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Miller Kept in Sensitive Job After FBI Started Probe

August 18, 1985|WILLIAM OVEREND | Times Staff Writer

Despite a psychiatric report that Richard W. Miller was possibly on the verge of a mental breakdown because of job stress and a later threat that he might be fired for being overweight, Miller's boss briefly considered allowing him to resume field duty last year in an effort to see if Svetlana Ogorodnikova was interested in becoming an FBI informant.

And four months later, after Miller had become the prime suspect in one of the most sensitive spy cases in FBI history, his superiors allowed him to continue monitoring national security wiretaps on another important espionage case involving the Soviet Union.

The disclosure of the psychiatric report and the decision to allow Miller continued access to secret information of potential value to the Soviet Union focused new attention on the FBI's handling of the troubled former agent, who has been portrayed since his arrest last Oct. 2 as a bumbler with a dismal 20-year performance record.

The testimony came from Gary Auer, who was Miller's immediate superior as head of the Soviet counterintelligence squad in the FBI's Los Angeles office. It also raised questions about the motives for first taking Miller off his regular counterintelligence duties, then considering sending him back into the field on a difficult assignment with a former FBI informant who had tried to sabotage the career of another agent. She turned out to be a Soviet spy.

Assigned to Isolated Job

Auer said the psychiatric evaluation of Miller in 1982 and his past problems as an agent were reasons for "taking him off the street" and assigning him in late 1983 to an isolated job in the FBI's tech room, where he was relegated to monitoring FBI wiretaps.

"That statement by the psychiatrist was a factor in my decision to take away some or all of his cases," Auer testified in the second week of Miller's espionage trial in Los Angeles federal court. "I wished to assign Mr. Miller to matters that would not put undue pressures on him.

"I did not want to put him in a position that had critical requirements of handling cases of a sensitive nature which he had not proven he could handle."

Nonetheless, Auer said, after Miller was approached by Ogorodnikova in May, 1984, he considered permitting Miller to reopen an FBI informant file on Ogorodnikova, which had been closed earlier by another agent, John Hunt.

During her contacts with Hunt in 1982, Ogorodnikova had repeatedly told Hunt that she was in love with him and, according to Hunt, twice attempted to seduce him. Hunt has testified that he rejected her sexual advances.

Hunt, 56, who retired from the FBI last November, was one of the senior members of the FBI's local Soviet counterintelligence squad. His troubles with Ogorodnikova were well-known to other agents.

Under persistent questioning from Stanley Greenberg, one of Miller's two defense lawyers, Auer admitted he had considered reopening the Ogorodnikova file to Miller.

"Did you see it as a way of ending the harassment of Hunt?" Greenberg asked.

"That was a consideration," Auer said, adding that he spoke to Hunt about his idea and Hunt recommended not reopening Ogorodnikova's informant file.

Didn't Notify Superiors

In the months that followed, Miller's official assignment remained the monitoring of national security wiretaps. At the same time, he was seeing Ogorodnikova without notifying superiors of his relationship.

During that period, according to the government, Miller was recruited to work for the Soviet Union in exchange for Ogorodnikova's sexual favors and the promise of $65,000 in gold and cash. Miller is charged with actually passing at least one secret FBI document to Ogorodnikova. He claims that he was actually engaged in a private plan to use her to infiltrate Soviet intelligence and prove to his superiors that he wasn't the "office screw-up."

By last September, the FBI had learned of Miller's involvement with Ogorodnikova and her husband, Nikolai Ogorodnikov. A major surveillance operation had been launched, code-named Whipworm, a bitter reference to an internal parasite. But despite the FBI's suspicions that Miller might be a Soviet agent, Auer also disclosed last week, Miller was allowed to continue monitoring wiretaps on another sensitive espionage case involving the transfer of high technology to the Soviet Union.

"He was very good at this type of work," Auer said. Auer was not pressed by Greenberg about the specifics of the case that Miller was working on last September or the security questions involved in allowing a suspected Soviet spy to continue to have close access to another FBI case involving Soviet activities. Government officials also had no comment on the matter.

29 Government Witnesses

Auer was one of 29 government witnesses who testified in the first two weeks of Miller's trial, many of them merely restating testimony from the spy trial of the Ogorodnikovs, who pleaded guilty June 25 to conspiring to commit espionage with Miller and who have already been sentenced to prison.

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