Episode 102



In 1992, the Cold War is all but over. But for FBI Special Agent John Whiteside, the counterespionage case of a lifetime is about to begin. An anonymous source reports a traitor within the NSA, active during the height of the Vietnam War. He thinks he's gotten away with it - but the crimes of the past call for modern justice. Could you turn up the heat on a cold case?
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True Spies, Episode 101: Pure Green Greed

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?

JOHN WHITESIDE: There are 53,000 names on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. How many of those names might be attributed to the information that Lipka passed? 

NARRATOR: This is True Spies

JOHN WHITESIDE: We were in the middle of a nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union. I was still in high school doing duck-and-cover drills, hiding under my desk, practicing for the air raid that never came.

NARRATOR: When a man takes it upon himself to walk into a foreign embassy and sell his country’s secrets, just what precisely is at stake?

JOHN WHITESIDE: At the time, the world was a mess. In 1962, there was the Cuban missile crisis between the Soviets in the United States. The nuclear threat was everywhere. The Vietnam War was just beginning.

NARRATOR: How much damage might one rogue agent dole out during a time of international crisis, if the inclination so takes him?

JOHN WHITESIDE: He had access to every single classified document. He had access to the information given to the president, not only daily, but weekly - all the briefs given to the president of the United States. He could have passed everything. We had no idea the threat that was there. 

NARRATOR: And harder to answer still: What is it that drives him to that foreign embassy in the first place?

JOHN WHITESIDE: I think Lipka always thought he was so much smarter than everyone else. He had an IQ of 131. He thought he was better. He thought he could pull it off. He thought he could do anything. 

NARRATOR: This is the story of a man untroubled by usual notions of responsibility, duty, and pride. It’s the story of a man who walks into the Soviet Embassy one day, at the height of the Cold War, and spends the next 30 years believing himself to be untouchable. And it’s the story of the spycatcher who would be tasked with finally bringing him down.

JOHN WHITESIDE: My name is John Whiteside. I've been a special agent for the FBI from 1971 until my retirement in 2001 for a 30-year period.

NARRATOR: John Whiteside's entry to the FBI dates back to one of the most turbulent periods in US history. He was a special agent born of tensions between the East and the West. And so, it’s fitting that he found a specialty in counterintelligence, first in New York, then in Washington D.C. But this story begins after all that. The Cold War was already stuttering to a stop and Whiteside was seeing out the final act of his career in a rural office outside Philadelphia.

JOHN WHITESIDE: Lo and behold, in 1992, I was sitting at my office in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. I received a phone call from my supervisor in Philadelphia who provided me with an espionage case that was something to remember for the rest of my career.

NARRATOR: Of course, he couldn’t have known that at the time. All he knew was that the matter was so sensitive it couldn’t be discussed over the phone. 

JOHN WHITESIDE: I traveled into the city and met with two agents from headquarters and several agents from the Philadelphia office, including my supervisor. At that time, I was told that a very sensitive source had provided information about an individual living in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

NARRATOR: Lancaster County was in Whiteside’s jurisdiction. That meant that he’d be responsible for running any investigation there. He eagerly listened for more details of his mark.

JOHN WHITESIDE: His name was Robert Steven Lipka. The source told us that he was assigned to the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland by the US Army in 1963. From 1965 to 1967, it was alleged that this individual, Robert Lipka had passed over 200 top-secret documents to the KGB using a series of 50 dead drop sites. He was paid $27,000 during that period of time for his efforts.

NARRATOR: Two hundred top-secret documents directly into the hands of the KGB at the peak of the Cold War. If this source was right…  Whiteside could scarcely even wrap his head around the implications for National Security. But there wasn’t much information to go on.

JOHN WHITESIDE: The source also told us that he left NSA in 1967 to return to college in Millersville, Pennsylvania, which is just outside of Lancaster. The source also mentioned that Lipka had a wife, Patricia, who worked as a nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. That was the extent of his information. 

NARRATOR: Before Whiteside could get too carried away with theories about Robert Lipka and the damage that he might have done, there was basic legwork to do. After all, this information was coming from an unconfirmed and highly guarded source - and it pertained to activity that had taken place decades ago. He left the meeting in Philadelphia with a clear plan.

