A national security case arrived at its natural conclusion yesterday when Elizabeth Jo Shirley of Hedgesville, WV, plead guilty to “Willful Retention of Defense Information” and “International Parental Kidnapping.”  Shirley’s intent to become a spy for Russia came to light after she absconded with her daughter to Mexico City.

The U.S. dodged a national security bullet, as court documents reveal. Shirley volunteered her services as a source of information on the U.S. intelligence community, nuclear program, Air Force, Navy and Department of Defense.

Let’s dig into the case of Elizabeth Jo Shirley, her crime, the methods used to volunteer to Russian intelligence, what she was offering to the Russians, and how she was discovered.

Who is Elizabeth Jo Shirley?

Shirley was on active duty with the U.S. Air Force from 1994 to 2000. One of her duty stations included the NSA. then She joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in 2001. As a reservist she served in the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence; Department of Defense; Department of Energy; and the National Cyber Investigative Joint Task Force, as well as with five defense contractors, according to her plea agreement.

Shirley enjoyed the complete trust and confidence of the U.S. government, as evidenced by the fact she was granted clearances, including Top Secret/SCI, and a DoE “Q” clearance.

To Russia, with Love

Knowledgeable that the Russian mission in Mexico City was chock-a-block with Russian intelligence officials, she chose her venue to volunteer with care, following in the footsteps of a bevy of infamous traitors who have engaged with Russian intelligence via their Mexico City embassy. Previous spies who have found welcome refuge in Mexico City include Philip Agee, John Walker, Christopher Boyce, James Harper and many others.

The Russian Federation maintains a healthy cadre of intelligence officers just 700 miles south of the U.S. border for a clear purpose: to facilitate the handling of U.S. sources.

The court documents indicate that Shirley provided a series of notes to the Russian mission in Mexico City in which she identified herself, the items she had in her possession, and the fact that she had additional documents in her possession in a storage locker in the United States.

Read Me First. For the Rezident. You have a virtual walk-in. Please consider my request seriously. Americans would never dangle their top Intelligence Community [Country A] Cyber expert and her child. I think that after reviewing my credentials … you will be pleasantly surprised. You can polygraph (box) me and debrief me at length.

Subsequent notes highlighted her knowledge of U.S. nuclear and intelligence secrets. She also laid out her needs for resettlement, and assistance in unloading her West Virginia storage locker, where she had hidden away national security secrets.

The plea agreement indicates the notes were sent via a number of foreign email accounts which Shirley had set up to avoid the ability of U.S. law enforcement to subpoena the information from the service provider. These included Yandex and 163(dot)com – Russian and Chinese services.

Secrets which she stole and offered to the Russians

Court documents identify only three items from her hoard of material. In addition to the storage locker, when arrested she was found to have traveled to Mexico with several electronic devices, including at least one laptop computer, two tablets, five cell phones, four mobile phone SIM cards, three external hard drives, four thumb drives, and nine SD cards. The three items identified in court documents are:

  • NSA Document, Top Secret/SCI.
  • Office of Naval Intelligence,  Secret, PowerPoint presentation
  • CIA Information, Secret

No insider threat program discovered Shirley

While one would like to think the insider threat programs at the various organizations to which Shirley had been assigned would have missed the documents she accessed and retained, they did not. Shirley was able to squirrel away a treasure trove of materials, far beyond that which has been identified in the openly available court documents, with impunity.

Shirley was discovered and pursued into Mexico after violating a custody agreement she had with her daughter’s father. While her espionage plan had been anticipated for years, given her purloining of documents over time, it was her child custody issue which was the primary motivation driving Shirley to volunteer to Russia intelligence in Mexico City in July 2019. She wanted to relocate outside of the U.S. and was willing to exchange national security secrets for such assistance.

It was a result the dogged pursuit of Shirley by West Virginia law enforcement when Shirley did not return her daughter to the custodial parent, James Craft, as planned on July 19, delayed due to “car trouble” to July 20.

On July 24, Craft reported her missing to West Virginia State Police, who then filed a criminal complaint within the West Virginia court system charging Shirley with the State offence of concealment of a minor child.

The subsequent investigation discovered that a license-plate reader on a highway which led to Baltimore-Washington Airport (BWI) had registered her vehicle. Further investigation showed she and her daughter stayed at the Days Inn near BWI on an American Airlines voucher after their flight the night of July 19 was delayed/canceled.

The U.S. Marshals Service and Mexican law enforcement discovered Shirley and her daughter in a Mexico City hotel on August 13. She was arrested by Mexican law enforcement, who discovered that there was more to Shirley than the parental kidnapping. She had in her possession a list of the names of Russians who were assigned to the Russian Embassy in Mexico City, and printed copies of her notes which she had sent to the Russians. Clearly a lucky break within the counterintelligence arena, as until her arrest no one had a clue she had been hoarding classified information with the intent of using the information to bankroll her relocation and resettlement.

While the court documents don’t reveal how the Russians reacted, and perhaps that is best kept in the knowledge bank of the counterintelligence professionals, we can learn from the Elizabeth Jo Shirley episode.

Document accountability and retention systems are critical. When reams of information being printed each day, the likelihood of the information being recognized as being unlawfully retained is low, unless tracking is implemented.

What’s next for Shirley

According to the plea agreement, Shirley will be spending up to 13 years in prison in exchange for the government accepting her plea of guilty for the two charges – retention of classified information and kidnapping her daughter. Though she volunteered to provide the classified information she retained to a hostile intelligence organization (Russia), she was not charged with attempted espionage.

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of securelytravel.com