This week, John Walker, Jr., the man who orchestrated what was likely the longest and certainly damaging sale of classified U.S. Navy codes to the Soviet Union, died at the age of 77, just months before he was sent for release.
Walker also became the star witness against his best friend in a San Francisco federal courtroom in 1986 as he testified about selling code secrets to the Soviets and using his friend Jerry Whitworth to supply the codes.
Walker died in North Carolina’s Butner federal prison hospital after a long battle with throat cancer.
Nearly 28 years ago, he was appeared as a witness against Whitworth in a trial that drew worldwide attention to the federal court. Walker was a Navy officer trained as a custodian of communication security materials.
In the midst of the cold war, Walker began selling the Soviets the U.S. Navy communication and encryption codes, essentially single sheets of code that were used once to configure Navy communications gear for transmissions over fleet broadcast systems. He began in 1967. It was argued that his sharing of information led to the North Korean seizure of the U.S. Navy intelligence collection ship the USS Pueblo, in a move pushed by the Soviets so they could gain access to the crypto hardware used with the encryption code cards.
The combination of the cards and the hardware allowed the Soviets to record encrypted radio broadcasts from the U.S. fleet.
Walker eventually retired from the Navy but not before he recruited his friend Jerry Whitworth, a Navy radioman, to continue stealing crypto cards for him. Walker’s former wife reported his spying to the FBI in revenge for his failure to pay alimony, a report the FBI initially ignored. Later Whitworth was eventually uncovered and the spy ring involving Whitworth, Walker, Walker’s brother and son unraveled.
This is where the San Francisco trial takes center stage. Walker made a deal with the government to testify against Whitworth in exchange for a reduced sentence for his son, who received 25 years in prison for his role in the case.
For weeks, the courtroom of the late U.S. District Judge John Vukasin was packed with reporters and the public to hear detailed testimony of spy craft and the sale of secrets to the Soviet Union that lasted nearly two decades.
Walker was ultimately convicted and sentenced to 365 years in prison, far longer than the man who recruited him.