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John Walker Jr., Cold War Spy For Soviets, Dies At 77

John A. Walker Jr., a former U.S. Navy officer convicted in the 1980s of running a spy network that for years passed classified communications to the Soviet Union, has died in federal prison at age 77.

Reuters writes:

"Walker began his Cold War-era espionage scheme while working as a Navy warrant officer and communications specialist. He provided secrets to the Soviets for more than 17 years and compromised at least 1 million classified messages, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"Authorities said he also masterminded a family of spies, recruiting his brother Arthur, his son [Seaman] Michael [Walker] and [Petty Officer Jerry Whitworth] — all of whom had security clearances — to help him gain access to top-secret information after he retired from the Navy."

In 1967, at the height of the Cold War, Walker approached the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C., offering to hand over keys to coded material on a regular basis. The Soviets used the keys to decipher secret U.S. Navy communications.

At the time of his arrest in 1985, then-Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger said Walker's efforts had allowed the Soviets "access to weapons and sensor data and naval tactics, terrorist threats, and surface, submarine, and airborne training, readiness tactics."

Some naval historians believe that in 1968, Soviet intelligence arranged for the North Koreans to seize the USS Pueblo specifically to obtain navy cipher machines needed to make use of the windfall from Walker's spying.

Estimates of what the Soviets paid Walker for his information have ranged from several hundred thousand dollars to about $1 million.

The Los Angeles Times says the spying ring was uncovered "after [Walker's] ex-wife, Barbara Crowley Walker, alerted the FBI in the midst of a custody battle between her daughter, Laura Walker Snyder, and her son-in-law, Mark Snyder."

The Times says: "John Walker Jr. later agreed to a plea deal, cooperating with federal authorities and testifying against Whitworth in exchange for securing a lighter, 25-year sentence for his son, Michael."

His son served 15 years and was released in 2000; his brother Arthur was incarcerated at the same prison as John Walker in Butner, N.C., and died there in July at age 79. Whitworth, now 75, remains at the Federal Penitentiary in Atwater, Calif.

John Walker was sentenced in 1986 to life in prison, but under sentencing laws at that time would have been due for release in May, federal prisons spokesman Chris Burke was quoted by Reuters as saying.

He died on Thursday, but no immediate cause was given. Walker reportedly suffered from throat cancer.

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.