True Spies Episode 72: The Armageddon Papers
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?
This is True Spies Episode 72: The Armageddon Papers.
NARRATOR: What is the most valuable thing in the world? Gold? Platinum?
JOE NAVARRO: Information. Information is the most valuable thing in the world.
NARRATOR: It’s the 1970s. Deep into the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact to the East, and the United States and its allies to the west. Both sides make detailed plans of attack and defense should the powder keg burst and a world war break out. Every possibility, every maneuver, and enemy tactic has been considered. These plans are top secret. They are protected by those with only the highest clearance in the Army. But a traitor has sold out his country.
JOE NAVARRO: Throughout the 1970s, the Soviet Union - through the Czech intelligence service - had been able to recruit an American soldier stationed in Germany called Zoltán Szabo. He had served in Vietnam, was a decorated hero, and he began to spy for the Czech government - and in turn for the Soviets - when he was getting ready to retire and get out, which was around 1975. He recruited an American soldier, a sergeant named Clyde Lee Conrad and Clyde Lee Conrad was, in essence, the librarian for all the top-secret documents at the 8th Infantry Division in Bad Kreuznach, Germany. And he began to spy.
NARRATOR: Clyde Lee Conrad was making copies of those top-secret plans and handing them over to the Soviet Union with great efficacy.
JOE NAVARRO: This enterprise became the Zoltán Szabo-Clyde Conrad espionage ring. Conrad was a psychopath when it came to copying classified documents, turning them over and making money, and putting the United States and Western Europe in danger.
NARRATOR: Then, in August 1988, Clyde Lee Conrad was arrested by the Germans and Zoltán Szabo was in the hands of the Austrian authorities. The case seemed to be pretty much wrapped up - that is, until FBI agent Joe Navarro was brought on board.
JOE NAVARRO: I'm just minding my own business here in Tampa, Florida and a teletype comes in that Clyde Lee Conrad was arrested by the German government for espionage. And the next day we were to go out and interview anyone that knew Clyde Conrad or had worked with him at the 8th Infantry. Now, I knew nothing of the case.
NARRATOR: He was instructed to interview a man who also happened to be in Tampa, Florida - a man called Rod Ramsay. He had worked with Clyde Conrad on the base in Germany for two years from 1983.
JOE NAVARRO: I never anticipated that. What should have been a 30-minute interview - 40 minutes tops - would turn into a 10-year investigation
NARRATOR: Because Joe discovered that the fall-out from the Conrad-Szabo spy ring was bigger than the US government ever imagined.
JOE NAVARRO: Making it one of the most damaging cases of espionage in American history.
NARRATOR: Joe and his partner drove to the trailer park where Rod Ramsay was living. Not long prior, he’d been kicked out of the Army for failing a drugs test and was now flipping pancakes for a meager living.
Their first encounter with him was unorthodox to say the least.
JOE NAVARRO: Espionage in the real world is not like espionage when James Bond is involved. Apparently, Rod Ramsay is living in a single-wide trailer. I guess this is like a very humble council housing. There are not many of these trailers. Every time there's a hurricane there, they seem to disappear. And, sure enough, we drive up and as we're walking up to the door - and, as an agent, you never want to stand in front of the door because that's the most dangerous place, it's called the lethal funnel - so, I'm standing to the side, which puts me right in front of this window. And as I just happened to look through the window, I see this naked man running across. And I was like: “What is that?” And, as it turns out, that was Roderick James Ramsay. And eventually, he opens the door. And after a few minutes, they're at the door, but this time he's put on some pants. He welcomes us in and really it was a very ordinary interview, we didn't reveal to him that Clyde Lee Conrad had been arrested in Germany. We merely said that we were following up on some things that were being investigated in Germany and that we just wanted to know what it was like to work and live at the military base there at Bad Kreuznach.
NARRATOR: But while they were talking, Joe noticed something so minute that most would have missed it.
