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Officials Split Over Spy Case : Navy, Justice Dept. Clash on Walkers’ Punishment

Times Staff Writer

A split has developed within the Reagan Administration over the plea agreements in the Walker spy case, as Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. and Justice Department officials clashed over whether John A. Walker Jr., the ringleader, and his sailor son, Michael, should be punished more severely.

Before both Walkers pleaded guilty Monday in federal court in Baltimore, Lehman had argued that they “should be shot or hanged” for providing the Soviet Union with secrets that could have cost American lives during the Vietnam War.

But Lehman was overruled by Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, who supported the plea agreements after an Oct. 21 briefing by senior Justice Department officials. Lehman also was at that meeting, a department spokesman said.

As a part of his plea agreement, John Walker knew that he would receive life imprisonment--but that Michael, 25, would draw only a 25-year sentence, making him eligible for parole in just under eight years. John Walker would be eligible for parole after 10 years, although lawyers for both sides say he is unlikely to be paroled so soon.

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Lehman disclosed his objections in interviews published Wednesday by USA Today and the Washington Post. A Justice Department source said he understood that Lehman’s wrath was rekindled after he saw John Walker grinning broadly on television when Monday’s court proceeding was over.

Lehman said that John Walker’s 17 years of espionage--which began in 1968, six years before he retired from the Navy--"very well could have” cost American lives in the Vietnam War because it enabled the Soviets to decode messages about U.S. military plans and pass the information along to North Vietnam.

Rejects Justice Claim

The Navy secretary also rejected the Justice Department’s claim that John Walker’s full cooperation would help the government assess the damage done by the spy ring. Walker’s pledge to cooperate was a part of his plea agreement.

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“We have a very good idea of the nature of the damage,” Lehman said, adding that it will cost about $100 million to replace Navy communications systems compromised by the spies.

The ring also included John Walker’s brother, Arthur, a retired Navy lieutenant commander and defense company employee who was convicted in a separate trial recently. An accused fourth member, Jerry A. Whitworth, John Walker’s Navy friend, is scheduled to be tried Jan. 13 in San Francisco.

Damage Assessments

A Justice Department spokesman said that damage assessments so far have been “strictly speculative.” Walker’s information will enable the department to “meet its obligation of giving the military and the intelligence community a much better assessment” of damage, the spokesman said.

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As for Walker’s credibility, also challenged by Lehman, the Justice Department official noted that he will be subjected to polygraph examinations and that his sentencing agreement hinges on his full cooperation.

A Navy source said Lehman “has no quarrel with Justice’s right to do things as they see fit.” But he said the department has a tendency to “treat espionage as another white-collar crime. He’s concerned over the signal it sends to the 1.3 million people in the Navy and Marine Corps, uniformed and civilian,” the source said.

“What does this say to them, to the 5,500 people on the aircraft carrier (with Michael Walker), deployed overseas, away from their families to have one of their own sell them out and jeopardize their lives and then come back to get a low sentence?” the Navy source asked. Lehman also is said to be concerned that the failure to impose stiff fines on the Walkers would send a wrong signal to would-be spies who might be willing to spend a few years in prison in exchange for large payments offered by another nation for secret information.

“Lehman is concerned about deterrence,” the Navy source said. “The Justice Department is perhaps not.”

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