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FBI Alerted on Spy Suspect, Ex-Wife Says

April 08, 1998|JAMES RISEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The ex-wife of a former CIA officer arrested last week on espionage charges says the FBI ignored her warning three years ago that he was troubled and needed help.

Madeline Libre, the former spouse of Douglas F. Groat, a 50-year-old ex-CIA covert operative, said in an interview that she called the FBI in early 1995 because of growing concern about a seeming change in Groat's personality. The government has charged that the former operative gave information to two unidentified foreign countries and attempted to extort $500,000 from the CIA in exchange for not revealing more secrets.

FBI agents came to the house Libre had shared with Groat in the Washington suburb of Manassas, Va., to interview her but, she complained, they dismissed her concerns because he had left her a few months earlier.

By that time, the CIA already had called on the FBI to retrieve detailed daily journals that Groat had kept of his career at the agency. Groat's personal journals were considered classified because they described the highly sensitive operations of the CIA's "black bag team," which conducts break-ins and burglaries of foreign embassies to obtain materials that allow the United States to break the codes of foreign countries.

Groat had removed the journals from his office and had stored them in his garage when he ran into trouble with his superiors at work in late 1992 or early 1993 after a covert operation conducted by his "black bag" team was compromised, according to his wife and CIA sources. Groat refused to submit to a polygraph examination as the CIA investigated why the operation had been compromised--and his refusal to take the lie detector test ultimately led the CIA to place him in a desk job and then on administrative leave. Groat took his personnel case to the CIA's inspector general. While he was negotiating over his job status, he told agency officials that he had taken the journals home.

The FBI retrieved the journals for the CIA. But Libre--who met Groat in high school in upstate New York, married him in 1968 and had two children with him--said the agents later showed little interest when she called to discuss her concerns.

"I told them that Douglas' behavior was different, he needs to be talked to," recalled Libre, who changed her last name to signify her post-marriage freedom. "He wasn't the same. He was always a quiet person but this was different. He wasn't talking to the kids."

Libre stressed that she did not suspect at the time that her ex-husband might be spying, only that he needed counseling. "I thought he was a troubled guy and I called the FBI because they had been out to the house before and I didn't know anybody at the CIA to call. But the FBI blew me off. They should have looked into it."

Susan Lloyd, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Washington field office, which handled the bureau's investigation of Groat, refused to respond to Libre's statements. "I can confirm that agents have interviewed her on several occasions but I can't discuss the contents of those interviews," Lloyd said.

But another U.S. official who asked not to be identified said Groat had been under investigation in one way or another since he refused to take the polygraph test. Although the FBI may not have acted on Libre's warning, both the CIA and FBI were already investigating Groat by that time, the official said.

"He was looked at for quite some time. You don't have someone refuse to take a polygraph and then lose interest in that person. But by the same token, you can't arrest a guy for being troubled or because his wife says he's troubled," the official said.

One of the CIA's so-called "locks and flaps" experts--trained in picking sophisticated locks and opening envelopes and mail in ways designed to avoid detection--Groat was a member of the CIA's most secretive unit, the team of break-in artists buried deep inside the agency's Science and Technology Directorate.

Based at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., Groat and fellow team members would travel the world to break into foreign embassies, stealing code materials that the CIA would pass on to the National Security Agency. That agency would use the materials to break codes and read the communications of other governments.

Groat, assigned to the black bag unit soon after joining the CIA in 1980, never told his wife exactly what his job was, she said. All she and their two children--both now grown--knew was that he would mysteriously disappear for weeks or even months at a time. Groat would travel as much as six months out of the year and his family eventually learned to take for granted that whatever he told them about where he was going or what he was doing was a cover story.

"I would joke with the kids. We would say, 'Well, dad says he's here. I wonder where he really is,' " Libre recalled.

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