John Walker: Why Remember One of the Worst?

August 31, 2014–We learned on Friday that John Walker had died. Walker, the greedy and narcissistic ringleader of a circle of U.S. Navy spies from the 1960s into the 80s, became the most notorious spy our sea service has ever seen. The extent of the damage he wrought remains unknown but it is enormous–something I’ll return to in a moment. He died in a federal prison hospital in North Carolina on August 28. Ironically Walker’s brother Arthur passed away, likely in that very same Butner, North Carolina prison, barely six weeks earlier, on July 7. It was a measure of John Walker’s selfish desire that the best people he could come up with as subagents were family–his son Michael, a sailor; his brother Arthur, a naval officer; and Jerry Whitworth, a fellow petty officer. Thus the Walkers’ case became known as the “family of spies,” after the book-length account published by Peter Earley.

Beginning in 1967, and until his 1985 arrest, John Walker sold U.S. secrets to the Russians. From what we know these consisted of documents concerning the movement and dispositions of U.S. naval vessels plus, most important, lists of codenames and encryption machine settings used in top secret U.S. military communications. These were of vital importance to the Soviets, who actively intercepted American communications traffic. The code keys Walker handed over corresponded to on-line encryption devices in U.S. service at the time. Those same types of machines were aboard the Navy spy ship Pueblo, which was pirated by North Koreans off their coast in 1968. Although it has never been clear whether the North Koreans actually captured the encoding devices or the technical manuals for them–crewmen assured the Navy the equipment had been successfully destroyed–the U.S. security services have always assumed the North Koreans passed the machines to the Russians and these were compromised. If so, the Walker code keys would have given the Soviets access to a wide assortment of U. S. military communications.

I shed no tears for Mr. Walker. His brother, nephew (Michael Walker spent fifteen years in prison) and Navy buddy (Whitworth still serves a 365-year sentence) deserve slightly more sympathy for being cajoled and duped into serving Walker’s conspiracy. Never mind that. What I want to address here is the then-and-now question.

Walker would be turned in by his divorced wife, who phoned the FBI one day to say she suspected the ex- was up to no good. After a seven months investigation the Bureau arrested him and his cohorts. The Walker ring became just one of the cases of 1985, which included those of the Israeli spy Jonathan Jay Pollard, who also targeted the U.S. Navy; Ronald Pelton, who spied for the Russians against the National Security Agency; the Soviet defector case of Vitali Yurchenko, and a number of CIA spies, the most important of whom was probably Edward Lee Howard, whose defection to Russia helped cloak the truly serious penetration of Aldrich Ames. That period became known as “The Year of the Spy” in much the same way that 1975, the time of the Church and Pike committees and the Rockefeller commission, was called the “Year of Intelligence.”

In typical Washington fashion the shortcomings of security systems that had failed to uncover all these spies led to demands for reforms in American counterespionage, and ultimately to the creation of what is now known as the National Counterintelligence Executive. That represented an expansion of a center that had been revealed by the Ames and Robert Hanssen affairs to be essentially moribund.

During the Year of the Spy the U.S. counterintelligence apparatus had its hands full combating the efforts of agents working for adversaries. What an inversion, today, where the counterspies are chasing the U.S. Congress, terrified that it is going to reveal the sordid truth of the CIA torture program; as well as intelligence community whistleblowers, whom the agencies fear will reveal other abuses. This is the world turned upside down, where the spooks create an apparatus to fight foreign spies and then turn it on Americans. Sounds just like the NSA surveillance dragnet doesn’t it?

What America needs today is a mechanism to change direction,  implement course corrections to get the spooks back on track. In The Family Jewels I called for a national commission to investigate the abuses. The paperback edition of that book, now out, discusses this option in greater detail with new material on recent cases of abuse.

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