Lipka was wary of FBI's spy trap Investigator's errors may be reason it took 2 years to make arrest

February 25, 1996|By Scott Shane and Sandy Banisky | Scott Shane and Sandy Banisky,SUN STAFF

The tale of the FBI's trap for suspected spy Robert S. Lipka, laid out in a 20-page affidavit, reads at times like a passage from a John LeCarre spy novel -- with moments from the old television slapstick show "Get Smart."

The FBI played a cat-and-mouse game with Mr. Lipka in clandestine meetings in Pennsylvania and Baltimore in 1993, as an investigator posing as a Russian military intelligence agent sought to provoke Mr. Lipka into incriminating himself.

The FBI agent improvised his role as Russian spy, persuasively faking answers to some questions but flubbing a few key lines. He didn't even know the name of his ostensible boss, the Russian defense minister. Such slips made Mr. Lipka wary of a trap, a fact that may help explain why the former National Security Agency clerk would not be arrested for more than two more years.

Mr. Lipka, 50, of Millersville, Pa., was arrested Friday and charged with selling top secret NSA documents to the Soviet KGB from 1964 to 1974. The reports Mr. Lipka handled in his lowly but sensitive job in three years as an Army enlisted man at NSA could have betrayed crucial intelligence information, including which Soviet codes NSA had broken and which East Bloc communications lines were targeted by NSA eavesdroppers.

Mr. Lipka was clearly intrigued by the man who claimed to be "Sergei Nikitin" from the Soviet Embassy. The promise of thousands of dollars in payments certainly didn't hurt.

But Mr. Lipka was suspicious. To foil listening devices, he wrote messages on paper and once turned the volume up on a television, the affidavit says. And when "Nikitin" did not know details of Mr. Lipka's alleged earlier contacts with the KGB -- such as the first month of contact and the chess games he played with his Soviet handler -- Mr. Lipka grew uneasy.

"You, you're making me nervous because you're not, you're not doing things right," he challenged "Nikitin" during a meeting.

A key moment came on May 13, 1993, when the unnamed FBI agent sparred with Mr. Lipka in the parking lot of the Comfort Inn in Lancaster, Pa. Sitting together in Mr. Lipka's "bluish green Chevrolet van," the two men sparred gingerly and inconclusively, the affidavit shows.

Mr. Lipka sought to test the bona fides of the ostensible Soviet agent by scribbling three Russian names on a scrap of paper and telling him to circle the correct one. One of the names on the list was that of Pavel Grachev, then and now the Russian defense minister. Since the FBI agent was pretending to work for the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency, Mr. Grachev would be his boss.

Yet the FBI man, apparently unaware of who Pavel Grachev was, put Mr. Lipka off, saying vaguely that he knew "a lot of names." It was a blunder comparable to a U.S. Army intelligence agent not recognizing the name of Defense Secretary William Perry.

Moments later, the FBI agent scored a coup that appeared to come close to reeling in his prey. He asked Mr. Lipka if the word "rook" -- which the FBI surmised might have been the American's code name with Soviet intelligence -- meant anything to him.

"Lipka's reaction, captured on videotape by a surveillance camera, was one of relief," the FBI affidavit says. "He relaxed visibly and responded, 'Yes,' shook Nikitin's hand, then exhaled deeply as he placed his hand over his heart. The code word given and accepted, Lipka joined Nikitin in his hotel room."

The two men met several more times, including once in Baltimore in July 1993, when Mr. Lipka allegedly promised to deliver NSA documents he had buried for safekeeping. The FBI man paid him a total of $10,000 in response to Mr. Lipka's complaints that the KGB had shorted his pay for documents delivered in the 1960s and '70s.

Yet even at their last meeting, on Dec. 8, 1993, Mr. Lipka remained disturbed by the failure seven months earlier of "Nikitin" to recognize the name of the Russian defense minister. The FBI man apologized, claiming he had mistakenly believed the three scribbled names were Mr. Lipka's Russian contacts from the 1960s.

Though the affidavit suggests that Mr. Lipka was videotaped acknowledging that he had knowingly sold NSA documents to the KGB, the investigation continued for two more years without an arrest. Officials declined Friday to explain the apparent delay, preferring to emphasize the positive.

"This is not an embarrassment but a success story," U.S. Attorney Michael Stiles said at a Philadelphia news conference.

CIA officials came under intense fire for their failure aggressively to pursue suspicions that Soviet spy Aldrich Ames might be working for the KGB. But as a working CIA agent, Mr. Ames continued to betray U.S. secrets for years after he was first investigated. Mr. Lipka, by contrast, had access to secrets only during his work at NSA from 1964 to 1967.

There is no statute of limitations on espionage, and Americans occasionally have been prosecuted for spying many years after their crimes. For example, Joseph G. Helmich Jr., an Army warrant officer who sold details of NSA's code machines to the KGB from 1963 to 1966, sentenced to life in prison only in 1981.

An ironic moment in the affidavit comes when the FBI agent, seeking to "encourage further discussion," hints that American authorities may have reasons to investigate Mr. Lipka.

"Mr. Lipka quickly replied that 'the statute of limitations has run out,' " the affidavit recounts. "Nikitin" correctly responds that "in American law the statute of limitations on espionage never runs out."

Maybe the law has changed, Mr. Lipka ponders aloud, adding that in any case, he "would never admit to anything."

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