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Code Reflects Tone of Inquiry in FBI Spy Case

September 03, 1985|WILLIAM OVEREND | Times Staff Writer

A year ago this week an FBI agent named Graham Van Note arrived in Los Angeles from Washington to help supervise an espionage investigation known as Whipworm.

Van Note had chosen the name himself sometime earlier while thumbing through a dictionary at FBI headquarters.

His first choice was Whippet, but that had already been selected for something else. Whipworm was on the same page of Van Note's dictionary, and the definition seemed appropriate for the case at hand.

The whipworm is an internal parasite, and the FBI investigation that had just begun was focusing on an FBI counterintelligence agent named Richard W. Miller who was suspected of being a possible Soviet spy.

In the weeks that followed, Van Note and Agent Larry Torrence helped direct a force of almost 70 agents in one of the more sensitive counterintelligence probes in FBI history.

Because the prime suspect was a counterintelligence agent based in Los Angeles, the operation was kept as secret as possible.

The agents set up their headquarters at the Brentwood Motor Inn to minimize the chance that Miller might discover through office gossip that a major internal investigation was under way.

The investigation was so important to the FBI that Donald Stukey, head of the FBI's Soviet foreign counterintelligence section in Washington, soon arrived in Los Angeles to personally oversee the case.

Miller was arrested Oct. 2 with Svetlana and Nikolai Ogorodnikova, who pleaded guilty June 25 to conspiring with him to pass secret FBI documents to the Soviet Union. Miller's trial began Aug. 6 and begins its fifth week today.

Last week, as the first anniversary of Whipworm approached, Stukey remained here, waiting for the conclusion of the trial.

At times, the wait seemed endless to Stukey and the other supervising agents.

This week, however, the end of the Miller case is finally in sight.

U.S. Atty. Robert C. Bonner and Assistant U.S. Atty. Russell Hayman have moved faster than expected through a list of almost 70 prosecution witnesses, and they predict they will wrap up the government's case against Miller within a week.

Unexpected delays are possible, but Miller's lawyers, Joel Levine and Stanley Greenberg, estimate it will take them three weeks to present Miller's defense and submit the case to a jury.

Bonner and Hayman have focused their prosecution primarily on admissions made by Miller to Van Note and Torrence and to FBI polygraph experts in five days of questioning prior to his arrest.

Miller, who claims he was involved with the Ogorodnikovs in a self-appointed role as a double-agent seeking to penetrate the Soviet KGB, could have ended the interviews and asked for a lawyer at any point after discovering he was in serious trouble with the FBI.

Instead, after being told that he had failed FBI polygraphs, he gradually changed his story and finally admitted that he had passed a secret document to Ogorodnikova and taken a copy of it with him on a trip to the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco Aug. 25, 1984.

As the prosecution nears its conclusion, it becomes increasingly apparent that Bonner and Hayman have no plans to attempt to call either of the Ogorodnikovs as witnesses against Miller, having decided that it is too much of a gamble to guess how they might testify even if granted immunity.

With the end of the trial in sight, the question of how the FBI found out about Miller remains a secret. Bonner and Hayman said it would not be revealed.

Whipworm began shortly after Miller and Ogorodnikova traveled to the Soviet Consulate, which is watched constantly by the FBI. While there was initial speculation that the FBI learned of Miller's involvement with Ogorodnikova by electronic surveillance of the consulate, another theory is that he was sighted in her company by FBI surveillance agents.

"There was nothing very dramatic in the way he was discovered," said one source close to the case. "If it was ever revealed, I think you'd see that it was rather routine."

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