The Walker Spy Ring, headed by John Walker, was labeled by the New York Times as “the most damaging Soviet spy ring in history.” John Walker began his career in espionage by walking into the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. He was serving in the United States Navy (he would later reach the position of Chief Petty Officer) with a wife and four children when he decided to purchase a bar. The bar was a money pit and he found himself deeply in debt. He sold the Soviets a radio cipher card and arranged for them to pay him a monthly fee in return for providing additional classified information. While on assignment in San Diego, California in 1969, he struck up a friendship with Jerry Whitworth. Whitworth, who eventually would become a Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer, had access to classified information which he agreed to pass on to Walker. Walker told Whitworth that the information was going to be shared with Israel, an American ally, but Whitworth eventually realized that the information was intended for the Soviets. Nonetheless, Whitworth continued supplying information.
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Walker retired from the Navy in 1976 as he grew concerned that irregularities in his job performance was casting suspicion on him. Having given up his security clearance, however, prompted him to decide to recruit other to supply him with data. Although his family life was in disarray (his wife Barbara had divorced him), he decided to recruit from his own family. He first persuaded his older brother Arthur, a retired Lieutenant Commander who was then working for a military contractor, to gather information for him. He also tried to recruit his daughter Laura, but she declined, leaving her brother Michael as the next likely candidate. Michael, a high school dropout and wayward youth, joined the Navy per his father’s urging and thereafter would serve his father in channeling classified and secret data to his father, who was now the head of a small, but productive spy network. Michael was stationed aboard the U.S.S. Nimitz and was assigned the duty of destroying top secret messages by burning them in a furnace. Instead he sorted through messages and retained those his father would want. Whitworth passed Navy cryptographic data to Walker until he retired from the Navy in 1983. Arthur Walker, however, passed along basically worthless information about 20 year old ships that the Navy labeled with its lowest classification (this information could often be found in publicly available magazines).
John Walker provided information to the Soviet Union for more than 20 years. His luck ran out because he refused to pay his wife alimony, prompting her to contact the FBI. Walker was arrested as were his friend Jerry Whitworth, his brother Arthur and his son Michael. Walker, in order to aid his son, cooperated with the government and agreed to a plea bargain. Arthur naively cooperated with the government talking without an attorney for 32 hours and entered a plea agreement thinking he would not have to serve any prison time (Arthur was so naive, in fact, that when a witness could not identify him in court because he was not wearing his toupee, Arthur waved his hand in the air to identify himself). He was sentenced to a life sentence, as was Jerry Whitworth (365 years) and, Michael was sentenced to two 25 year sentences but was paroled in 2000. John Walker, the ring leader, received a life sentence and could be paroled before Arthur or Whitworth.
Although the group may have seemed like a bunch of untrained amateurs, the damage they inflicted upon the United States was enormous. The New York Times reported that It’s been estimated by some intelligence experts that Mr. Walker provided enough code-data information to alter significantly the balance of power between Russia and the United States”. It was stated at his trial that it was the most damaging spy enterprise in 30 years.