WASHINGTON — John A. Walker Jr., the accused mastermind of a family-and-friend spy ring called one of the most devastating in modern U.S. history, has agreed to plead guilty to espionage and conspiracy charges on the eve of his scheduled trial, government sources said Friday.
Barring a last-minute change of mind, Walker, 48, is expected to enter his plea in Baltimore federal court on Monday, the day his trial was set to begin. The sources, who spoke on the condition that they not be identified, said the retired Navy officer would state he was principally responsible for the ring's activities.
In addition, these sources said, Walker's son, 22-year-old Navy seaman Michael Lance Walker, also has indicated a willingness to plead guilty in the case. However, it was unclear whether he would enter such a plea at the same time as his father.
Faced with evidence regarded as overwhelming--including a bag full of classified documents that he allegedly had left for his Soviet contact--John Walker reportedly made his plea decision at the last minute out of consideration for his son, whose trial was scheduled after his own.
The elder Walker's plea might enable the Justice Department to recommend leniency for his son, the sources said. But they insisted that "no deal was made to go light on Walker" himself, in line with previous statements by top department officials that a plea bargain was impossible on such a grave matter where so much evidence existed against the defendant. Both men face a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.
As recently as Thursday, John Walker's attorney had told The Times that his client was determined to go to trial and that "we plan to offer a full defense and call witnesses." The attorney, federal public defender Fred W. Bennett of Baltimore, could not be reached for comment at his office Friday, nor could Michael Walker's lawyer, Charles G. Bernstein.
Navy experts have said that John Walker, over a period of nearly two decades, apparently transmitted to the Soviets thousands of documents relating to top-secret worldwide Navy communications operations. In a news conference two weeks after Walker's arrest last May, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said the espionage efforts constituted "a serious loss" for the United States.
Michael Walker, who was taken into custody aboard the carrier Nimitz two days after his father was arrested, has given statements to the Naval Investigative Service and the FBI stating he was recruited into the spy ring by John Walker.
Pressure on Whitworth
The plea decisions of John and Michael Walker, if formally entered in court, could put additional pressure on another accused ring member, retired Navy communications expert Jerry A. Whitworth of Davis, Calif., who has pleaded innocent and is due to stand trial next Jan. 13. Whitworth has been identified by the FBI as a close friend of John Walker's.
In San Francisco, attorney Tony Tamburello, representing Whitworth, said he understood that Justice Department prosecutors had asked Walker to testify against Whitworth.
In denying any deal with Walker, federal sources stressed that Walker, if he pleads guilty, could not avoid testifying at Whitworth's trial if the government subpoenas him--because as a confessed felon he would have no grounds for claiming a constitutional protection against self-incrimination.
"The government is concerned because its case (against Whitworth) is weak," Tamburello charged. "My understanding is that they asked Walker to testify . . . that they are going to give him something in exchange. They are going to give leniency to his son, Michael."
Walker's older brother, Arthur J., 50, a retired Navy lieutenant commander and an employee of a Virginia-based Navy defense contractor, was convicted of espionage last August after a non-jury trial in Norfolk, Va.
Meanwhile, California Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose), chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on constitutional rights, and Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), a subcommittee member, concluded in a joint report Friday that the United States is "easy picking" for spies.
In calling for changes in the way that national security secrets are protected, the report said this country is vulnerable to Soviet espionage activities because of the large volume of material that is classified and the large number of people with access to that material.
"Instead of political beliefs, we should focus on the greed, job dissatisfaction and personal problems that seem to have motivated most recent spies," the report said, noting that John Walker reportedly was motivated by money and not communist ideology.