JOHN WHITESIDE: The first thing I did to verify - at least if this person existed - was to go out to Lancaster County and go through the library. I looked through city directories and right away was able to confirm that there was a Robert Lipka, who was from the US Army living in Lancaster County.

NARRATOR: So that’s one point to the unconfirmed source.

JOHN WHITESIDE: I went through the next series of books and saw that his wife, Patricia, was also listed as a nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital. So I knew I had the man that the source was talking about

NARRATOR: Better make that two points.

JOHN WHITESIDE: I also noted that by 1981, he had moved to a new residence and apparently had a new wife. So following a hunch, I went to the County Courthouse and did a check of divorce records. I was met with great success and great luck that day because in 1974 Patricia Lipka filed for divorce from her husband.

NARRATOR: At the County Courthouse, Whiteside began to color in the sparse portrait that the source had painted of Lipka and his wife, Patricia.

JOHN WHITESIDE: Not only did she file for divorce, but it was an angry divorce. Her reasons are that she was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused by her husband. That told me that if Lipka did, in fact, pass information to the Soviets, I might have a very angry wife to give us some information about what he had done in the past.

NARRATOR: He filed the information away knowing it could prove valuable later. But just because Lipka was an abusive husband, that didn’t necessarily make him a spy. There was more work to be done.

JOHN WHITESIDE: We had a meeting with the National Security Agency and I had to deliver the bad news that we believed they had a penetration. NSA immediately pulled the files to see if, in fact, he had been working there. And, sure enough, everything the source told us about his employment at NSA was there. Lipka had worked in the collection unit. His job was strictly to clear teleprinters of top-secret signals information. Lipka had access to every single NSA document that came into and went out of that building.

NARRATOR: The writing was on the wall. Every detail of the source’s information appeared to be correct. The extent of what Lipka may have done dawned on those present.

JOHN WHITESIDE: The NSA people paled when they found out that he was passing the information. At the time, the world was a mess. Communism was spreading and here's this individual passing information suspected of involving troop movements in Vietnam. 

NARRATOR: If Lipka had delivered his country’s most closely guarded secrets directly to the hands of the opposition during the Vietnam war, then there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he had the blood of US soldiers on his hands. And just because Lipka had left the NSA in 1967, that didn’t necessarily mean he was out of commission even now.

JOHN WHITESIDE: I had worked on a case involving Clyde Lee Conrad, who was an American spy in the US Army in Germany. Conrad, when he lost his access, built up a whole spy ring around him, as did John Walker, in the US Navy. Just because they get out of the business doesn't mean they can't continue spying and providing information through other sources. That could have been true for Lipka, so we had no idea what we were looking at.

NARRATOR: Whiteside left his meeting with the NSA rattled. All signs pointed toward a devastating breach into US intelligence - but it’s one thing to know something, and another to prove it. They still had nothing in the way of material evidence. 

JOHN WHITESIDE: The first thing we did after we left NSA was to initiate surveillance on Robert Lipka at his residence to see where he worked, to see where he banked, to see if he went to church, to see what kind of person we were going to be dealing with. I thought it might be helpful if we could get a wiretap on Lipka’s house. We also thought about, perhaps, breaking into the house, a surreptitious entry to see if there was any classified material in this house.

NARRATOR: Ah, the old black bag job - straight out of the FBI playbook. But Whiteside was about to encounter his first roadblock.

JOHN WHITESIDE: A lot of American citizens believe that wiretaps are easy to get and the FBI listens to everybody. The truth is, it's the most difficult thing in the world. You have to prove it's the only thing possible to do. And in Lipka’s case, there was no evidence that he had continued espionage past 1967. So the FBI legal division denied my request, not only for surreptitious entry into his house but also for a wiretap.

NARRATOR: Back to the drawing board then. Whiteside would have to go off the details that his surveillance team could glean from tracking his movements.

JOHN WHITESIDE: He was quite heavy. He had gained several hundred pounds since his photograph in 1967. He was married and had two boys, approximately eight and 10 years old. At the time, he was never seen working. His wife worked at the post office in Lancaster. The boys would go to school. After the house was empty, Lipka would generally go to a local coffee shop where he would buy a racing form for horse racing, get a cup of coffee, and spend a lot of time at the racetrack either at Penn National Race Track in Harrisburg or Delaware Park in Delaware. 

