy, Jerry Whitworth, in Mr. Whitworth's upcoming espionage trial in San Francisco.
In exchange, John Walker's 22-year-old son Michael, who also pleaded guilty to espionage charges, will receive a 25-year prison sentence.
Jury selection in the trial of John Walker was scheduled to start Monday, but last Wednesday Walker's attorneys and government prosecutors reached agreement on a plea bargain.
By striking the deal with Walker, US officials have gained:
A promise that John Walker will provide a detailed account of the espionage activities of the Walker spy ring. This will give Navy and intelligence officials their first opportunity to make an accurate assessment of the extent to which US national security was compromised by the spy ring. Until now, security officials have based their estimates of damage to US security on worst-case assumptions that the Walkers sold the Soviets most, if not all, the sensitive information to which they had access.
A key witness to bolster the government's case against Whitworth. The evidence in his case is said to be the weakest of the four Walker espionage cases. The trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 13, and under John Walker's plea agreement he is required to testify at the Whitworth trial, if government prosecutors ask him to do so.
A maximum life prison sentence for John Walker, while reducing the possibility of security breaches that might arise during a protracted public trial. Such breaches, elicited during testimony or in court documents, can cause additional damage to US national security, in part by helping the Soviets assess the importance of the information the Walkers sold them. For that reason, intelligence officials usually favor plea bargains to avoid having to make public disclosures in court about US intelligence m ethods or sensitive US programs.
Fred W. Bennett, Walker's attorney, said the plea agreement was in part an attempt by Walker to ``undo the wrongs that have been done.''
He also acknowledged that Walker agreed to the deal to obtain a lighter sentence for his son. ``John Walker loves his son very much,'' Bennett said. ``John Walker was more concerned for his son's future than his own.''
Though he received a 25-year sentence, Michael Walker will be eligible for parole in about eight years. John Walker will be eligible for parole in 10 years.
In accepting the guilty pleas, Judge Alexander Harvey II said it is not his practice to accept recommended sentences. But he added, ``I am satisfied there are exceptional circumstances in this particular case.'' The information furnished by John Walker ``should be of great, incalculable value to the government.''
Almost from the beginning, when Walker was arrested May 20 after leaving sensitive US documents at an alleged Soviet drop site in rural Maryland, the Walker case took on larger proportions.
It came at a time when intelligence experts were warning that the Soviet Union's intelligence services are mounting an all-out assault on US technology and military secrets. Eventually, the Walker spy case came to symbolize America's vulnerability to Soviet spying.
It has triggered a congressional investigation into the effectiveness of US counterintelligence and fueled efforts to establish the death penalty for American spies in peacetime and mandatory lie-detector tests for government workers handling US secrets.
The other member of the Walker family spy ring, John's brother Arthur, was convicted of espionage last August. He is awaiting sentencing.