Dramatic Changes in Espionage Spur a Call for Laws to Stem Losses : Spying: National security has been gravely damaged by spies who are mainly in it for the money. Remedial action could cost billions.

<i> Warren Christopher, chairman of O'Melveny & Myers, is a member of the advisory panel to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee and a former U.S. deputy secretary of state (1977-81)</i>

Massive compromises of our nation’s most sensitive military secrets during the past 20 years have forced an urgent review of our laws to deter, detect and prosecute those who commit espionage against the United States. Convicted traitors like the Walker family of spies, Jerry Whitworth, Ronald Pelton and William Kampiles have inflicted grave damage by transferring vital defense information to foreign powers.

There is no official estimate of the cost of remedial measures necessary to counteract the espionage, but it is conservatively believed to range in the billions. Beyond the dollars, the spying has endangered our national security to such a breathtaking extent that we can all be thankful that war did not break out while some of our most sensitive secrets were compromised.

An intensive study of the recent spy cases reveals dramatic changes in the nature and character of espionage. Recognition of these changes can provide a promising basis for shoring up federal espionage laws to help protect our secrets without endangering our civil liberties. In the recent past, our counterespionage efforts have been premised on the outmoded assumption that the traitors are ideologues sympathetic to our nation’s adversaries or that they are individuals capable of being blackmailed or coerced into revealing our secrets. Modern-day espionage simply does not fit neatly into these patterns, with the result that our efforts at prevention and detection have fallen far short of the mark.

Alarmed by the dramatic compromises of military secrets, the chairman and vice chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee--Sens. David L. Boren (D-Okla.) and William S. Cohen (R-Me.)--recently convened a bipartisan advisory panel of experienced citizens to analyze the changing face of espionage and make recommendations. The panel, chaired by industrialist Eli S. Jacobs, systematically reviewed the 19 leading espionage cases brought since 1971 and studied about an equal number of cases in which prosecution for espionage was not feasible for various, sometimes highly classified, reasons.


The panel made several important findings: The motivating factor in most of the 19 cases was money--not ideology or blackmail but a naked desire for money. The winding down of the Cold War is likely only to accelerate this shift in motivation.

The spies involved were generally relatively low-ranking individuals with top-secret or even higher clearances. These were not the glamorous, high-profile agents of spy fiction but obscure individuals who had been entrusted with the nation’s most sensitive information. Pressed for funds or captivated by the prospect of high living, they turned traitors when they saw an opportunity for financial gain.

The majority of the spies were volunteers. They brazenly offered their services to our adversaries, through telephone calls, posted letters, personal interviews--in almost every conceivable way. John Walker and Pelton walked into the Soviet Embassy in Washington; several others telephoned the Soviets offering to spy. Virtually all of the cases involved foreign travel during which the spies met their foreign handlers. Vienna was the favorite rendezvous but other crossroads cities like Paris, Hong Kong, Casablanca and Tel Aviv were also involved. The quick trips they took to avoid detection would never have been feasible before the jet age.

The advisory panel is currently presenting the results of its intensive study to the Senate and House Intelligence committees. Building on its factual analysis, the panel has recommended 13 changes in our espionage laws, written more than 70 years ago. Each of the legislative proposals is based upon one or more specific cases in which the panel believes that the proposed change, had it been in place, would have increased the chance that the traitor would have been deterred or detected.


One of the central problems addressed by the recommendations is the change in the basic motivation from ideology to money. The lifestyles of the traitors provided obvious clues that, seen in retrospect, should have provided warning signals. Walker spent heavily and gave lavish gifts; Whitworth drove a Rolls-Royce; Pelton was on the brink of bankruptcy; Larry Chin gambled heavily.

To deter and detect those who would spy for money, the panel recommends that persons who apply for top-secret clearances must consent to federal authorities obtaining access to their records maintained by financial institutions during the time of their employment and for five years thereafter. To limit the intrusion, the provision would be applicable only to those who have access to top-secret information and thus are in a position to cause grave damage to our national security. Post-employment consent, whether five years or a lesser time, is regarded as important because some of the most egregious cases involved the transfer of secrets soon after resignation.

The nexus between foreign travel and espionage is addressed in two ways in the panel’s proposals. Anyone with a top-secret clearance is required to report any foreign travel not authorized as part of official duties. Moreover, those individuals must consent to access to international travel records maintained by airlines, steamships and other foreign-travel facilities. Armed with such data, our counterintelligence services may be able to correlate the travel of suspected spies with other available information suggesting that espionage is being planned or carried out.

The panel’s proposals would also make it a crime to possess espionage devices with the intent to spy or to remove and retain top-secret documents. Other proposals would close gaps in the FBI’s authority to obtain telephone and credit records pertinent to its investigation of suspected foreign agents and those who would offer secrets to foreign powers.


Espionage has proved to be a most difficult crime to uncover and prosecute, in part because an intelligence compromise may not come to light for decades. All too often we become aware of a traitor only when turned in by a family member or identified by a defector. To encourage reporting of suspicious activity, one of the panel’s proposals is to give the attorney general authority to pay rewards up to $1 million for information leading to arrest of spies or the prevention of espionage. This authority would be a great bargain for our country if it proved useful even once a year.

The 13 proposals will now be subject to extensive screening and debate in Congress, which will weigh the same issues considered by the panel. Will the proposals provide useful tools in dealing with the new character of espionage? Do they result in an impermissible invasion of the privacy of those holding the high-security clearances? Are there less-intrusive ways to accomplish the same result?

With the thaw in Soviet relations and the march of democracy in Eastern Europe, it is natural to ask whether we need to worry any longer about espionage. Beguiling as it is to contemplate a world without spies, it would be dangerously naive to drop our guard. The superpower status of the United States will always make us a prime target for spies, whether it be an effort to compromise our most sensitive military secrets or foreign-sponsored espionage against our high-technology businesses.

As Sen. Boren said, “In the changing world we live in, intelligence services once hostile will become friendly, and friendly services will become hostile.” The risk that they will obtain our vital secrets is greatly aggravated in the modern era where traitors don’t wait to be recruited but offer our sensitive information to the highest bidder. When our deepest secrets are on the market, there will be buyers, Cold War or no Cold War.


Espionage against the United States may be changing form, but there is no sign that it is declining. The KGB has put us on notice by openly saying that espionage against commercial targets will help improve the competitiveness of Soviet companies. The warming relationships with some of our traditional adversaries may simply give their intelligence operations greater access to our secrets.

“The era of the cloak and dagger may be over,” said Cohen, “but the cloaks are likely to multiply and become more pervasive in their effort to procure military and commercial secrets.”