NARRATOR: Naturally, questions of how Lipka was funding his life of leisure played on Whiteside’s mind.

JOHN WHITESIDE: We also got subpoena records for his bank accounts. And strangely enough, we saw a deposit for $300,000. That was very alarming to us because it was fairly recent. And we had no idea whether this was money from the KGB or from some other source.

NARRATOR: At the same time that surveillance teams were tracking Lipka’s current movements and dealings, another team at the FBI was busily looking for clues in the past. And they’d found some.

JOHN WHITESIDE: The FBI headquarters analytical unit in the intelligence division discovered that two KGB illegals had been dispatched to the Philadelphia area in 1966.

NARRATOR: So two illegals - or in other words, spies - had been sent to Philadelphia right after Lipka’s suspected involvement with the KGB had come to an end. Perhaps there was a connection?

JOHN WHITESIDE: They sent me two boxes of Xerox files on Peter and Ingeborg Fischer. It was very time-consuming to read through documents that were carbon copies from 10-ply paper, very smeared and all.

NARRATOR: The files on the Fischers made for interesting reading. The couple had been surveilled by the FBI for the duration of their stay in the country and particulars of their comings and goings were meticulously detailed.

JOHN WHITESIDE: One of the things I found in the file was a list of 25 different targets that this couple had kept in the apartment, which were found during an entry that the FBI made sometime while they were away from the apartment. These 25 sites - microwave sites, communication sites, fuel depots, and other sites that would be valuable if we went to war with the Soviet Union - would be sabotage targets for the KGB. However, there was one site listed that was the most curious. There were street coordinates in Lancaster County, and there was a word written in parentheses: R O E C K. 

NARRATOR: A most puzzling riddle. Street coordinates pointing to the rural area where Lipka lived and a single word.

JOHN WHITESIDE: I was very curious about this word, R O E C K, as it was the only item in this list of 25 that didn't seem to be a sabotage target. I asked a German speaker that I know, as these illegals were pretending to be German immigrants, if it was German. And I was told it was not. I asked a Russian speaker if it was a Russian word and it was not. 

NARRATOR: With no further explanation, Whiteside had to park his curiosity. He left the Fischers and their files to one side and sized up his next move.

JOHN WHITESIDE: We had completed the investigation about as far as we knew we could, we had all we thought we could find about Lipka and we had to decide what's the next step. Do we begin to talk to his ex-wife? His former colleagues at NSA? Or should we talk to Lipka directly using a false flag approach?

NARRATOR: Are you paying attention? You’re about to learn the intricacies of weeding out a suspected spy in your midst. A false flag approach would mean pretending to represent another nation.

JOHN WHITESIDE: In this case, the way we use a false flag is, we would take an FBI agent posing as a Soviet intelligence officer to meet with Lipka, hopefully, to get Lipka to confide in him and talk about his past crimes.

NARRATOR: It was decided that the false flag should come before any interviews with known associates. Whiteside didn’t want to tip his hand and risk someone giving Lipka a heads up. All he had to do now was find an agent willing to go head-to-head with Lipka.

JOHN WHITESIDE: We chose an agent by the name of Dimitry Droujinsky to be our false flag operator. Special agent Droujinsky had a number of experiences doing false flags and a number of successes. He was actually born to Russian parents in Israel. He spoke Russian. He could use a Russian accent. We told Dimitry that his main job was to try to get Lipka to talk about his past activity at the NSA - what he passed, how he passed it, who his handlers were, all the details of his espionage.

NARRATOR: But Whiteside was realistic about his mark. Lipka was highly intelligent and would have been trained by his handler at the KGB for precisely this kind of scenario. He was unlikely to offer up the secrets of his espionage to just anyone. So he came up with a plan that might give the undercover agent some wiggle room.

JOHN WHITESIDE: Rather than have Dimitry pose as a KGB officer, we decided to have him pose as an officer from the GRU, which was the Soviet military intelligence service. And the reason was, the Soviet Union had just collapsed in 1989 and the KGB was broken up and renamed the SVR. But the GRU has stayed the same throughout the breakup of the Soviet Union. So we thought if we posed as a GRU officer, told Lipka we had access to his KGB file and that we would like his help since he was such a successful agent, he might feel more at ease. And it would also give us the opportunity, when we would make mistakes, to at least say: “Well, I'm GRU. That's why I'm here asking you. We don't have all of your file information.”

