The Strange Case Of The Spy In The Winnebago
Did an underperforming spook get revenge for his firing by giving away secrets he remembered?
By Douglas Waller
(TIME, April 13) -- The Science and Technology Directorate has a bland enough name. But within the CIA, the covert operatives of S&T are the most secretive and closed-mouthed of the agency's spies, with good reason. While billion-dollar signal-intelligence satellites vacuum up phone conversations from space, it is the S&T's techno-spooks on the ground who are cracking encryption codes and breaking into buildings overseas to plant bugs or parking themselves outside in vans to listen in on phone calls surreptitiously with high-tech electronic gear. No wonder the CIA heaved a collective shudder last week when one of its boys from S&T was accused of passing on secrets he had learned to foreign governments.
On Thursday FBI agents arrested Douglas Fred Groat, 50, a disgruntled S&T officer the CIA fired two years ago. They accused him of telling two foreign governments how the agency had cracked the "cryptographics systems" they used to scramble their communications. "This is a serious espionage case," says U.S. Attorney Wilma Lewis, who refused to disclose which foreign governments were involved.
The CIA does not yet know how much damage it has suffered from Groat's alleged spying. Investigators do not think it is as extensive as the havoc caused by CIA mole Aldrich Ames, who was convicted in 1994 of passing intelligence to Moscow over a nine-year span. But the agency's code-breaking capabilities are among its most guarded secrets, and Groat could face death if convicted. A nation hostile to the U.S. that learned of the penetration would quickly change its codes. "This also could be a huge embarrassment," said a CIA source, if the nation Groat leaked to was an ally.
For all his expertise in penetrating foreign communications, Groat practically invited the FBI investigation that led to his arrest. A 13-year veteran who had worked on numerous covert operations overseas, Groat had been put on administrative leave in 1993 from his $70,000-a-year job on account of poor performance. After the CIA finally decided to let him go in 1996, prosecutors allege that Groat tried to get the agency to pay him more than $500,000 in hush money to keep him from passing to foreign governments the secrets he remembered. The agency refused to pay and eventually turned over the case to the FBI.
When FBI agents arrested him last week, Groat was divorced and living in a Winnebago van. According to his indictment, however, Groat in the interim had begun to carry out his threat, allegedly passing on "the targeting and compromise of cryptographic systems" to the two foreign governments in March and April 1997.
The arrest, said CIA Director George Tenet, "demonstrates that the U.S. government will not rest" in hunting down spies, "nor will we be intimidated by threats of blackmail." But Justice Department and CIA officials refused to explain why it took authorities almost two years to arrest Groat after he allegedly first attempted to extort money from his former employer.
His case also resurrected a dilemma the agency faces with problem employees. Ames, who was a heavy drinker and was lackadaisical in his work, should have been dismissed long before he came under suspicion. But the CIA in the past has tended to keep poor performers on the job, even in sensitive positions, fearing they might spill secrets if they got the pink slip. The Groat case shows how "it can become a counterintelligence problem when people go away unhappy," said an Administration official. In or out of the family, an angry spy can be a dangerous spy.
--With reporting by Elaine Shannon/Washington