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SPY HUNTER by Robert W. Hunter Naval Institute Press, $27.95

ONE REASON TO READ SPY Hunter, former , FBI Agent Robert W. Hunters story about his lead role in the investigation and conviction of John Walker, the onetime U.S. Navy communications expert, is to get the feel of a real espionage case. I suggest this as background to dealing with today's still-unproven allegations of Chinese espionage of so-called U.S. nuclear secrets, developed into a major spy story by Republicans in Congress and a part of the media, led by The New York Times.

Walker began his espionage in 1968, his 13th year in the Navy, and continued turning over top secret documents he personally stole for eight of his 20 years in the Navy. And for 10 years after he retired, Walker continued to provide those documents taken by the Navy-based spy network he recruited--his son, brother and a friend. Overall, Walker was responsible for delivering to the Soviets some 1,500 classified documents, including those in the highest communications category, until he was caught in 1985.

He was only caught because his ex-wife turned him in, not for patriotic reasons but rather in the hopes that her action would get her help in aiding their daughter to gain custody of her child, who was living with his father. In the end, she did.

The details of his case are fairly well known, but they have an added piquancy given today's concern about the Chinese and the so-called "lax security" at the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories run by the Department of Energy. Talk about lax security, take a look at the Walker team's techniques and try to remember if anyone back in the late 1980s held congressional investigations calling for heads to roll in the Navy, the Pentagon or the National Security Council.

For example, Walker confessed he started spying while he was in need of money and after he and his Navy pals at the Norfolk Naval Station sat around talking about how much the Soviets would pay for the crypto code materials they all worked with every day. Several days later, during a midnight shift, Walker simply stole the secret key list, or code translating guide, for one communications system. He drove to Washington the next day, slipped into the Soviet Embassy, gave them the key list, and set up a deal to get paid several thousand dollars a month for continued deliveries. He never seemed to have trouble laying his hands on top secret documents and nobody seemed to miss them.

Were they important? "Walker put our entire Navy at risk and is believed to have caused the deaths of unknown numbers of our men in Vietnam," Hunter writes.

Today, the U.S. intelligence community cannot say if any of the so-called classified information the Chinese have shown they have has been incorporated into any of their nuclear weapons. Beijing has said it has neutron bomb capability but that type of weapon was first tested by the Soviets' in the '60s and by the Chinese in 1988. Worse than the Rosenbergs? Please. Nonetheless, we have had nine different House and Senate committees on the case, a plan to restructure security and counterintelligence within the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, polygraphs for those with access to important nuclear secrets and reorganization of the whole operation inside the Energy Department.

An entirely different way to look at Hunter's telling of the Walker tale is to run it through the investigative reporter machine and pick out those things that didn't work and wonder why there was no follow-up or heads didn't roll. For example, when Walker's ex-wife first came in to the Boston Field Office and described her former husband as a spy, that information was not automatically passed on to Washington. In today's world, Republicans in Congress would immediately investigate foot-dragging and delays because the White House is trying to keep relations with the Russians on an even keel. Then there was approval for wiretaps. Although the Justice Department agreed to place one on John Walker based on his ex-wife's testimony, it refused to agree to put one on his brother Arthur's telephone, because there was no direct evidence about Arthur being a spy other than hearsay. Shades of the Justice Department and its refusal to get the FBI a warrant to put a wiretap on Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee because the information about him was too slight.

Where was the media when they learned that Michael Walker stole classified documents? According to an affidavit published in the Hunter book, Michael Walker either took extra copies or photocopied secret Navy documents he received as the yeoman responsible for safeguarding all classified documents delivered to his squadron through registered mail. On the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz, he not only processed radio messages but also handled destruction of classified documents no longer needed. He stole copies of these documents from open safes, cabinets and desks where he worked. If this were the Energy Department today, clearly the heads of his bosses would be on the block. But back 10 years ago, when the Cold War was on and the Walker information came out during the Reagan Administration's year of the spy, it's hard to think of anyone being fired for security reasons--or anyone on Capitol Hill caring that they weren't.

It's no surprise that no one back then seemed to care about nuclear secrets either--because that's when most of the current crop seem to have been delivered. Or maybe it's because what the Chinese got wasn't all that important, since much of it was being published by interest groups in technical treatises anyway.

The Hunter book has some interesting pieces of information, but they are mostly rewarding when compared to the fuss that is made over far less important information today. A final note: John Walker had both lovers and coworkers, including at least one who failed a polygraph, but none were ever charged. Hunter closes his discussion of them with the observation that some of them must have known, as his ex-wife did, that John was a spy. "It seems," Hunter concludes, "that so many of John's friends and relatives just didn't have the character to come forward and tell the truth."

Walter Pincus is a reporter for The Washington Post.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Pincus, Walter
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1999
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