John A. Walker Jr., who led family spy ring, dies at 77


John A. Walker Jr. enters a detention center in Rockville, Md., in 1985. He was convicted of leading a family spy ring for the Soviet Union. (Ron Edmonds/AP)
August 30

John A. Walker Jr., the American who sold Navy secrets to the Soviets for 18 years in what has been described as one of the most damaging espionage operations of the Cold War, died Aug. 28 in a federal prison hospital in North Carolina. He was 77.

The death was confirmed to the Associated Press by a federal bureau of prisons spokesman. He gave no cause, but Mr. Walker was known to have diabetes and throat cancer.

Mr. Walker was the central figure in a ring that operated for years and that included his son, Michael, and his older brother, Arthur J. Walker, who died in prison in July. Their blood ties prompted author Pete Earley to title his book about their activities “Family of Spies.” (A fourth member of the group, Jerry A. Whitworth, a former Navy radioman, was also convicted and sentenced to 365 years in prison.)

In a magazine published by the U.S. Naval Institute, author John Prados described John Walker as this country’s “most notorious naval spy.” Officials connected to the prosecution of the ring in the mid-1980s suggested that it caused incalculable harm to national security, and to this day specialists profess uncertainty as to the full extent of the damage.

Earley quoted a high-level defector from the Soviet intelligence agency calling the Walker ring “the greatest case in KGB history.”

Vitaly Yurchenko, according to Earley, said the ring enabled the Soviets to decipher coded messages by the millions and claimed that “if there had been a war, we would have won.”

Trained in codes and communications, John Walker held the rank of chief warrant officer, which designates a technical specialist whose rank is below that of a commissioned officer, but above that of enlisted sailor. His work gave him routine access to many of the Navy’s most sensitive secrets.

Few of the hallmarks of the literature of espionage cannot be found in accounts of the activities of John Walker and the ring he led.

It involved troves of documents smuggled out of secure facilities and photographed with a miniature camera. Caches of classified material were deposited in inconspicuous places for pickup by Soviet contacts. It entailed betrayals, narrow escapes and trips of thousands of miles to hold meetings in foreign countries.

John Anthony Walker Jr. was born July 28, 1937, in Washington. His parents had moved from the Scranton, Pa., area so his father could take a government job. His father was reportedly a heavy drinker who could turn violent.

After being arrested on a burglary charge, John Walker Jr., was permitted to avoid punishment by joining the Navy.

He showed ability, performing well as a communications specialist on submarines. However, while in the Navy, he opened a business that soon went on the rocks.

The years of espionage started in the late 1960s, according to the account John Walker gave to Earley, when financial pressures led the Navy man to trade his access to secrets for the cash he coveted.

As the story has been told, John Walker smuggled key information relating to the Navy’s coded messages out of a facility in the Norfolk area and drove with it in October 1967 to Washington. It was intended to be shown to the Soviets as a sample of his wares.

After parking his car near the Soviet embassy on 16th Street Northwest, he steeled himself against his fears of detection and strode swiftly through the front gate.

Successfully persuading those inside that he was no plant, he entered into an agreement on that day to begin what became one of the longest-lived operations in modern espionage. His introduction to the shadowy world of spying began when embassy personnel spirited him out of the building and into one of their cars.

But in time, his wife, the former Barbara Crowley, became aware of what he was doing. As the result of a difficult family life long in the making, they eventually divorced, and his efforts to recruit a daughter have been described as one of the reasons his former wife ultimately tipped off the FBI to his activities.

He had three daughters and a son. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

In May 1985, unaware he was being watched, he drove from Norfolk to drop a bag of Navy secrets intended for the KGB at a predetermined location in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. It was the FBI who made the pickup. Shortly afterward, agents took him into custody at gunpoint at a hotel.

The ring quickly unraveled. He pleaded guilty in federal court in 1985 and heard himself denounced the next year by the federal judge who sentenced him to life in prison.

In return for his plea and for a pledge of cooperation, the government agreed to go easier on his son. While the others in the ring were all given life sentences, the son was sentenced to 25 years. He was paroled in 2000 at the age of 37.

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