YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

USN Spies: Large Leaks, Short Terms

April 19, 1987|James Bamford | James Bamford, author of "The Puzzle Palace," an analysis of the National Security Agency, writes frequently about intelligence issues.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Pvt. Brian E. Slavens was out of uniform and a long way from his base. The Marine guard, attached to the Navy's highly sensitive Advanced Undersea Weapons Command on the remote Alaskan island of Adak, was in the ornate Soviet Embassy in Washington, offering to sell information for cash. Later arrested, he pleaded guilty to attempted espionage and was sentenced to only two years in prison.

The recent shock that Marine Corps personnel have been allowing Russians access to U.S. diplomatic facilities in the Soviet Union is only the tip of a far larger yet virtually unknown scandal involving espionage in the military.

For years the enormous problem of espionage and attempted espionage by members of the armed forces has been hidden by quiet courts-martial and extremely light sentences. Only when a defendant was retired or a civilian--as with John A. Walker Jr. and Jonathan Jay Pollard--has the case gone to federal court and become widely known. But these are the exceptions. In the four years before the Walker arrest in 1985, the Navy and Marine Corps had 15 cases of espionage or potential espionage. Yet the average courts-martial sentence was little more than two years.

In 1984, for example, a Marine corporal at Camp Lejeune, N.C., offered to transfer information on nuclear, biological and chemical warfare to the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and other hostile countries. He was ultimately court-martialed and sentenced to two years. That same year another Marine, apprehended for being absent without leave from his base in the Philippines, was found to have photographs and written materials indicating his intention to contact Soviet officials. After an investigation revealed he had expressed interest in defecting, he was discharged from the Marine Corps.

Within the Navy, cases are even more serious, yet sentencing has been just as light. In June, 1981, a sailor attached to a ballistic missile submarine telephoned the Soviet mission to the United Nations in New York, offering to make a deal that, he said, would benefit the Soviets and himself. During a polygraph test he admitted two other phone contacts with the Soviets but denied passing any information. Because he cooperated in exchange for immunity, no charges were brought and, incredibly, he received an honorable discharge.

Several months later a Navy officer mailed three secret Pentagon documents to the South African embassy in Washington, requesting $50,000 as initial payment. He pleaded guilty at a court martial and was sentenced to two years. The following year a Navy intelligence specialist, assigned to the European and Atlantic fleet intelligence center in Norfolk, Va., contacted the Soviet Military Office in Washington and offered to transfer classified information. He was sentenced to three years.

In December, 1982, a sailor made contact with the Soviet Military Office and, two months later, still another contacted the Soviet consulate in San Francisco, offering to sell documents for $2,000. In July, 1983, an intelligence specialist, arrested for being AWOL, was found to possess undeveloped film of Top Secret-Sensitive Compartment Information (the highest classification), that he intended to give the Soviets. In March, 1981, the secret-control officer on the Tuscaloosa went AWOL and left behind a briefcase containing 147 secret microfiche files, seven confidential coding publications and child pornography material.

Those cases represent only those in the Navy and Marine Corps and, of course, only those uncovered. Also, they do not include cases processed through federal court, such as the Walker family.

Among the major problems that have led to this epidemic of espionage is the federal government's longstanding lack of seriousness in dealing with the problem. In terms of sentencing, for example, the Navy seems to look at espionage as only slightly more serious than petty larceny.

Another major problem is the incompetence of various security and counterintelligence forces used by most of the federal government. For example, during the 1970s the Central Intelligence Agency spent tens of billions of dollars designing, constructing and launching one of the most secret spy satellites ever developed by the United States. Yet less than two years after it was launched, William P. Kampiles, a CIA employee, walked out of agency headquarters with the satellite's operations manual under his shirt and sold it to the Soviets for a mere $3,000. Had he tried to sneak out of a local library with a magazine or book, no doubt an alarm would have gone off. A later trial revealed that 13 other copies of the supersecret manual were missing.

Los Angeles Times Articles