He was out for what appeared to be a Sunday evening drive. Traveling from the Ramada Inn in Rockville, John Anthony Walker, a retired U.S. Navy Chief Warrant Officer, was tooling down a country road near Poolesville, an area within the affluent Montgomery County, MD, when he performed a “car toss” where-in he tossed a large brown plastic bag out the window of his car to be retrieved, later by a Soviet intelligence officer. Unbeknownst to Walker, he had been under FBI observation for the entirety of his travel from Norfolk, VA to the Washington D.C. area.

A note from Walker to his handler apologized for the “limited quantity” of information contained in the drop.

”This delivery consists of material from ‘S’ and is similar to the previously supplied material. The quantity is limited, unfortunately, due to his operating schedule and the increased security prior to deployment. His ship departed in early March, and they operated extensively just prior to deployment.”

In this instance, “S” is Walker’s son, Michael L. Walker, who was at that time a Navy Yeoman on the aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz.

The 129 pages of documents, according to the 2015 history of the case, identified them as “Tomahawk missile, schematics, and vulnerabilities of the USS Nimitz’s missile defense system, an exhaustive study of how America’s spy satellites could be sabotaged, and authentic codes needed to launch US nuclear missiles.”

When the dust settled, the counterintelligence and counterespionage teams within the U.S. government, specifically the Navy and the FBI, would learn that it was not just a father-son engagement. Indeed, Arthur Walker, brother to John Walker and a retired Navy Lieutenant Commander, working for VSE Corporation, a defense contractor, was also involved, as was John Walker’s friend, Jerry A. Whitworth, a former Navy communications specialist who he looped into the espionage ring in 1973.

The spy ring’s target was the U.S. Navy, and they were overachievers, having delivered the goods to the Soviet Union for more than 17 years.

What Secrets did the Walker Spy Ring compromise?

In 1967, John Walker, facing a failed restaurant business and debts beyond his means to cover, opted to walk into the Embassy of the Soviet Union and proffered cryptographic materials which would allow the Soviet Union to read the United States Navy’s communications.

John Walker would spy for the Soviet Union from 1968 through his arrest in 1985. As noted above, he recruited three others to join him in his espionage against the United States.

Such was the collaboration with the Soviets, that they provided Walker a device, according to the FBI, which could be “placed on top of a cryptographic machine, would record the rotor settings, thus allowing the Soviets to decipher all communication sent using the machines.”

The FBI in their internal communications during the pre-arrest investigation characterized the Walker Spy Ring as “the biggest cryptographic disaster since WW II.”

How was John Walker and the spy ring identified?

Barbara Joe Walker, the ex-spouse of John Walker, and employed by Eastman-Kodak Company, contacted the FBI Boston by telephone on November 17, 1984. She indicated, according to the FBI internal documentation of the event, that her ex-husband, John Walker was “selling secrets to the Russians” and had been doing so for over 19 years. She would go on to identify Arthur Walker and Jerry “Wentworth” as also being participants with John Walker.

She continued how Walker had attempted to recruit their daughter, Laura Walker Snyder, while she was serving as a Secure Communications Operator with the U.S. Army at Fort Polk. This was later confirmed by the daughter, Laura, who told the FBI on March 7, 1985, that her father had asked her to provide Army secrets and codes and that she had refused.

Following her initial call to the FBI, the ex-spouse called Walker and his brother Arthur and told them both she had contacted the FBI. Walker didn’t believe her. Arthur was skeptical. They would subsequently learn that she was telling them the truth.

Interestingly,  Whitworth himself had contacted FBI San Francisco via USPS mail, where he anonymously confessed to his espionage via a series of letters which he sent between May and August 1984, which he signed “Rus.” He asked for immunity, which the FBI and Department of Justice declined to provide via “mail” and the communications dried up. He was arrested on June 3, 1985.

It would be several days before the FBI returned to talk with Barbara Joe Walker, which occurred on March 21, 1985. At this second interview, they were to learn that she accompanied Walker to the Washington D.C. area to clear clandestine operational sites used by Walker and the Soviet KGB. They were also to learn that Walker had recovered $35,000 from one dead drop (which the FBI thought was too large a sum to be credible).

Later, Barbara Joe Walker testified at the trial of Whitworth that had she known that her youngest, Michael, was involved, she probably would not have called the FBI and reported her ex-husband.

On March 12, 1985, a full-on counterintelligence investigation into John Walker was initiated by the FBI, code-named: “Wind Flyer”.

Both the ex-spouse and daughter were reinterviewed and polygraphed. The FBI concluded that espionage had and is occurring. Their efforts were now to “our investigation is focusing on proving their espionage for trial, identifying and proving the involvement of others, and determining the extent of the damage to this country.”

On May 20, 1985, after conducting a clandestine car toss containing classified materials, John A. Walker was arrested. He would later plead guilty and cooperate in order for his son to receive a lesser sentence.

Where is the Walker Spy Ring now?

  • Arthur Walker was sentenced in 1985 to life in prison. He died in prison on July 7, 2014, at the age of 79.
  • John Walker was sentenced in 1985 to life in prison, he would die a bit more than a month after his elder brother on August 28, 2014, in the same prison as his brother Arthur.
  • Jerry Whitworth was sentenced to 365 years in prison and fined $410,000. He remains incarcerated at Atwater minimum security prison located in Atwater, California.
  • Michael L. Walker was sentenced to 25 years and was paroled after 15 in February 2000. His lighter sentence was a direct result of his father’s plea deal with the Department of Justice. Following his release in 2000, he returned to Massachusetts, where his mother and sister Cynthia resided.

Additional reading for Espionage aficionados is the raw FBI archives of the Walker investigation, broken into two parts comprising over 600 pages within the FBI Records: The Vault and the FBI History case study: “Windflyer: The John Walker Spy Case” (May 2015).

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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