There are obituaries that make a guy sorry that the subject of the obit died. There are obituaries that make a guy humbly grateful that the decedent ever lived. And then, there’s John Walker’s obituary. It just makes a guy sad it took so goddamn long.
RALEIGH, N.C. — A former American sailor convicted during the Cold War of leading a family spy ring for the Soviet Union has died in a prison hospital in North Carolina, officials said Friday.
Retired Navy Warrant Officer John A. Walker Jr. died Thursday at the Federal Medical Center in Butner, Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman Chris Burke said. The cause of death was not immediately released. He was 77.
Walker was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty in 1985 to passing secrets to the Soviets while he was a shipboard communications officer.
The security breach was then considered among the largest and most devastating leaks of military secrets in the nation’s history.
A cryptologist, Walker used his high-level security clearance to provide Navy codes, ship locations, and other sensitive data in exchange for cash. After his 1976 retirement, Walker recruited his son, his brother and a friend to keep providing the Soviets fresh information. All were convicted.
Walker provided more than just “codes.” He provided technical manuals on encryption systems, which allowed Soviet cryptographers to reverse-engineer the systems. Of course, the systems were of limited utility without the keys. The keys are the instructions for setting the configurable features of a coding device or a cryptological add-on for a communications system, and they are changed at intervals to confound hostile cryptologists. Without the keys, even having cloned or captured KW-7 hardware was useless to the Soviets.
So Walker provided the keys.
One of the systems he gave to the Russians was Orestes, a keystream cipher that used the KW-7, an encryption device used on teletype links (among other applications). The KW-7 was used to encrypt the SOG data links between SOG HQ in With Walker’s help, Russian SIGINT personnel were able to read the daily cables describing upcoming SOG RT and Hatchet Force operations in Laos and Cambodia. The Russians then “sanitized” the information (stripping it of details that would expose their sources and methods) and provided it to their allies, the People’s Army of Viet Nam or, in our terms, the NVA.
Dozens of men were slain, and a few captured, because John A. Walker wanted more money than he was worth. Entire teams were landed into the arms of waiting, tipped-off NVA. The Russians had received KW-7 data from other traitors (at least one of whom preceded Walker and has never been exposed) and later got a crypto windfall, including two functional KW-7 machines, and the then-current keys, from USS Pueblo. According to former KGB officer Oleg Kalugin, the Pueblo captures were key; according to former KGB officer Boris Solomatin, the Walker info alone was of critical importance and allowed the 8th Chief Directorate to reverse-engineer the device (both interviews paraphrased and linked here).
The fate of the Pueblo crypto was very controversial. In 2001, the late Lloyd Bucher, commander of the ship, insisted that the Norks got nothing of value (.pdf) because the KW-7 was in wide enough use as to guarantee that it was compromised. Bucher thought the treason of Walker was much more serious than the loss of his ship. On the other hand, a Top Secret codeword NSA/CSS damage assessment (.pdf), since declassified, indicated that the ship’s cryptologic technicians (the Navy rating that handles cryptography and intercept efforts) were effectively interrogated by Nork specialists, and “ineffective… destruction… resulted in the compromise of the cryptographic principles embodied in the KL-47, KW-7, KWR-37, and KG-14.”
The NSA/CSS analysts, of course, couldn’t know that Walker had provided an ongoing supply of crypto keys.
It took three years after Walker’s arrest for the US to begin replacing the compromised KW-7s. Meanwhile, the 8th Chief Directorate was hanging on the teletype links’ every word.