Thursday, May 21, 2015

Thirty Years Ago: A Ring is Broken

"Jerry Whitworth is a zero at the bone. He believes in nothing"
Judge John P. Vukasin, as told to attorney Cait Boyce

Here is a cruise book photo from the 1982-83 Western Pacific and Indian Ocean deployment of USS Enterprise (CVN-65), when Jerry Alfred Whitworth was leading chief of the Message Processing Center (MPC) within the aircraft carrier's CR Division.  According to the cruise book's description of the Enterprise Communications Department, MPC handled administrative and operational message traffic for both the ship and embarked staffs.

"Using both computer and manual teletype equipment, the MPC processes in excess of 1,600 messages a day, peaking at 2,000 messages," the description continued.  "The reproduction and distribution section of the MPC will have reproduced, by the end of the WESTPAC deployment, over eight million copies of message traffic."  It would be difficult to imagine the sheer physical dimensions of just the portion of those message copies that were classified.  Whitworth knew, and by training knew what fraction of that portion of classified documents were the most sensitive; the ones expected to cause the most "exceptionally grave" damage to national security.  Because of Whitworth's treachery, so would the Soviet intelligence apparatus.  All that changed three decades ago because of an arrest made on the other side of the United States.

On May 20, 1985, private detective John Anthony Walker was arrested in a motel in Montgomery County, Maryland.  He had traveled there from Norfolk to make a "dead drop" containing 129 classified documents inside a garbage bag for his Soviet handler.  Although Walker's name is more remembered as being the ringleader of the most damaging espionage case un U.S. Navy history, Whitworth was ultimately given a harsher sentence.  

John Walker retired as a warrant officer out of Headquarters, Amphibious Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet in Norfolk on July 31, 1976, after passing cryptographic communications material to the Soviets for nearly half his career, giving them the ability to read not only Navy message traffic, but those of the other armed services, as well as North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies.  By then, Whitworth, a former student of Walker's in Radioman Instructor School, was actively passing information from the other side of the world.  According to court documents, Walker had initially made a "sales pitch" to Whitworth after his discharge in June 1974.  Whitworth then reenlisted in the Naval Reserve in October 1974 and transitioned back over to active duty the following month.  After completing advanced satellite communications school in New Jersey, Whitworth returned to the communications station in Diego Garcia, his last duty assignment before leaving active duty.  En route, he was given a $4,000 "inducement" by Walker during a meeting in Norfolk.  

After the one-year assignment at the outpost in the Southern Indian Ocean, he again met Walker in Norfolk, delivering all the material he had stolen, and receiving $18,000.  Whitworth then completed tours aboard the carrier Constellation (CV-64) and the combat stores ship Niagara Falls (AFS-3) between June 1976 and August 1979, receiving approximately $100,000 for the material he purloined from those vessels.  His plum assignment as a Chief Radioman at Naval Telecommunications Station Alameda came next, where Walker bought a van that Whitworth could use out in the parking lot to photograph the large amounts of cryptographic material that crossed his desk each day.  During his last assignment aboard Enterprise, which lasted from October 1982 and his retirement one year later, he made one delivery to Walker, in June 1983.  Walker's Soviet handlers informed him that the images Whitworth had photographed were out-of-focus and unusable, and therefore did not pay him.  Whitworth had retained physical copies of the documents and was able to rephotograph them, delivering the goods to Walker in April 1984.  According to Walker, his handler still instructed him not to pay Whitworth.  

Because he had yet to see a penny for the trove of documents he removed from Enterprise, Whitworth began to waver, corresponding with the FBI between May and August in a series of typewritten letters under the name of "RUS."  While he initially wrote that "the reason for this letter is to give you (FBI) an opportunity to break what brobably [sic] is a significant espionage system. (I know that my contact has recurited [sic] at least three other members that are actively supplying highly classified material)."  

Although halfheartedly trying to break off his business with Walker during this time, Whitworth wavered again.  "Since my last note to you," he wrote the FBI, "I've done a lot of serious thinking and have pretty much come to the conclusion that it would be best to give up on the idea of aiding in the termination of the espionage ring previously discussed." "To think I could help you and not make my own involvement known to the public, I believe is naive," Whitworth continued. "I have great difficulty in coming forth, particularly, since the changes of my past involvement ever being known is extremenely [sic] remote, as long as I remain silent...."

