WASHINGTON — Government officials Friday discounted a threat by Barbara C. Walker, former wife of accused Navy spy John A. Walker Jr., to withdraw her testimony against Walker unless prosecutors drop espionage charges against their sailor son, Michael Lance.
Although Barbara Walker's tip to the FBI last November triggered the investigation of the alleged spy ring, the officials said that agents have collected substantial documentary evidence and other "proof" against John and Michael and the two other men already under indictment, making her testimony no longer crucial.
Walker threatened to withhold her testimony in an interview reported in Friday's New York Times. But one government source said: "We have a case without her."
Vital on Some Points
While contending that John Walker's former wife is no longer essential to the case, the officials acknowledged that her testimony could be vital to such points as whether Walker's alleged espionage for the Soviets began as long as 20 years ago. They said she could also provide an eyewitness account of his once picking up $35,000 in cash in a bag after leaving material at a drop site.
The officials, who declined to be identified, pointed out that Walker could be subpoenaed to testify if she balked and could not refuse on grounds of the husband-wife privilege. They noted that the privilege, under federal law, is erased by divorce, though the law is "mixed" on whether the privilege still covers information obtained before the divorce.
In this case, some of the information was gleaned after the Walkers' 1976 divorce, the sources said.
Declines to Elaborate
Walker, in a brief telephone interview Friday from her apartment in West Dennis, Mass., declined to elaborate on her comment about withholding testimony unless charges against her son were dropped.
In previous interviews, she has professed a deep love for her 22-year-old son, insisting that she would never have acted against her former husband if she had known that there was evidence that Michael also was involved.
The government officials expressed concern that apparent conflicts in interviews she has given could damage her credibility and thus limit her effectiveness as a witness.
Claims She Warned Him
For example, in the interview published Friday, she said she had sent her former husband a warning through his older brother, Arthur J. Walker, who also was subsequently indicted on espionage charges, that she had told the FBI of John Walker's alleged espionage. She said she assumed that John Walker would flee to the Soviet Union to avoid prosecution. "I wanted to give John a chance to run," the New York Times quoted her as stating.
But in a June 5 interview with the Los Angeles Times, she said her decision to go to the FBI was motivated in part by a desire for "vengeance." "A part of me wanted to see him get what he deserved," she said.
Referring to such conflicts, one official said: "This kind of thing gives you a problem with a witness."
Told Her Children
In the latest interview, Walker said she had told each of her four children during their teen-age years that their father was a spy. But the government officials said Friday that there still is no likelihood that she or any of the children, now fully grown, would be prosecuted for not reporting such information to authorities.
They explained that the relevant criminal statute, known as misprision of a felony, requires proof that a defendant took affirmative steps to conceal a felony, evidence that appears to be lacking in the Walker case. Aside from the legal barrier, one source pointed out, government policy argues against prosecuting persons who bring espionage to the attention of authorities.
Despite reports that Michael Walker has cooperated somewhat with the government since his arrest aboard the nuclear carrier Nimitz, a government official Friday said there is no chance that charges against him would be dropped.
"Michael will be prosecuted," he said.