A SLIP of paper with a misspelled code name. Stolen government secrets passed to the Russians. An encounter with a KGB agent near an Esso gas station.
If the Federal Bureau of Investigation has correctly pieced together the story, a retired Millersville, Pa., man spied 30 years ago for the Soviet Union. While few details have emerged about Robert Lipka's alleged espionage as a communications clerk at the National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., at the height of the cold war he would have had access to some of the country's most closely guarded secrets.
The former Army intelligence officer was arrested by federal agents at his home here Friday. His arrest could help officials still working to assess the extent and damage of Soviet spying against the United States. US officials had long suspected a Soviet mole at the NSA, which eavesdrops on foreign communications, radar, and electronic transmissions.
The case illustrates that, despite the end of the cold war, US efforts to determine the extent of national-security breaches - and to prosecute former spies - are far from over. Mr. Lipka, who worked at the NSA between 1964 and 1967, is charged with conspiracy to commit espionage. A court hearing in US district court is scheduled for Wednesday.
The contrast between high-level espionage and this quiet community 70 miles west of Philadelphia could hardly be greater. Neighbors, who say Lipka kept to himself, watched throughout the day as FBI and Secret Service agents removed a computer and bags of documents from his one-story colonial house. His wife, a postal worker, and two children were not home.
The government's case against Lipka relies heavily on a cooperating witness, reportedly Lipka's former wife, who will receive immunity in exchange for testimony. According to the FBI, the witness says Lipka not only admitted selling NSA documents to the Russians, but also took the witness along on various, prearranged "dead drops."
In January 1967, for example, the witness accompanied Lipka to a restaurant where he entered the men's room and, apparently, left a package in a toilet tank for his Russian contact, "Ivan." The witness also accompanied Lipka on other trips where he would either place or retrieve packages left by "Ivan," according to the FBI.
Lipka received envelopes of cash - from $500 to $1,000 - from the Russians, which he counted in front of the witness, the FBI says.
The FBI also has circumstantial evidence suggesting that Lipka met with a suspected KGB agent in April 1968, after Lipka had left NSA. During a clandestine search of the KGB agent's home soon after the alleged meeting, federal agents found a slip of paper with the description of an intersection in Lancaster, Pa., the word "Esso" and the name of another gasoline station that stood on that corner, and the name "Roeck." The cooperating witness told agents that Lipka had said his code word was "Rook," and the FBI believes "Roeck" is a transliteration of that name by the German-speaking KGB agent. The intersection is two miles from where Lipka was living at the time.
In his book "The First Directorate," former KGB Maj. Gen. Oleg Kalugin mentioned a "young soldier at NSA" who had provided the agency with "reams of top-secret material" in the mid-1960s. The FBI believes the "young soldier" is Lipka.
In 1993, the FBI decided to investigate. An undercover FBI agent posed as a Russian military intelligence officer and met four times with Lipka to discuss his past activities. According to the FBI, Lipka told the agent he had spied for the Russians but had stopped because he had been underpaid. The agent mailed him $5,000 for documents still in his possession and Lipka cashed the check but sent nothing in return, the FBI says.
The NSA is believed to have experienced only a handful of security breaches during its history. A decade ago, a former NSA employee was convicted of spying for the Soviets, and three NSA workers defected to the Soviet Union in the early 1960s.
Lipka, during his years in Pennsylvania, wrote a weekly coin-collecting column for a local newspaper and ran unsuccessfully for the Lancaster City Council in 1971. Local newspapers have carried at least a dozen of his letters to the editor, which have endorsed off-track betting, railed against the Iran-contra affair, and complained about the tactics of conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh.