“I’d come back from an op and couldn’t wait for what happens next,” says Douglas Groat (shown in a reenactment with tools of the trade). (James Quantz Jr. )
The six CIA officers were sweating. It was almost noon on a June day in the Middle Eastern capital, already in the 90s outside and even hotter inside the black sedan where the five men and one woman sat jammed in together. Sat and waited.
They had flown in two days earlier for this mission: to break into the embassy of a South Asian country, steal that country’s secret codes and get out without leaving a trace. During months of planning, they had been assured by the local CIA station that the building would be empty at this hour except for one person—a member of the embassy’s diplomatic staff working secretly for the agency.
But suddenly the driver’s hand-held radio crackled with a voice-encrypted warning: “Maintain position. Do not approach target.” It was the local CIA station, relaying a warning from the agency’s spy inside: a cleaning lady had arrived.
From the back seat Douglas Groat swore under his breath. A tall, muscular man of 43, he was the leader of the break-in team, at this point—1990—a seven-year veteran of this risky work. “We were white faces in a car in daytime,” Groat recalls, too noticeable for comfort. Still they waited, for an hour, he says, before the radio crackled again: “OK to proceed to target.” The cleaning lady had left.
Groat and the others were out of the car within seconds. The embassy staffer let them in the back door. Groat picked the lock on the code room—a small, windowless space secured for secret communications, a standard feature of most embassies—and the team swept inside. Groat opened the safe within 15 minutes, having practiced on a similar model back in the States. The woman and two other officers were trained in photography and what the CIA calls “flaps and seals”; they carefully opened and photographed the code books and one-time pads, or booklets of random numbers used to create almost unbreakable codes, and then resealed each document and replaced it in the safe exactly as it had been before. Two hours after entering the embassy, they were gone.
After dropping the break-in specialists off at their hotel, the driver took the photographs to the U.S. Embassy, where they were sent to CIA headquarters by diplomatic pouch. The next morning, the team flew out.
The CIA is not in the habit of discussing its clandestine operations, but the agency’s purpose is clear enough. As then-chief James Woolsey said in a 1994 speech to former intelligence operatives: “What we really exist for is stealing secrets.” Indeed, the agency declined to comment for this article, but over the course of more than 80 interviews, 25 people—including more than a dozen former agency officers—described the workings of a secret CIA unit that employed Groat and specialized in stealing codes, the most guarded secrets of any nation.
What Groat and his crew were doing followed in the tradition of all espionage agencies. During World War II, for example, Soviet spies stole the secrets of how the United States built the atom bomb, and the British secretly read Nazi communications after acquiring a copy of a German Enigma cipher machine from Polish intelligence. The Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s predecessor, targeted the Vichy French Embassy in Washington, D.C. one night in June 1942. An operative code-named Cynthia arranged a tryst inside the embassy with her lover, who was the press attaché there. The tryst, as both knew, was a cover story—a way to explain her presence to the night watchman. After the 31-year-old, auburn-haired spy and her lover stripped in the hall outside the code room, Cynthia, naked but for her pearls and high-heeled shoes, signaled out a window to a waiting OSS safe expert, a specialist known as the “Georgia Cracker.” He soon had the safe open and the codebooks removed; an OSS team photographed the books in a hotel nearby, and Cynthia returned them to the safe before dawn. The stolen codes were said to have helped OSS undercover operations in North Africa that paved the way for the Allied invasion there six months later.
In 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin’s mass terror and “cult of personality” in a speech to a closed session of the Communist Party Congress in Moscow. Khrushchev repudiated his predecessor in such stark terms that his speech weakened the Soviet Union’s grip on Eastern Europe and contributed to Moscow’s split with China. As word of his “secret speech” filtered out, the CIA fell under enormous pressure to obtain a copy. The agency’s director, Allen W. Dulles, secured one—he never disclosed how, but by most accounts his source was Israeli intelligence—and leaked it to the New York Times. He later wrote that getting the speech was “one of the major intelligence coups” of his career.
