Walker case paints rare portrait of American spy family in action

Hollywood would be hard pressed to pack more intrigue, drama, suspense, and tragedy into an espionage thriller than has emerged from details of the 18-year history of the Walker family spy ring. Documents filed by the prosecutors in federal district court Monday offer the most extensive account yet of the operations of one of the largest Soviet spy rings ever uncovered in the United States.

It was revealed that in the late 1960s the Soviets gave John A. Walker Jr. a small device that would help them intercept and decode US Navy message traffic.

``This small instrument, which can be folded to fit within the palm of one's hand, is not commercially available anywhere in the world. It was obviously made by the Soviets for one purpose,'' Assistant US Attorney Michael Schatzow said in court.

The so-called rotor decryption device was seized by federal agents along with two special spy cameras during a search of Mr. Walker's home in May. The decryption device was apparently used to decipher the complex electronic mazes (rotors) that scramble sensitive government and military messages.

Government prosecutors noted that Walker was a communications specialist until his retirement from the Navy in 1976 and had access to the sensitive equipment used to scramble Navy messages. He also had access to so-called ``key lists,'' which provide a second layer of encryption by randomly changing the sequence of the rotors.

``A person with both the key lists and the rotor wiring information could freely listen to Navy communications,'' Mr. Schatzow said.

Jerry Whitworth, another accused member of the Walker spy ring, also had access to both key lists and rotors as part of his work as a Navy radioman stationed on the West Coast and on aircraft carriers in the Pacific.

The court documents detail how John Walker recruited his older brother Arthur, close friend Whitworth, and his 22-year-old son, Michael, to provide him with classified US Navy documents that he then sold to the Soviet Union.

To date, three of the four members of the spy ring have either been convicted or pleaded guilty to espionage charges. Mr. Whitworth is scheduled to stand trial on espionage charges Jan. 13.

On Monday, as part of a deal to obtain a lighter sentence for his son Michael, John Walker pleaded guilty to spying for the Soviet Union. He will receive a life prison term and his son will get a 25-year sentence in exchange for their cooperation with government officials. John Walker is expected to disclose the full extent of the spy ring's activities and, if asked, to testify against Whitworth.

Arthur Walker was convicted in August of espionage charges related to his role in the Walker spy ring. He has not yet been sentenced.

In a 37-page ``statement of facts'' concerning the case, Assistant US Attorney Schatzow details incident after incident in John Walker's long career as a Soviet spy. Both Schatzow and Walker's own attorney, Fred W. Bennett, used the word -- overwhelming -- in describing the government's evidence against Walker.

The statement tells the tale of a man whose apparent thirst for large sums of money drove him to betray his country and to destroy not only his own life, but those of his family and friends.

``When my father asked me to give him classified documents from my workplace, I remembered that when I was still in high school he commented to me that someday he would tell me how he makes his money,'' wrote Michael Walker in his confession to federal agents. ``I now conclude that selling classified documents to the Russians must be what he meant.''

The statement of facts also tells how Walker tried to recruit his daughter, a US Army radio operator, and how his son-in-law later used this information to blackmail Walker's daughter into giving up her only child in a child-custody fight.

It also tells how Walker met with Soviet agents in Vienna 10 times since 1978, and how he used 7-Up cans along the side of a rural Maryland road as part of an elaborate signal system to his Soviet control agent, Alexei Tkachenko of the Soviet Embassy.

Government prosecutors stated that the Soviets hustled Tkachenko out of the country before the State Department could declare him persona non grata. He no doubt faced heated questions in Moscow about how their longtime spy had been found out.

One remaining mystery is how much money Walker made from his spying. A note found in his home indicated that he had been paid $24,500 on one occasion, and that this payment was only half the usual amount.

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