NARRATOR: With the cover story in place, Whiteside was ready to make his opening gambit in the battle against Lipka.

JOHN WHITESIDE: We initiated the false flag operation on May 12th, 1993, about nine months after we started the Lipka investigation. The one concern was how we would make contact with Lipka? And we decided the best way would be to wait until his wife was out of the house. Wait until his sons are at school, and make a phone call. 

NARRATOR: Of course, there was the very real possibility that Lipka wouldn’t take the bait. He might claim to have no idea what this Russian stranger was talking about and refuse a meeting. But it was worth a shot.

TAPE: (Lipka phone call) - Lipka: Hello? ... Dmitri: Mr. Robert Lipka? Hello, my name is Sergei Nikitin. I’m from the Russian Embassy in Washington D.C. and my superiors in Moscow have instructed me to meet with you and discuss with you something very important about your security, you understand?

JOHN WHITESIDE: Lipka initially said he had no idea what Dimitrywas talking about. And as Dmitri went on and told him that it was about something that happened some time ago. Lipka finally said, ‘you don't have to tell me anymore.’ 

NARRATOR: Something clicked into place for the old spy. His curiosity was piqued. The undercover agent asked if they could meet at a local hotel, The Comfort Inn, to talk the matter through.

TAPE: (Lipka phone call): Lipka: I can be there in about 15 minutes. I’m driving a blue van. I’ll pull into the parking lot and I’ll wait for you. Just come up to my van.

JOHN WHITESIDE: We'd hoped Lipka would come upstairs - we had rented a room - and sit down and talk to Dimitry about what he had done for the KGB. That wouldn't be the case. Lipka was much too cautious and much too clever to fall for that initial trap.

NARRATOR: Instead, Lipka arrived in the parking lot of the Comfort Inn in his blue van, and persuaded the undercover agent to get in the car beside him. Special Agent Droujinsky was wearing a wire.

JOHN WHITESIDE: He pulled over and parked in the parking lot and they just talked for a few minutes. Within the first six or seven minutes, in just casual conversation, Lipka mentioned that he beat a friend of his in chess. Our undercover agent looked at him and said: “Oh, you play chess?” Lipka looked at him and said: “You didn't know that?”

NARRATOR: Just minutes into the operation, and Lipka was already spooked. An innocent conversation about chess, of all things, had rattled the spy. 

JOHN WHITESIDE: Lipka said: “Before we go any further, I want you to write here a code word. You know what it is.” And with that on the magazine that Dimitry carried with him, Lipka wrote the letter R and two dash lines. He said: "I want you to fill that out for me." Our undercover agent couldn't fill it out. He had no idea what Lipka wanted. He said: “If you don't have it, I won't talk.” 

NARRATOR: So that’s it then. The false flag operation was over before it had even begun. Or was it? Droujinsky tried one last play.

JOHN WHITESIDE: Our undercover guy had to demure and say: “I'm with the GRU. I don't have it.” And Lipka said: “Well, you can get it. If you don't get it, I won't meet with you again.”

NARRATOR: Droujinsky promised he would try to find the code word, and the two agreed to meet again the next day. He had bought the operation some time, but when he relayed the situation to Whiteside, the special agent’s heart sank.

JOHN WHITESIDE: Every spy is given a code word by his handler. In case the KGB officer who's a handler for someone gets transferred and has to go overseas. The new handler will know the code word and can reestablish contact with his agent. We needed to have the code word or Lipka wasn't going to talk to us. We played the tape over and over again.

NARRATOR: Whiteside knew there had to be a clue in the conversation. Why had Lipka so suddenly grown suspicious?

JOHN WHITESIDE: I asked Dimitry how he reacted when he talked about chess, he said he actually backed away. He physically backed away when I said: “I didn't know you played chess.” And with that - there's a lot of luck in these cases, too - I remembered that word, R O E C K, on that notebook from the illegals.

NARRATOR: You remember the illegal spies, the Fischers, and their puzzling notebook - the one on which they’d scrawled a list of KGB targets, and the coordinates for a location in Lancaster County, so close to Lipka’s home. Those cryptic letters had haunted Whiteside ever since he’d laid eyes on them: R O E C K. Suddenly, Whiteside realized they hadn’t been writing in Russian or German, but in simple, misspelled English.

JOHN WHITESIDE: And I said to myself: “I think that means Rook. And I think that's the code word,” because, obviously, [he] reacted to the chess comment.

NARRATOR: It was by no means a sure bet, but it was all Whiteside had to go on. The next day, he sent Droujinsky back to meet Lipka, armed with a possible code word should he need it.

JOHN WHITESIDE: Lipka showed up on time. Again, we had a room ready. He wouldn't come up to the hotel. He told Dimitry to get into the car. As soon as he sat down, Lipka handed him a piece of paper and said: “Circle the name on there.” There were three names in Russian on that piece of paper. Our undercover agent had no clue who the three names were.

NARRATOR: Yet more tests from the KGB spy. It seemed that he held all the cards. Droujinsky fumbled for an answer to the cryptic multiple choice.

JOHN WHITESIDE: Lipka said: “None of those words mean anything to you?” Our undercover guy said: “Well, they do in some way.”

NARRATOR: Things were not going well.

JOHN WHITESIDE: Lipka asked him if he had a packet for him, obviously meaning a packet of money.

NARRATOR: Droujinsky wasn’t in the business of handing out federal dollars to former Soviet spies. He had no such packet. Lipka was growing visibly frustrated.

JOHN WHITESIDE: At that point, our undercover guy had failed the name test, didn't have a packet, and decided to use the code word.

NARRATOR: A desperate final bid to gain control of this spiraling mission.

JOHN WHITESIDE: And he said to Lipka: “Does the word Rook mean anything to you?” With that, Lipka looked at him, shook hands and said: “Yes”. [He]  ran his hand up to his chest, and exhaled, happily knowing that the code word had been passed and things were okay.

NARRATOR: From the brink of ruin, Whiteside’s hunch had paid off. The code word would form the basis of their relationship and, in those first meetings, Lipka began to reveal the truth of his dealings with the KGB.

JOHN WHITESIDE: Lipka admitted that his wife assisted him when he would go on drops. He told us he did what he did for pure green greed, just for money. 

NARRATOR: Money would prove to remain a motivating factor for Lipka - greed was ultimately why he hadn’t slammed the phone down on Droujinksky the moment he’d called. That mystery payment of $300,000 in Lipka’s account? It turned out to be a legal settlement for a back injury he’d sustained at a bar. It seemed that the former spy was always on the make.

JOHN WHITESIDE: He wanted $10,000 because he claimed he didn't get paid for several missed drop sites, where he would leave information, go to find his money, and either find half the amount or none at all. 

NARRATOR: It was a valuable admission, but it wasn’t the smoking gun required to put Lipka away. For that, Whiteside would need concrete proof of his collaboration with the KGB - documents, equipment, anything at all. But Lipka was slippery on the subject.

JOHN WHITESIDE: ​​He wouldn't discuss any classified documents and we didn't hit that very hard. He did claim that he had a piece of hardware from his Soviet contacts that he would send to our undercover guy.

NARRATOR: A souvenir from the old days of a most incriminating nature. And he was prepared to deliver it directly into the hands of his new friend - for a cost, of course. Lipka wanted to be paid for the missed dead drops via money order. Droujinsky struck a deal. He’d pay him $5,000 now, and the rest on receipt of the hardware.

JOHN WHITESIDE: They parted and said they would be in contact. Lipka would send the piece of hardware, and we would send him the money.

NARRATOR: In the days after the meeting, Whiteside hastily arranged for the delivery of Lipka’s KGB backpay. And then he waited for the piece of hardware that would nail Lipka’s prosecution. And he carried on waiting.

JOHN WHITESIDE: Some of our team believed that piece of hardware was actually lost in the mail. I don't believe it was ever sent. I think Lipka was just making that up. He was just there to get more money and to perhaps scam our undercover guy for as much as he could.

NARRATOR: So there goes that plan, then. Whiteside was left to assess what material evidence he had of Lipka’s espionage. The reality was it mostly amounted to hearsay - admissions of espionage, but no record of what was transmitted. Lipka had let one crucial thing slip.

JOHN WHITESIDE: Lipka did admit that if he's ever caught, he would blame his activities on another employee, his boss at NSA, a fellow by the name of Milt Roby. He said: "Milt Roby's dead." So he would use that name, blaming Milt Roby for everything he put out for the Soviets if he was ever caught.

NARRATOR: It was a handy piece of information for Whiteside to hold - one that would likely play well in court - but the truth was, he was still scrambling for actual evidence. They decided to try one last meeting with Lipka, this time in Baltimore.

JOHN WHITESIDE: Lipka was not happy. He said: “I sent you the material as promised. You owe me $5,000 more. Our undercover agent told him we never received it and his supervisors wouldn't let him pay the money. They bickered back and forth and things weren't looking good. Lipka also said: “I'm not sure you are who you say you are.”

NARRATOR: Not this again. They’d already given Lipka his code word. What more could he want?

JOHN WHITESIDE: What we didn't realize at that time was we had made a huge mistake with Lipka. And that was the time that he passed the paper with the three Russian names to our undercover agent.

NARRATOR: You remember that, of course. Lipka asked the undercover agent to underline the name that meant something to him, but Droujinsky had been stumped.

JOHN WHITESIDE: The name he didn't recognize was Pavel Grachev. Pavel Grachev at the time was the Soviet defense minister. If you were an FBI agent and someone showed you the name of the attorney general, and you didn't know who it was, you wouldn't be much of an FBI agent. 

NARRATOR: Since that failed test, Lipka had always been suspicious of the so-called GRU officer, and now he was confronting him about it.

JOHN WHITESIDE: And our undercover guy had to kind of cover with the: "Oh, that Pavel Grachev. I know lots of Pavel Grachevs." I'm not sure how well it worked but, by this point, we had kind of decided we were finished with the false flag approach and had gotten all we were going to get from Robert Lipka. He did admit that he did take documents home from NSA. He admitted that he did go to New York in 1974 and met with another KGB officer and played chess with him in the park. They parted company keeping the door open for future contact. But by this point, after we reviewed the case, we realized we were getting less and less from Lipka and he seemed to be gaining more and more control.

NARRATOR: In other words, Whiteside had a great deal of anecdotal confessions. But he still lacked the smoking gun that a prosecutor would want before taking Lipka to court. It was time to move to the next phase of the operation. Whiteside needed to speak to Lipka’s ex-wife.

JOHN WHITESIDE: Lipka was married in 1966. He married Patricia right in the middle of his espionage activities. Two young lovers surely knew what each other was doing. I was convinced that she probably knew at least a good part of what he was doing with the KGB.

NARRATOR: Whiteside found out that Patricia was working as a nurse at a hospital in Maryland. He sent his co-case agent, Dan Brennan, to approach her there saying the FBI needed to speak to her about her ex-husband.

JOHN WHITESIDE: A week later, we had an appointment to meet with her. We went to her townhouse. Unfortunately, her husband was there at the time. The two of them sat on one sofa and Dan and I sat on the other sofa across from them. I knew we weren't going to get anything from her as long as he sat there, unless he was aware of her espionage knowledge. Fortunately for us - and again, luck plays a big role in all these cases - the telephone rang. It was his hairdresser appointment. He had to leave after an hour. 

NARRATOR: With the husband out of the picture, Whiteside and Special Agent Dan Brennan began to press Patricia harder on details about her first husband.

JOHN WHITESIDE: It was interesting to watch her body language. Every time we talked about the period of time that Lipka was spying from 1965 to 1967, all her answers were: “I don't remember. I don't know.” Her eyes would flutter. She couldn't answer, but ask her something from 1968 until 1974, she knew every single fact. She could tell you what she was wearing every day of the week. Eventually, we got to the point where we ran out of silly questions. Dan said he was finished and asked me if I had anything more to say. I simply said to her: “Pat, is there anything we haven't asked you that you would like to tell us?” She put her head down for about 10 seconds and looked up and said he was selling documents to the Russians. 

NARRATOR: This was a huge breakthrough. If Lipka’s own ex-wife could testify knowledge of her husband’s espionage, their chances of putting him behind bars would multiply. 

JOHN WHITESIDE: She knew he was in contact with the KGB. She admitted she had gone on a couple of drops with him. She served as a lookout. She would either honk the horn or flash the car lights if somebody was coming. That made her a co-conspirator, but we didn't want to prosecute her.

