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John Walker's Spy Ring: The Worst Case of Espionage in U.S. History

The government says John Walker's spy ring was ''the most damaging case of espionage in United States history.''

The government says John Walker's spy ring was ''the most damaging case of espionage in United States history.''

Origins of Espionage

John Anthony Walker Jr, was born July 28th, 1937, and the second of three children. His father, John Sr., was an alcoholic. When John Sr. started having problems in his career, he uprooted the family and moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania. John Jr. would end up dropping out of Catholic school and enlisting in the Navy.

John Walker Jr. was a naval officer when he turned against the United States and decided to side with the Soviet Union, handing them military documents and other classified information. His espionage operation was one of the worst in American history, and he was eventually arrested in 1985. All four members in the spy ring were convicted.

Secret Documents

Walker was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia and was dealing with financial struggles when he first sold information to the Soviets that allowed them to read encrypted messages.

It all started when he entered the Soviet embassy in Washington. In the early 1970s, John brought in a friend and Naval radio operator, who would pass Walker classified encrypted data that the Soviets would be very interested in receiving. He continued to grow his spy ring by recruiting his older brother, who owned a car radio business that was failing, and encouraging him to work for a Navy contractor so that he could access sensitive documents.

Walker then moved on to his son Michael, who was an archivist for a fighter squadron in Virginia Beach and later worked on the aircraft carrier Nimitz. Walker convinced him to remove secret documents and conceal them under his jacket.

Walker and his co-conspirators gathered a considerable amount of information, including descriptions of changes made to American submarines that helped the Soviets make improvements to their own fleet. Some of the classified documents even allowed the Soviets to track American submarines and ships.

It was never clear how much each member of Walker's spy ring was paid, but Whitworth said in court that he received $332,000.

The Walker Ring Gets Caught

In the 1970s, Walker retired from the Navy and became a private investigator. He wore disguises and traveled the world while collecting information and passing it on to his buyers. In August 1977, John Walker traveled to Hong Kong to meet with Whitworth, who was in port as a sailor on the aircraft carrier Constellation. Walker then met with Soviet agents, who believed Walker had valuable and timely information that they could use immediately.

The illegal activities of the Walker spy ring were eventually reported to law enforcement by John's ex-wife Barbara Crowley, who found incriminating materials in John's desk. She claims she was unaware of her son's involvement.

As part of his settlement in the espionage case, Walker cooperated with investigators, in exchange for a lenient sentence for his son. Michael Walker received a 25-year sentence and was eventually released in 2000. Both John and Alfred Walker received life sentences. Whitworth received a 365-year sentence.

John Walker died in prison in 2014.

John Walker Jr. later published his book, My Life As a Spy, in which he defended his actions by claiming that he believed the Cold War was a hoax and that sharing secret information would do no harm. He asked his family and the U.S. to forgive him.


The Walker case led to several books and documentaries. It also led to changes in the way how the Department of Defense protects classified information. Following the exposing of the spy ring, rules were put in place to reduce the number of people with access to secret military information. The Walker convictions also generated a number of counterintelligence initiatives.

Former FBI Special Agent John C. Wagner oversaw the arrest of John Walker, and in June 1986, he told the New York Times that the agency is still trying to find out how it was possible for a low-level sailor to run a spy ring for almost 20 years. Government officials say it was ''the most damaging case of espionage in United States history.''

© 2022 Lawrence Lease