In a secret program called HTLINGUAL, the CIA screened more than 28 million first-class letters and opened 215,000 of them between 1953 and 1973, even though the Supreme Court held as far back as 1878 in Ex parte Jackson and reaffirmed in 1970 in U.S. v. Van Leeuwen that the Fourth Amendment bars third parties from opening first-class mail without a warrant. The program’s stated purpose was to obtain foreign intelligence, but it targeted domestic peace and civil rights activists as well. In a 1962 memo to the director of the CIA’s Office of Security, the deputy chief of the counterintelligence staff warned that the program could lead “to grave charges of criminal misuse of the mails” and therefore U.S. intelligence agencies must “vigorously deny” HTLINGUAL, which should be “relatively easy to ‘hush up.’ ”
One of the agency’s most ambitious known theft attempts took place after a Soviet submarine sank in 1968 several hundred miles northwest of Hawaii, losing all hands. After spending at least $200 million to build a ship designed especially for the mission, the agency tried in 1974 to steal the sub from its resting place, 17,000 feet deep. Using a giant claw, the ship, the Glomar Explorer, lifted the sub from the ocean bottom, but it broke in two as it was raised. The agency recovered the forward third of the vessel, but former CIA director William E. Colby confirmed in the French edition of his memoir, which slipped through the agency’s censorship, that the operation fell short of its main objective—recovering the part of the sub containing Soviet nuclear missiles and codebooks.
Codes have always been primary espionage targets, but they have become more valuable as encryption programs have become both more common and more complex. Today, even the National Security Agency, the nation’s code-making and -breaking arm and its largest intelligence agency, has trouble keeping up with the flood of messages it intercepts. When decrypting other countries’ codes is so difficult, the most obvious solution is to steal them.
That is why by 1955, and probably earlier, the CIA created a special unit to perform what the agency calls “surreptitious entries.” This unit was so secret that few people inside CIA headquarters knew it existed; it wasn’t even listed in the CIA’s classified telephone book. Officially it was named the Special Operations Division, but the handful of agency officers selected for it called it the Shop.
In Doug Groat’s time there, in the 1980s and early ’90s, the Shop occupied a nondescript one-story building just south of a shopping mall in the Washington suburb of Springfield, Virginia. The building was part of a government complex surrounded by a chain-link fence; the pebbled glass in the windows let in light but allowed no view in or out. The men and women of the Shop made up a team of specialists: lock pickers, safecrackers, photographers, electronics wizards and code experts. One team member was a master at disabling alarm systems, another at flaps and seals. Their mission, put simply, was to travel the world and break into other countries’ embassies to steal codes, and it was extraordinarily dangerous. They did not have the protection of diplomatic cover; if caught, they might face imprisonment or execution. The CIA, they assumed, would claim it knew nothing about them. “It was generally understood, from talking to the other guys,” Groat recalls. “Nobody ever said it in so many words.”
Groat started working at the Shop in 1982 and became the CIA’s top burglar and premier lock picker. He planned or participated in 60 missions in Europe, Africa, South America and the Middle East. He received several $5,000 awards for successful entry missions—a significant sum for someone earning less than $40,000 a year at the time—as well as an award from the CIA’s Clandestine Service and another from the NSA. In several instances, as in the operation in the Middle East capital, he led the entry team. But that operation was Groat’s last. The simple fact that a cleaning lady had unexpectedly shown up for work set off a chain of events that pit him against his employer. The operations of the Shop, as described by Groat, other former members of the Shop and other intelligence professionals, illustrate the lengths to which the CIA went to steal other nations’ secrets. What happened to Groat illustrates the measures the agency took to protect secrets of its own.
Groat would seem an excellent candidate for the job of stealing codes. Six-foot-three, handsome and articulate, he is a former Green Beret trained in scuba diving, underwater explosives, parachuting, survival and evasion; he knows how to build homemade pistols, shotguns, silencers, booby traps and bombs. He also speaks Mandarin Chinese. He says he relished his work at the Shop—both for the opportunity to serve his country and for the adrenaline rush that came with the risks.
He grew up in Scotia, New York, near Albany. He joined the Army in 1967, before marrying his high-school sweetheart, and served as a captain in the Special Forces. He left after four years and worked in a series of law-enforcement jobs. As a police officer in Glenville, New York, Groat displayed a streak of unyielding resolve: He ticketed fire engines when he believed they were breaking the law. “The trucks would run with lights flashing even when they were not responding to a fire. They were checking the hydrants,” he says. “I warned them, ‘Do it again and I’ll ticket you.’ They did and I did.” After he ticketed the fire chief, Groat was fired. He sued and won his job back—and then, having made his point, quit to become a deputy U.S. marshal in Phoenix.
By then Groat and his wife had a daughter and a son. In 1980, he joined the CIA and moved his family to Great Falls, Virginia. At age 33, he was sent off to the Farm, the CIA’s training base near Williamsburg, to learn the black arts of espionage. Two years later, after testing well for hand coordination and the capacity to pay painstaking attention to detail, he was accepted for the Shop.
In training there he demonstrated an exceptional talent for picking locks, so the CIA sent him to vocational courses in opening both locks and safes. As a result, the CIA’s top burglar was also a bonded locksmith, member number 13526 of the Associated Locksmiths of America. He was also a duly certified member of the Safe and Vault Technicians Association.
Although Hollywood films show burglars with an ear glued to a safe to listen for the tumblers, Groat says it doesn’t work that way. “You feel the tumblers. In your fingers,” he says. “There are three to four wheels in a typical safe combination lock. As you turn the dial you can feel it as you hit each wheel, because there’s extra tension on the dial. Then you manipulate one wheel at a time until the drop lever inside falls into the open position and the safe is unlocked.”
After training came the real thing. “It was exhilarating,” Groat recalls of his first mission, targeting a South American embassy in Northern Europe. When he traveled to a target, he used an alias and carried phony ID—”pocket litter,” as it is known in the trade. His fake identities were backstopped, meaning that if anyone called to check with the real companies listed on his cards, someone would vouch for him as an employee. He also was given bank and credit cards in an alias to pay his travel expenses.
Because Groat’s work was so sensitive, he had to conceal it. Although his wife understood the nature of his work, for years his children did not. “I didn’t know where my father worked until I was in high school, in the ninth or tenth grade,” says Groat’s son, Shawn. “My sister typed a report on special paper that dissolved in water, although we didn’t know it. My father realized what she was doing and said, ‘You can’t use that paper.’ Then he ate the paper.
“He then sat us down and said, ‘I don’t work for the State Department. I work for the CIA.’” The State Department had been his cover story to explain his frequent travels to friends, relatives and neighbors. He said he inspected security at U.S. embassies.
Groat would not talk about which countries’ codes he and his colleagues stole. Other intelligence sources said that in 1989, he led an extraordinary mission to Nepal to steal a code machine from the East German Embassy there—the CIA and the NSA, which worked closely with the Shop, wanted the device so badly that Groat was told to go in, grab the safe containing the code machine and get out. Never mind the rule about leaving no trace; in this case it would be immediately obvious that a very large object was missing.
According to two CIA sources, the agency and the NSA had collected three decades’ worth of encrypted East German communications traffic; the machine would allow them to read it and, if the Soviets and the other Warsaw Pact countries were linked in a common system, perhaps to decrypt Soviet traffic as well.
The CIA station in Katmandu arranged for an official ceremony to be held more than an hour away from the capital and for all foreign diplomats to be invited. The agency knew the East Germans could not refuse to attend. That would leave Groat’s team about three hours to work. Posing as tourists, they arrived in Katmandu two days before the mission and slipped into a safe house. On the appointed day, they left the safe house wearing disguises crafted by a CIA specialist—whole-face latex masks that transformed them into Nepalese, with darker skin and jet-black hair. At the embassy, Groat popped the front door open with a small pry bar. Inside, the intruders peeled off their stifling masks and with a bolt-cutter removed a padlock barring the way to the embassy’s security area. Once in the code room, Groat and two teammates strained to lift the safe from the floorboards and wrestled it down the stairs and out to a waiting van.
They drove the safe to the American Embassy, where it was opened—and found to contain no code machine. Based on faulty intelligence, the CIA had sent its break-in team on a Himalayan goose chase.
In planning an operation, Groat says, he would normally reconnoiter the target personally. But he was told there was no budget to send him before his 1990 mission to the Middle East capital, so he had to rely on assurances from the local CIA station. Although the team accomplished its mission and returned to the Shop within two days, Groat was enraged at what he believed was sloppy advance work.
“It was a near miss, very scary,” he says. “I had to complain. It could have been disastrous for the U.S. government and the officers involved.”
Not to worry, Groat’s boss told him; he would personally tell the official who supervised the Shop what had happened. Groat says his boss warned him that if he went outside channels and briefed the supervisor on his own, “it would end my career.” He went to the supervisor anyway. “I told [him] if we had been caught our agent would be killed,” he says. “He said he didn’t care. That it was an aberration and wouldn’t happen again.” Groat did not back down; in fact, he escalated matters by taking his complaint to the CIA inspector general. The IG at the time was Frederick P. Hitz, who now teaches law at the University of Virginia. Hitz recalls that his office investigated the matter.
“On the issue that preparations for that entry had not been properly made, we did find there was merit in his complaint,” Hitz says. “His grievances had some justification in fact. He felt there was sloppiness that endangered himself and his crew, the safety of the men for whom he was responsible. We felt there was some reason for his being upset at the way his operation was prepared.”
Given the tensions rising between Groat and his managers, the IG also recommended that Groat be transferred to another unit. Hitz says he is fairly certain that he also urged that steps be taken to avoid a repeat of the problems Groat had encountered and that “we expected this not to happen again.” But the recommendation that Groat be transferred created a problem: There was no other unit like the Shop. Groat says he was given a desk at a CIA building in Tysons Corner, in Northern Virginia, but no work to do—for 14 months. In October 1992, he says, he was moved to another office in Northern Virginia but still given no duties. He worked out at a gym in a nearby CIA building and went home by 11 a.m.
By then Groat was at the end of his rope. “I was under more and more pressure” to quit, he says. “I was being pushed out and I was looking at losing my retirement.” He called the inspector general, “and he told me to find another job because I wasn’t going to get my job [at the Shop] back.”
The way Groat saw it, he had risked his life for nearly a decade to perform some of his country’s most demanding, valuable and risky work. He was the best at what he did, and yet that didn’t seem to matter; some bureaucrats had forced him out of the Shop for speaking out.
So he decided to run his own operation. Against the CIA.
In September 1992, Groat sent three anonymous letters to the ambassador of an Asian country revealing an operation he had participated in about a year and a half earlier to bug computers in an embassy the country maintained in Scandinavia. “It was a last-ditch effort to get the agency to pay attention,” Groat says. Clearly, he knew he was taking a terrible risk. At least one letter was intercepted and turned over to the CIA. But one or more may have gotten through, because the bugs suddenly went silent.
By early 1993, CIA counterintelligence officers had launched an investigation to find out who wrote the letters. The FBI was brought in, and its agents combed through the library at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, dusting for prints on a list of foreign embassies in case the letters’ author had found the address there. The FBI “came to my house two or three times,” Groat says. Its agents showed him a form stating that his thumbprints, and the prints of two other people, were identified on the page listing the foreign missions. Of course, that didn’t prove who had written the letters.<
Groat was called into CIA headquarters and questioned. “I knew they didn’t have anything,” he says. “Since I thought I was still in a negotiation with the Office of General Counsel to resolve this whole thing I wasn’t going to say anything. I wanted them to believe I had done it but not know that I had done it. I wanted to let that play out.” When he refused to take a polygraph, he was put on administrative leave.
