THE SPY WHO COULDN’T SPELL: A DYSLEXIC TRAITOR, AN UNBREAKABLE CODE, AND THE FBI‘S HUNT FOR AMERICA’S STOLEN SECRETS
By Yudhijit Bhattacharjee
New American Library, $27, 292 pages
Most of us went to school with someone like Brian Patrick Regan. Tall, pudgy and clumsy, these ones we called nerds or dummies were embarrassingly slow in class, awkward in social situations and if we did not physically bully them (although some of us did) we did as much damage by laughing at them. Mostly we never thought about them at all, which was just as cruel.
In this thoroughly reported, cleanly written investigative tale, Regan’s story is more than a truly harrowing account of an American traitor-spy who plotted to sell what at that time was the largest single trove of our most secret intelligence collections along with the secret sources and methods by which our senior security services operate. It also is a cautionary warning about how many holes in our security wall exist when it comes to recruiting and training the people who actually do the daily routines of guarding our national safety.
In any democracy there is a necessary tension between the government’s duty to guard us using clandestine tactics and the need for public oversight of those same guardians. There are library shelves filled with books that try to define the best way to prevent our enemies from penetrating our security services but few are brave enough to prescribe how we protect ourselves from the traitors in our midst — guardians who turn into moles.
One comes away from seeing how close a homegrown spy came with the disturbing conclusion that perhaps Brian Patrick Regan — and his more successful successors Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning — are inevitable consequences of having so much power concentrated so secretly.
No Hollywood script writer would dare mix in the outrageous coincidences, bureaucratic carelessness, and judicial conflicts with such a bizarre central character. One reason the Regan story is just now being told while Snowden and Manning’s treasons are commonplace news must be blamed on the fact that his last minute arrest occurred exactly one month before the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Prior to 9/11 government spy arrests were by custom given low key media attention and were often overshadowed by courtroom plea bargains and confessions that rarely merited more than a few headlines.
One of the jolting insights in the story is the stark fact that if the FBI had not had its own mole inside the embassy of Libya’s dictator Moammar Gadhafi the meticulous scheme planned by this dyslexic social misfit might have succeeded. If it had, the Libyans, and later the Chinese and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq regime would have possessed thousands of documents, training manuals, satellite images and other secrets from our National Reconnaissance Organization spy-space agency as well as other intelligence from other agencies and the U.S. Air Force.
Coincidence and subterfuge mix as we tack Regan from his working class background in the Long Island suburbs where his teachers failed to diagnose his dyslexia. With college an impossibility because of low grades, he cheated his way through the required aptitude tests to enlist in the Air Force and to be sent for intelligence training. There his dyslexia, which makes it difficult to process words nevertheless gave him an aptitude to think in broader pictures. This gave him a unique talent for spotting signal patterns which is essential for decrypting coded traffic.
Life was good at last for the sullen, resentful Regan. During a series of overseas postings he had met and married a Swedish girl, risen in rank to master sergeant and finally settled down near Washington, DC. But by 1995 he was forced into retirement rather than be moved overseas again, this time landing at an analyst’s desk at the super-secret NRO. There his clumsy slowness and general sour attitude earned him the derision and disrespect he had endured in school. Promotions were unlikely and the family’s finances became straitened.
It was so easy, as FBI investigators were astounded to learn. Using his ability to access the secure computers of not only the Air Force and NRO, but other agencies as well, he was able to download raw documents, space satellite photos and discs of raw data. What he could not safely access on the job he downloaded from visits to public library terminals in the Maryland suburbs. He began to bury caches of his trove in various state and national parks where they would be free from commercial interference.
It was a clumsy and misspelled letter offering to turn over selections from this trove for a longer term relationship with the Libyans that was intercepted from within and mailed anonymously to the FBI. Realizing there was a mole inside the NRO was one thing but identifying the individual is what makes this book a real spellbinder. That Regan continued to try to bargain with his captors as he faced a death penalty prosecution makes for chilling reading.
James Srodes’ latest book is “Spies in Palestine, Love Betrayal and the Heroic Life of Sarah Aaronsohn” (Counterpoint).
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