Credibility of confessed spy key to Whitworth espionage trial

After months of pretrial maneuvering and motions, the trial of the alleged fourth member of the Walker family spy ring is under way in San Francisco. Federal prosecutors expect the trial of Jerry Alfred Whitworth to provide the last major pieces in an espionage puzzle masterminded by Mr. Whitworth's friend and old Navy buddy, John A. Walker Jr.

The ring is said to be the most harmful spying operation against the United States in 30 years.

Whitworth, who retired from the Navy as a senior radioman in 1983, is accused of selling Walker military coding secrets and technical manuals that may have enabled the Soviets to read classified US Navy messages throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Whitworth denies the charges.

Ironically, it is John Walker, the man who says he initially talked Whitworth into spying for him, who is expected to play the leading role now in helping federal prosecutors convict Whitworth.

Shortly before his own espionage trial last October, Walker agreed to plead guilty and testify against Whitworth in exchange for a lighter sentence for his son, 22-year-old Michael Walker, who also has pleaded guilty to participating in the spy ring.

Walker's testimony is said to have significantly bolstered the government's case against Whitworth.

Whitworth's lawyers are expected to attack John Walker's credibility, suggesting that Walker is exaggerating Whitworth's role in the spy ring to convince federal officials of his cooperation.

Such cooperation is necessary to ensure lenient treatment for Walker's son, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence, but who could be paroled in eight years. John and Arthur Walker have both been sentenced to life in prison.

Federal prosecutors won an early round in the Whitworth case when US District Judge John P. Vukasin Jr. ruled last week that four anonymous letters sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in mid-1984 could be used as evidence against Whitworth.

US prosecutors claim the letters were written by Whitworth in an attempt to back out of his spying commitments to Walker while gaining immunity from prosecution.

The 1984 letters, signed only ``RUS, Somewhere, USA,'' offered to expose a ``significant espionage system'' in which the writer's contact had recruited at least three other members.

The offer was subsequently dropped and no further letters were received by the FBI.

In his ruling, Judge Vukasin noted there were ``numerous common points'' between details provided in the letters and established details of the Walker family spy ring.

Whitworth's lawlyers have argued that there is no direct evidence that Whitworth wrote the letters.

The spy ring was broken up last May after US counterintelligence agents watched Walker deliver a bag full of classified documents to a Soviet-designated drop-off point in rural Maryland.

Federal investigators eventually identified Walker's son, Michael, a seaman on the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz; Arthur Walker, John's brother and a former Navy officer; and Whitworth as the other three members of a cell of spies allegedly recruited and managed by Walker.

The trial is expected to last 10 to 12 weeks.

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