NARRATOR: Whiteside knew that Patricia’s only real crime was being married to a rotten apple. It was decided she’d be granted immunity in exchange for her cooperation.

JOHN WHITESIDE: She took us to one of their drop sites. She pointed some things out to us. She saw him wrap packages in plastic tape and she knew where he placed them by trees. She knew how he would get an envelope at a separate location. He would bring it home. They would open it up, count the money, throw it up in the air. She said it was just like James Bond.

NARRATOR: In the absence of hard evidence, details like this were as close to a smoking gun as Whiteside might find.

JOHN WHITESIDE: She told us that she was at a James Bond movie. It started with a chess tournament. And she said, as they were moving the chess pieces around the board, Lipka leaned over to her and said: ‘My codeword is Rook.” It was kind of a special moment to hear that it all tied together with the KGB illegals, Peter and Ingeborg Fischer, and the code word on the piece of paper that we found.

NARRATOR: Once again, everything was pointing back to those Russian spies.

JOHN WHITESIDE: Knowing that the Fischers were involved in the conspiracy was a key to the whole case. We had information from 1966 when the FBI held their wiretaps on the Fischer's residence in upper Darby, Pennsylvania, that the Fischers in April had traveled to New York City. Went to a location on Riverside Drive and cleared a drop that was placed there by the KGB. They returned home and talked over the microphone about how well they did and that they would have to go to Lancaster that weekend to do their job. 

NARRATOR: With the intel given to him by Patricia, Whiteside could now fill in the details of that mysterious Lancaster assignment. Finally, he knew what the Fischers’ KGB case agent had asked of them in that drop that they excitedly spoke about over the wiretap.

JOHN WHITESIDE: He gave them the instructions to go out and give Lipka a postcard, asking Lipka to make contact with the KGB. That November, his wife told us that he actually in response to that postcard went to Waldorf, Maryland, and met with some KGB officers for a period of time.

NARRATOR: A postcard from the KGB, sent the year after Lipka’s tenure at the NSA had come to an end. It may not sound like much but it proved a baseline of connection between Lipka and his Russian handlers. 

JOHN WHITESIDE: We had decided we had completed all we could do. The prosecutors were reasonably content. We could make a case against Lipka using Title 18, Section 9, 7 94 C, which is the conspiracy to commit espionage. But we wanted to have another try, not only to try to get him to admit to some things but also to add to the conspiracy case.

NARRATOR: One last-ditch effort to spook Lipka into tipping more of his hand - any admission of guilt would help.

JOHN WHITESIDE: So we had his ex-wife offer to meet with him. We were very concerned that he might hurt her. She was scared to death to meet with him. She made a phone call telling him that she had been contacted by two FBI agents and they wanted to know about Robert Lipka. He was panicked when he picked up the phone and immediately said he wanted to meet with her, which played right into what we wanted. He wanted to meet her alone in a hotel room. She was told not to ever agree to that. So she finally convinced him to meet her in an eatery at one of the malls in Maryland, where she would be safe. And he agreed to do that.

NARRATOR: Whiteside hoped that the phone call would sufficiently startle Lipka. If he felt the walls were closing in around him, who could tell what he might let slip? He waited excitedly for the meeting at the mall.

JOHN WHITESIDE: We, of course, had FBI agents all over the place posing in different ways. He came over to the table and sat down and they had a conversation for about an hour. A couple of times she said to him: “Bob, it was espionage.” And he would hush her, telling her she didn't know that. He also used his alibi and said: “You know, everything I put out, I put out for Milt Roby,” - the dead NSA guy. He told her not to say anything to the FBI, just to answer a couple of questions. And if they got too pushy to tell him that she wanted to see a lawyer. He then gave her $100 to pay for a lawyer. Well, I don't know what kind of lawyer that would be, but probably not a very good one.

NARRATOR: Again, Lipka had been sensible enough to avoid revealing specifics about his espionage but he’d said things that he’d have a hard time explaining in court, like why he’d encouraged his ex-wife to stone-wall the FBI.

