Ex-FBI Agent Miller Guilty of Espionage
Richard W. Miller, the first FBI agent ever accused of espionage, was found guilty Tuesday of passing secret documents to the Soviet Union in exchange for a promised $65,000 in gold and cash.
As in his previous two trials, Miller was portrayed as a bumbling agent who had a sexual affair and espionage misadventures with an alcoholic Soviet spy, Svetlana Ogorodnikova, who, the prosecution charged, lured Miller into betraying his profession and his country.
Speaking briefly to reporters after the verdict was issued in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, Miller, 53, said he was stunned when he heard the judge’s decision.
“I was dumbfounded,” he said. “I didn’t expect this outcome. I really didn’t.”
The FBI’s special agent in charge of its Los Angeles office, Lawrence G. Lawler, was in court when U.S. District Judge Robert M. Takasugi announced the verdict. “It’s a bittersweet victory,” Lawler said. “We’ve convicted someone of espionage. Unfortunately, it’s a former FBI agent.”
Miller has acknowledged having an adulterous affair with Ogorodnikova in 1984. He has maintained that he was not a spy, but was attempting to revive his sagging FBI career by trying to infiltrate the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency.
Miller’s attorney, Joel Levine, told the court in his closing statement that “my client is not a perfect man. He was, more or less, a bad FBI agent.”
As for the charge that Miller was a spy, Levine said that from the government’s evidence, “you cannot draw that conclusion.”
Takasugi, who at Miller’s request presided over a non-jury trial, rendered the verdict immediately after closing arguments. He found Miller guilty on all six counts of espionage and scheduled sentencing for Jan. 7.
Over the prosecutor’s objections, Takasugi allowed Miller to remain free on $337,000 bail until his sentencing date. The maximum sentence he could receive is two life terms plus 50 years.
In a reference to Miller’s statements to his FBI superiors that he had been attempting to infiltrate the Soviet KGB through his affair with Ogorodnikova, Takasugi said, “He wanted to retire from the FBI in a blaze of glory.” Then, referring to Ogorodnikova, Takasugi said she put “persistent pressure on Mr. Miller to pass classified documents to the KGB.”
The prosecution in all three trials underscored Miller’s financial and family problems at the time of his contacts with Ogorodnikova. The father of eight, Miller had been excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for adultery in 1984. Also, according to the prosecutor, he was under pressure from his FBI superiors to lose weight, which at times was about 250 pounds. In April, 1984, Miller was suspended for two weeks without pay for not meeting FBI standards.
Taking these issues into account, Takasugi said in his verdict: “She (Ogorodnikova) dangled money, provided sex at a time when she was fully aware that Mr. Miller was plagued with pressing and immediate problems relating to his personal finances, his weight, pressures of his employment, his crumbling marriage and his excommunication from his church.
“In the battle of wills, Mr. Miller finally succumbed, begrudgingly perhaps, and while emotionally entangled with Svetlana he eventually compromised his obligations to the FBI.”
As in the previous seven weeks of the trial, the bespectacled Miller sat poker-faced while Takasugi read the verdict.
Miller’s first trial ended with a hung jury in November, 1985. The following year, a Los Angeles federal court jury convicted him, but the conviction was overturned by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in April, 1989, on the grounds that jurors were allowed to hear too much testimony about Miller’s lie detector tests.
Miller, who served five years in prison before his conviction was overturned on appeal, never took the stand in any of his trials.
The Ogorodnikovs pleaded guilty in mid-trial in 1985 to conspiring with Miller. Nikolai Ogorodnikov was released from a federal prison earlier this year after serving five years of an eight-year sentence; his wife is in an East Coast prison where she is serving an 18-year sentence.
Svetlana Ogorodnikova--who took the witness stand during the second Miller trial, but not at the third--said she pleaded guilty because she did not think she could get a fair trial.
“We are not guilty of this crime,” she said of herself and her husband. “Richard is not a traitor of his country. I am not a Russian spy.”
Miller, the chief prosecution witness in the Ogorodnikovs’ trial, proclaimed his own innocence. “I felt I could do what nobody had done before--infiltrate an active Soviet intelligence network,” Miller testified in 1986. “I had a James Bond kind of fantasy. I’d come out a hero.”
The government’s prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Atty. Adam B. Schiff, depicted Miller as participating in a series of events that transcended a fantasized adventure.
“This is a case of government misconduct and government corruption of the highest and most disturbing order,” Schiff said in his closing argument on Tuesday.
The bizarre espionage case surfaced with the arrest of Miller and the two Soviet emigres on Oct. 2, 1984, on charges that Miller passed a secret FBI document to Ogorodnikova, called the Positive Intelligence Reporting Guide, a document in which government agencies discuss their intelligence gathering goals.
The FBI investigation into Miller’s unauthorized contacts with Ogorodnikova had begun in late August, 1984, following a trip by the two of them to the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco. The FBI put wiretaps on both of their telephones and placed eavesdropping devices in their cars.
In September, 1984, the FBI picked up information that KGB plans were being formed to send Miller to Eastern Europe, where the agency suspected Miller was planning to sell secret documents to the KGB.
Levinetold the court Tuesday that Miller realized he had gotten “in over his head” when, on Sept. 24, 1989, Ogorodnikova told him she had received plane tickets for a clandestine flight to Europe.
“You did?” was how Levine portrayed Miller’s response.
Three days later, Miller asked for a meeting with one of his superiors, P. Bryce Christensen. At the meeting he disclosed his affair with Ogorodnikova, declaring he had been on a bold mission to become the first FBI agent to penetrate the KGB, but that he could not go any further without FBI approval.
For five days, FBI agents interrogated Miller, during which he disclosed his unauthorized double-agent plan and his passing of a copy of the FBI guide to Ogorodnikova.
Unlike the first two trials, Levine alleged that the FBI used a psychologist in an attempt to help interrogators take advantage of Miller’s “personality deficiencies that were susceptible to certain kinds of approaches.”
The prosecution saw Miller’s downfall as the product of his deteriorating personal life. Then, in the spring of 1984, Miller met Ogorodnikova. The timing, as far as the KGB was concerned, was perfect, Schiff said. “Miller was ripe for recruitment.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.