By the summer of 1994 his marriage was disintegrating, and that October Groat left home. He later bought a Winnebago and began wandering the country with a girlfriend. Meanwhile, he began negotiating a retirement package with the CIA and hired an attorney, Mark Bradley, a former Pakistan analyst for the agency.
In a letter to James W. Zirkle, the CIA’s associate general counsel, Bradley noted that Groat “gave the CIA 14 years of his life….His numerous awards and citations demonstrate how well he performed his assignments, many of which were extremely dangerous. He gave his heart and soul to the Agency and feels that it has let him down.” Groat wanted $500,000 to compensate him, Bradley added, “for the loss of his career.”
In reply, Zirkle wrote that before the agency would consider “the very substantial settlement” being sought, Groat would have “to accurately identify the person…responsible for the compromise of the operation” under investigation. “If he can provide us with clear and convincing corroborating evidence confirming the information that he would provide, we would be prepared to consider not using the polygraph.” But the exchange of letters led nowhere. In September 1996 Groat was divorced, and a month later he was dismissed from the CIA, with no severance and no pension.
Seeking new leverage with the agency, Groat made another risky move: In January 1997 he telephoned Zirkle and said that without a settlement, he would have to earn a living as a security consultant to foreign governments, advising them on how to protect their codes.
Groat’s telephone call detonated like a bombshell at CIA headquarters. Senior officials had long debated what to do about him. Some favored negotiating a money settlement and keeping him quiet; others wanted to take a hard line. Groat’s call intensified the agency’s dilemma, but it seemed to have worked: Zirkle urged patience; a settlement was imminent. “We are working very hard to come to a timely and satisfactory resolution,” the lawyer wrote in a subsequent letter.
That March, Zirkle sent Groat a written offer of $50,000 a year as a contract employee until 2003, when he would be eligible to retire with a full pension. The contract amounted to $300,000—$200,000 less than what Groat had sought. Again, Zirkle reminded him, he would have to cooperate with the counterintelligence investigation. He would be required to take a polygraph, and he would have to agree not to contact any foreign government. Bradley urged his client to take the money and run, but Groat believed the agency’s offer was too low.
Later that month, he visited 15 foreign consulates in San Francisco to drop off a letter in which he identified himself as a former CIA officer whose job was “to gain access to…crypto systems of select foreign countries.” The letter offered his expertise to train security officers on ways to protect “your most sensitive information” but did not disclose any information about how the CIA stole codes. The letter included a telephone number and a mailbox in Sacramento where he could be contacted.
Groat says he had no takers—and claims he didn’t really want any. “I never intended to consult for a foreign country,” he says. “It was a negotiating ploy….Yes, I realized it was taking a risk. I did unconventional work in my career, and this was unconventional.” He did not act secretly, Groat notes; he wanted the agency and the FBI to know. He told the CIA what he planned to do, and he gave the FBI a copy of his letter after he had visited the consulates. The FBI opened another investigation of Groat.
Molly Flynn, the FBI agent assigned to the case, introduced herself to Groat and stayed in touch with him after he moved to Atlanta for training as an inspector for a gas pipeline company. In late March, Groat called Flynn to say he was heading for Pennsylvania to start on his first inspection job.
Flynn invited him to stop off in Washington for a meeting she would arrange with representatives of the CIA, the FBI and the Justice Department to try to resolve the situation. Still hoping to reach a settlement, Groat says, “I accepted eagerly.”
On April 2, 1998, he walked into an FBI building in downtown Washington. Flynn greeted him in the lobby. Had the others arrived yet? he asked as she led him to a first-floor conference room. She said they had not. As the door clicked shut behind him, she delivered unexpected news. “I told him we had resolved the matter, but not to his liking,” Flynn recalls. A man in a white shirt and tie—a Justice Department official, Groat later concluded—told him: “We decided not to negotiate with you. We indicted you instead.” Then the man turned and left.