JOHN WHITESIDE: The next day after that meeting, Dan Brennan and I went out to interview Robert Lipka and give him a chance to hopefully confess, or to further incriminate himself. The interview lasted about four-and-a-half hours at his residence. It was a terrible place to do the interview, but we didn't think, based on his past experience with our undercover agent, that he would come up to a hotel room. Unfortunately, we had a lot of interruptions during the interview. At one point Lipka actually stood up with sweat coming down his face, stressed from the fact that he knew what we were talking about, and he did admit that he was putting things out for someone, but before he could go further the phone rang, and it was his real estate attorney. Lipka said to his attorney: “I'm sitting here with two FBI agents at this moment. They're accusing me of committing espionage.” The attorney, even though he was a real estate attorney, realized: "This guy oughta shut up.” So he said: “Well, stop talking.” At that point, Lipka claimed attorney privilege.

NARRATOR: Lipka had teetered on the brink of a confession but he was saved by the bell. There was nothing more Whiteside could do.

JOHN WHITESIDE: We had finished the interview. As I was walking out, he did say: “I love my country.” I told him we would see him soon.

NARRATOR: Sooner than Lipka would have liked. The next day, Whiteside and Special Agent Brennan returned, cuffs in hand.

JOHN WHITESIDE: We arrested Lipka for conspiracy to commit espionage. While we were there with him, he said: “Have you talked to Milt Roby?” And I was so tired of hearing about Milt Roby, his little excuse. I said: “Bob, Milt Roby is dead.” And with that, he went into a big “Oh my God.” Head back, very dramatic arms across his chest. “There goes my only witness!” It was beautiful, a beautiful moment where he used the excuse he told our undercover agent that he would use if he was ever caught by the FBI. And it just tied the whole case together.

NARRATOR: In the end, Lipka would never face trial. The prosecution wanted to protect the identity of the mystery Russian source who had first offered the tip about Lipka’s existence. And so, a plea bargain was offered. There was even a clause that Lipka could use to his advantage if he was wise enough to take it.

JOHN WHITESIDE: Should he cooperate with us, tell us about his espionage, tell us about the things he passed, tell us about his handlers, he could face a reduced sentence with the judge.

NARRATOR: But when the time came for Whiteside’s final head-to-head with Lipka, he found the former spy in a typically evasive mood.

JOHN WHITESIDE: His attorney pleaded with him to tell us the truth. Lipka stonewalled during the entire interview claiming he couldn’t remember anything. He tried to belittle all he did. He said he had just a handful of meets. He made $1,250. He passed 10 or 12 documents. He was given the polygraph and bombed completely. 

NARRATOR: Lipka was sentenced to 18 years in prison and fined $10,000, the maximum penalty at the time that his crimes were committed, in the mid-60s. For Whiteside, there were mixed emotions about bringing the biggest case of his career to a close.

JOHN WHITESIDE: It was nice to send a message out to the public that no matter when you commit espionage, there is no statute of limitations. And we will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law. The biggest disappointment I had was that we were unable to identify any material that Lipka passed. We do know that in a letter to the prosecutor, after his sentencing and while he was in prison, he did write: “There were victims in the 1960s to be sure.” Indicating that yes, people died of his information. He did pass troop movements during Vietnam. There are 53,000 names on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. How many of those names might be attributed to the information that Lipka passed? 

NARRATOR: In the years since his tussle with Lipka, Whiteside has been haunted by that uncertainty. Why wouldn’t Lipka, so motivated by self-interest, spill the details of his espionage and save his own skin?

JOHN WHITESIDE: And I can only think that perhaps the reason he couldn't cooperate was the things that he may have passed were so devastating either to the soldiers on the ground in Vietnam or so vital to the security interests of the United States that he could never live with admitting that. I guess we'll never know.

NARRATOR: After serving just 10 years, Robert Lipka was released from prison in 2006. He died a free man in July of 2013, the same year that John Whiteside released a book about the investigation, entitled Fool’s Mate. And though the former spy took many secrets to his grave, there’s one detail that Whiteside remains clear-eyed about.

JOHN WHITESIDE: Lipka was motivated because of his ego and pure green greed, as he told the undercover officer. He always told stories all his life, but in the end, his ego and his greed for money were the reasons he walked into the Soviet Embassy and volunteered this information.

NARRATOR: I'm Vanessa Kirby. 

Guest Bio

Special Agent John Whiteside served 30 years with the FBI and received the National Intelligence Certificate of Distinction from Director of the CIA George Tenet. Mr. Whiteside has authored two books, Fool's Mate and Cypress Shade.

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