Of course, he was wrong.  The garbage bag Walker left for the Soviets was found to contain, among other things, two letters from Whitworth and a letter from Walker to a Soviet agent referring to Whitworth by a "code letter." Walker's home on Old Ocean View Avenue in Norfolk was then searched, and Whitworth's fingerprints were found, according to court documents, on "numerous items."  Later on the 20th, FBI agents swooped in on Whitworth at his home in Davis, California.  He was arrested on June 3, the fourth of the so-called "Walker Family Spy Ring" to be taken into custody.  Under a plea agreement aimed at gaining leniency for his son, Seaman Michael Walker, who had been working to collect classified material aboard USS Nimitz (CVN-68),  John Walker became the government's key witness against his former protégé.

During Whitworth's trial in San Francisco district court in the spring of 1986, then-Director of Naval Intelligence Rear Admiral William O. Studeman, who had been an operational intelligence officer with 7th Fleet during the Vietnam War, deemed the intelligence Whitworth delivered "war-winning," declaring that because of the Soviets' ability to read message traffic, they could have read all operational messages to the fleet during the most critical phases of the war.  "Whitworth compromised detailed plans for primary, secondary, and emergency communications circuits," wrote Studeman later, "which are used by the National Command Authority to maintain contact with operational units." 

Source: Department of Justice/ 
Wikimedia Commons

After deliberating for 10 days, the jury found Whitworth, then 47, guilty of one count of conspiracy to deliver national defense information to a foreign government, six counts of delivery of national defense information to a foreign government, four counts of making false tax returns, and one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States.

 After being paid an estimated $322,000 through John Walker (who reportedly earned around $1 million for his work), some of which was spent on motorcycles and gold coins, Whitworth was fined $410,000 and sentenced to 365 years in prison.  As of today, he remains the only member of the ring still held in custody.

Michael Walker, who was recruited by his father both into the Navy and into espionage, was convicted of passing around 1,500 documents to him, receiving a 25-year sentence, serving 15 of them before being paroled in 2000.  Retired Lieutenant Commander Arthur Walker, a Navy contractor who had actually talked his younger brother into joining the Navy in the first place, received three life terms and died in July 2014.  John Walker, who died at the Federal Medical Center in Butner, North Carolina, on August 28, 2014, remained unrepentant until the end, boasting that he had actually helped avert war by helping the Soviets learn the true strength of the United States armed forces, dissuading them from armed confrontation.  Because he received a more lenient sentence than Whitworth, he would have been eligible for parole this month.  

The reverberations of the case were immediate, yet they continue to this day.  In the first few months after the Walkers and Whitworth's arrest, a directive was sent out from the Naval Security Group that all Navy and Coast Guard CMS custodians and their alternates were to be relieved.  Around 3,500 would have to be trained to take their places within a four-month time period.  Communications Security (COMSEC) keying material was also put under mandatory two-person integrity.  From then on, the personal lives (and finances) of personnel holding Top Secret clearances came under greater scrutiny.  And of course, Navy communications systems would have to undergo a stem-to-stern overhaul.

How did the Walker-Whitworth case affect you?  We would like to hear about it.  An upcoming issue of the Daybook is going to take a retrospective look at the Walker ring and other infamous Navy cases such as that of Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Glenn M. Souther, a Navy reservist, recent Old Dominion University graduate, and civilian employee of Fleet Intelligence Center, Europe and Atlantic (FICEURLANT) in Norfolk who defected to the Soviet Union in 1986.


  1. I remember riding my 10 speed bike to date my eventual wife going down Old Ocean View Avenue in Norfolk back in the day after John Walker got caught. They roped off the property and took the walls off the house from the outside.

  2. I knew Whitworth personally. I called him Uncle Jerry and there was a picture of us in the Alameda newspaper with him pushing me on a swing. My Father was his MCPO. He betrayed not only his country but all of us. I remember the investigation and seeing my Father affected by the news after his retirement. I wish I could understand why he did these things. I now understand that little to none of his dealings could have ever been sincere, only a sense of self preservation and entitlement drove his actions.
    It's a shame. Once upon a time, he was loved as an uncle by a little girl.

  3. I knew Whitworth as a child living in Alameda navy housing. I called him Uncle Jerry and my father was his MCPO. We heard little from him until after my father's retirement and the investigators showed up at our home and had no idea what had been going on. My father was crushed. We all felt betrayed.
    Once upon a time, there was a photo of Whitworth pushing me on a swing in the Alameda newspaper. He used to send me stuffed animals and notes signed as my Uncle Jerry.
    I now understand that little to none of his dealings could have been of sincere or genuine feeling. His sole real driving motivation could have only come from self preservation and a sense of entitlement.
    It is entirely sad. Once, he was loved by a little girl. His betrayal of his country, his colleagues and friends only proved to fortify my own patriotism.