Groat was arrested and held in the room for five hours. Flynn and two other agents remained with him, he says. His car keys were taken away. “One of the FBI agents said, ‘It probably wouldn’t do much good to ask you questions, would it?’ And I said, ‘No, it wouldn’t.’” After being strip-searched, fingerprinted and handcuffed, he says, he was driven to the Federal District Court building and locked in a cell. Held there for two days, he was strip-searched again in front of eight people, including a female officer, shackled and outfitted with a stun belt. “My eyes were covered with a pair of goggles, the lenses masked over with duct tape,” he says. He was moved by van, with a police escort, to a waiting helicopter.
After a short ride, he was taken to a windowless room that would be his home for the next six months. He was never told where he was, but he was told he was being treated as an “extreme risk” prisoner. The lights in his cell were kept on 24/7, and a ceiling-mounted camera monitored him all the time.<
Robert Tucker, a federal public defender in Washington, was assigned to Groat’s case. When Tucker wanted to visit his client, he was picked up in a van with blacked-out windows and taken to him. Tucker, too, never learned where Groat was being held.
A few days before Groat’s arrest, a federal grand jury in Washington had handed down a sealed indictment accusing him of transmitting, or trying to transmit, information on “the targeting and compromise of cryptographic systems” of unnamed foreign countries—a reference to his distributing his letter to the consulates. The formal charge was espionage, which carries a possible penalty of death. He was also charged with extortion, another reference to his approach to the consulates; the indictment accused him of attempting to reveal “activities and methods to foreign governments” unless the CIA “paid the defendant for his silence in excess of five hundred thousand dollars ($500,000).”
As a trial date approached, prosecutors offered Groat a plea agreement. Although they were not pressing for the death penalty, Groat faced the prospect of life in prison if a jury convicted him of espionage. Reluctantly, he agreed to plead guilty to extortion if the government would drop the spying charges. “I had no choice,” he says. “I was threatened with 40 years to life if I didn’t take the deal.” Groat also agreed to testify fully in the CIA and FBI counterintelligence investigations, and he subsequently confessed that he sent the letters about the bugged computers.
On September 25, 1998, Groat stood before Judge Thomas F. Hogan of the Federal District Court in Washington and entered his guilty plea. He was sentenced to five years.
The question of where Groat would serve his time was complicated by what a federal Bureau of Prisons official referred to as his “special abilities.” While still in solitary, he wrote to a friend: “The marshals are treating me like I’m a cross between MacGyver, Houdini and Rambo.” But in the end, he was sent to the minimum-security wing of the federal prison camp in Cumberland, Maryland. “My skills, after all, were not for escaping,” Groat notes. “They were for entering places.”
There Groat was assigned to a case manager, who introduced herself as Aleta. Given her new client’s reputation, she put him in solitary the first night. But officials gradually noticed she and Groat spent a lot of time talking to each other. As a result, he was transferred to the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, after two years, but the two corresponded often.
In March 2002, Groat was released a month short of four years, his sentence reduced for good behavior. Aleta was waiting for him at the prison gate, and they were married that December. Today, Doug and Aleta Groat live on 80 acres in the South. He prefers not to disclose his location any more specifically than that. He has not told his neighbors or friends about his previous life as a spy; he works the land and tries to forget the past.
When he looks back, Groat tries to focus on the good parts. “I loved the work at CIA. I’d come back from an op and couldn’t wait for what happens next,” he says. “I thought the work was good for the country. I was saddened by the way I was treated by the agency, because I tried to do my job.”
The CIA was unwilling to talk about Douglas Groat or anything connected with his case. Asked whether it has a team that goes around the globe breaking into foreign embassies and stealing codes, a spokesperson provided a five-word statement: “The CIA declined to comment.”
By David Wise
Smithsonian magazine, October 2012, Subscribe