When most Americans think of Soviet spying in the United States their thoughts turn to the Cold War. This ignores most of American-Soviet history. Spies from or working for the Soviet Union have operated within US borders since the 1920s, and during World War II, an increasingly paranoid Josef Stalin built a large spy presence in the United States, intent on discovering what he could about American development of the atomic bomb – among other bits of information he needed regarding his ally. Some spies working for the Soviets became household names, a la Alger Hiss. Others retained a secretive, shadowy presence.
Besides spying on American activities, Soviet agents often used the United States as a staging area for operations elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, in the assassination of Leon Trotsky for example, and in spying on Nazi friendly governments in South America. Members of the American Communist party often assisted Soviet agents in these activities. Stalin also directed various Soviet agents to provide him with information regarding the planning and logistics for Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe in 1944. Some spied on the United States because of Communist beliefs, some out of loyalty to the USSR, and some simply for money, endangering many lives out of greed.
Here are eight examples of Soviet spies operating in the United States.
John Anthony Walker
John Walker was a United States Navy Chief Warrant Officer who served in Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarines where he had access to highly classified communications data in the 1960s. While stationed in Charleston, South Carolina, Walker opened a bar on the road to nearby Summerville, which he named the Bamboo Shack. After waiting several weeks for his license to sell alcohol he was losing money and when he did finally obtain the needed licenses the losses continued to mount.
Soon, financial pressures and, what Walker claimed was his wife’s drinking problems (she later said that Walker was the one with the drinking problem), led him to sell classified information to the Soviet Union. Walker promised additional materials to the radio ciphers he provided initially, and negotiated a salary with the Soviets for his continuing services. One month after Walker sold the first material to the Soviets the North Koreans seized the US Navy surveillance ship USS Pueblo – an event some analysts later alleged occurred in part to verify the information Walker had provided.
Walker recruited Jerry Whitworth, an eventual Chief Sonarman with access to additional classified materials, to support his spying activities as well as his son Michael and his older brother Arthur. He also occasionally used his wife to drop materials to the Soviets before their divorce. After retiring from the Navy he worked as a private investigator and continued, through his son and older brother, a defense contractor, to obtain and sell classified data to the Soviets. After their divorce, Walker’s former wife Barbara made several attempts to contact the FBI but was too intoxicated to be coherent when talking to FBI agents on the phone. In 1984, she finally managed to convince the FBI of her ex-husband’s spying activities, unaware at the time that her son was a participant in the espionage. The FBI arrested the members of the ring; Barbara Walker was granted immunity because of her co-operation.
The Walker spy ring seriously compromised the US Navy’s ability to communicate securely with its own submarines and its ability to track Soviet submarines during the height of the Cold War. Arthur Walker was sentenced to three life sentences plus 40 years for espionage. Michael Walker turned state’s evidence in order to receive a lighter sentence, he was released from prison in 2000. Jerry Whitworth was sentenced to 365 years in prison, where he remains.
John Walker was given a life sentence after he co-operated with federal officials in order to obtain a lighter sentence for his son. He died in prison in 2014, six weeks after the death of his brother Arthur. Walker is believed to have obtained over $1,000,000 from the Soviets in exchange for classified materials over the years.