Counter Intelligence
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Spies are more common than ever these days

John Anthony Walker

The Year of the Spy (1985)


Updated July 2024
Posted October 2023

FBI John Anthony Walker, Jr.
John Anthony Walker, Jr.
Year of the Spy

In 1985 former U.S. Navy warrant officer John Anthony Walker, Jr. was arrested for selling US secrets to the Soviet Union. He had been spying since 1967, when he walked into the Soviet Embassy and shared with them the ability to read encrypted naval messages, ultimately compromising at least one million classified messages. He recruited friends and family members to spy too. When the FBI learned of his betrayal, they surveilled him, and on May 19, 1985, followed him from Virginia to Maryland, where he was conducting a dead drop of information about sensitive military technology. The FBI recovered the packet instead of the Soviets and arrested Walker the next morning and then three accomplices within weeks. Walker plead guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.

John Anthony Walker

WIKIPEDIA John Anthony Walker Jr.
July 28, 1937 – August 28, 2014
A United States Navy chief warrant officer and communications specialist convicted of spying for the Soviet Union from 1967 to 1985 and sentenced to life in prison.

In late 1985, Walker made a plea bargain with federal prosecutors, which required him to provide full details of his espionage activities and testify against his co-conspirator, former senior chief petty officer Jerry Whitworth. In exchange, prosecutors agreed to a lesser sentence for Walker's son, former Seaman Michael Walker, who was also involved in the spy ring. During his time as a Soviet spy, Walker helped the Soviets decipher more than one million encrypted naval messages, organizing a spy operation that The New York Times reported in 1987 "is sometimes described as the most damaging Soviet spy ring in history."

After Walker's arrest, Caspar Weinberger, President Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Defense, concluded that the Soviet Union made significant gains in naval warfare attributable to Walker's spying. Weinberger stated that the information Walker gave Moscow allowed the Soviets "access to weapons and sensor data and naval tactics, terrorist threats, and surface, submarine, and airborne training, readiness and tactics."

In the June 2010 issue of Naval History Magazine, John Prados, a senior fellow with the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C., pointed out that after Walker introduced himself to Soviet officials, North Korean forces seized USS Pueblo in order to make better use of Walker's spying. Prados added that North Korea subsequently shared information gleaned from the spy ship with the Soviets, enabling them to build replicas and gain access to the U.S. naval communications system, which continued until the system was completely revamped in the late 1980s. It has emerged in recent years that North Korea acted alone and the incident actually harmed North Korea's relations with most of the Eastern Bloc.

When Walker began spying, he worked as a key supervisor in the communications center for the U.S. Atlantic Fleet's submarine force, and he would have had knowledge of top-secret technologies, such as the SOSUS underwater surveillance system, which tracks underwater acoustics via a network of submerged hydrophones. It was through Walker that the Soviets became aware that the U.S. Navy was able to track the location of Soviet submarines by the cavitation produced by their propellers. After this, the propellers on the Soviet submarines were improved to reduce cavitation. The Toshiba-Kongsberg scandal was disclosed in this activity in 1987.

USS Pueblo
It is also alleged that Walker's actions precipitated the seizure of USS Pueblo. CIA historian H. Keith Melton states on the show Top Secrets of the CIA, which aired on the Military Channel, among other occasions, at 0400CST, February 5, 2013:

H. Keith MeltonThe Soviets had intercepted our coded messages, but they had never been able to read them. And with Walker providing the code cards, this was one-half of what they needed to read the messages. The other half they needed were the machines themselves. Though Walker could give them repair manuals, he couldn't give them machines. So, within a month of John Walker volunteering his services, the Soviets arranged, through the North Koreans, to hijack a United States Navy ship with its cipher machines, and that was the USS Pueblo. And in early 1968 they captured the Pueblo, they took it into Wonsan Harbor, they quickly took the machines off ... flew 'em to Moscow. Now Moscow had both parts of the puzzle. They had the machine and they had an American spy, in place, in Norfolk, with the code cards and with access to them.

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