Obsession With Spies

At speaking event, a reader who has read several of my books asked me, if I was obsessed with spies and, if so, why?

Obsessed with, no. Concerned about, yes.

Of what I call the “Big Four,” two – John Walker and Jerry Whitworth – worked together. Walker sold highly classified acoustic data we had and were collecting on Soviet submarines and then later, cryptographic keys. He recruited Jerry Whitworth before he retired from the Navy to continue to give him cards used to set-up up the machines to code and decode messages.

During the Cold War, Soviet submarines were very noisy and the Soviet’s didn’t have the sophisticated sonar equipment to listen, track and classify by hull, the sound emanating from each sub. We did.

From the acoustic data Walker gave the Soviets, over time, they were make their subs much quieter, making it harder for us to track, and in time of war, sink. As part of the material he passed to them was the capabilities of a network of acoustic sensors called SOSUS, an acronym for Sound Surveillance System. SOSUS arrays were floating in the deep sound channel from the U.S. and friendly nations and enabled us to monitor Soviet surface and submarine movements around the world. Thanks to Walker, the technological edge our submarines enjoyed in sensors and noise reducing technology went away.

Equally damaging was the transfer of cryptographic keys. What he gave the Soviets who first through the U.S.S. Pueblo seized by the North Koreans and later through machines captured by the North Vietnamese, was the ability to decode encrypted messages in near real time. There’s no doubt in a lot of analyst’s minds that the Pueblo was seized to give the Soviets access to the message traffic, the equipment and its operating manuals.

Think of the advantage Allied code breakers had because we were able to break the German and Japanese codes. If we had gone to war with the Soviet Union before Walker and Whitworth were arrested, the Soviets would have had the same advantage over us we had over the Germans and Japanese and it could have been catastrophic.

Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames hurt us in a different way. The book Circle of Treason written by the two CIA officers who unmasked Ames, details the Soviet officers who were passing us classified information. Ames single handedly destroyed our network of spies at high levels in the GRU – Soviet Military intelligence, the KGB and other Soviet ministries. The public perception is he only gave up a few, but after reading Circle of Treason, the number is north of thirty and the real number is unknown.

Hanssen was an FBI agent who worked in counter intelligence. He revealed a small number of agents working for the U.S., but more importantly, he gave the Soviets vital information on surveillance methods, recruiting techniques and other secrets affecting our ability to collect information on our adversaries.

So where are these four men today? Walker died in prison in 2014. Whitworth began serving a 365-year sentence in 1987. In 1994, Aimes was tried, convicted and is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. In 2002, Hanssen was given a 45-year sentence and is being held in solitary confinement twenty-three hours a day.

The activities of all four of these men spanned my Navy career. What they gave up could have gotten me and many of my friends killed. So now you know.

Marc Liebman

September 2017

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