JOE NAVARRO: While we were outside and just discussing what life in Germany was like, at one point we said; “Okay, he's described everything. There's nothing really here.” But then I thought: “Well, how about we just mention whether or not he knows an individual by the name of Clyde Lee Conrad?” And as soon as I mentioned that name - which for the average person, shouldn't have caused any kind of reaction - Ramsay’s cigarette shook in his hand. And I mean, it shook. If you had looked at the end of that cigarette lit with the smoke, it was almost like a pen on a polygraph. It was shaking all over the place and I thought: “Well, that's really weird. Why would a name cause you nervous apprehension?” So he said that, yeah, he knew him because he had worked for him and we just continued to talk about things in general. And then, when I mentioned the name Conrad again, his cigarette shook again. And, at this point, I'm realizing all those observations that I had been making over the years about body language and how people react in different circumstances to what I had studied. And so at the end of the interview, we said: “Well, it looks like you have some interesting information.” And I said: “Rather than stay here, how about we just go to a nearby hotel and we can order lunch and sit down?” And he agreed to that. And, once again, any time we talked about Conrad, his cigarette shook.
NARRATOR: A tiny shake of a cigarette. What does that tell you about Rod Ramsay?
JOE NAVARRO: For a man like Ramsay to be talking with such alacrity he's talking about, yeah, Germany was great and the dating scene was fantastic, and all this stuff. And then all of a sudden you just mention a name and that cigarette shakes and you have to say - if you know enough about human physiology - what would cause this limbic reaction? And you realize that not all words have the same weight. That in this instance, that the weight of the name of someone who is culpable has a different weight than someone who's just a friend you hang out with.
NARRATOR: So Joe’s saying this guy could potentially be a suspect in an espionage ring. And he got all that from a shaking cigarette?
If you’re pretty sure you wouldn’t have made that connection, don’t worry. This is Joe’s specialty. In the Bureau, he was known for his incredible powers of perception and his ability to read body language. Joe was born in Cuba in 1953 but his father was targeted by the Communist government and fled to the USA. He was followed soon after by Joe’s mother who could only take one child with her at the time. Joe and his sister were left behind. Then, in 1961, they got their chance. The children boarded a plane alone to join their family in America. It was a daunting and difficult experience, one that still haunts him.
JOE NAVARRO: It was one of those things where there was no adventure. It wasn't like we were going to Disney. It was scary. It was two children, both under nine, surrounded by desperate people, shoving and pushing and just miserable. And it was hot and the desperation to just get on board. It's still difficult for me to talk about. We eventually made it to the US, and the America I arrived in was really very welcoming. At the time, most Cubans would go to either Miami, or New York, or Spain, or Venezuela.
NARRATOR: When they made it to Miami Airport, the two children were reunited with their parents
JOE NAVARRO: So I arrived with my sister when I was eight, and she had just turned nine and neither of us spoke English. We both spoke Spanish fluently, obviously, but the one language that seemingly I could rely on was body language. For some reason, it seemed very easy and very authentic to rely on the body language of others. To try to anchor myself so I could tell: they either like you or they don't like you. They want you near or they're maybe annoyed or something. And so I began to rely on what we now call ‘nonverbals’, which made me very sensitive to the different cultures, the Cuban culture versus the American culture. And one of the things that I immediately began to sense was that each culture behaved differently - how often they touched, how close they stood next to each other when they were talking, their gestures, their signals, their turn yielding, and so forth. And for some reason, I became enthralled with this at a very young age. And didn't think much of it. I was just putting it to use to befriend others.
NARRATOR: And somehow his astute understanding of others caught some very important eyes.
JOE NAVARRO: When the FBI came to me in 1976, I was around 22 years old, and they thought I was a year older. And they said: “Well, we would like for you to apply as soon as you turn 23.” And, to this day, I don't know of any agent that ever made it in that was approached by the Bureau to apply. In fact, at first I thought when they called that it was some university guys pulling a prank on me. And so I kind of laughed and ‘ha ha ha’. And then, of course, when these two guys in suits showed up and handed me a package and said: “We want you to fill this out,” then it became more serious. And, at that point. I was having to make decisions. What am I going to do with my future? And here's this prestigious organization, probably the premier law enforcement Agency in the world, the largest scientific lab, all sorts of things they offer. And they're asking me to join them. And so, I was very honored to. And I also saw it as an opportunity to pay back my country.
NARRATOR: Let’s return to the summer of 1988. Joe and his partner are in a hotel room with Rod Ramsay, and Joe is pretty sure this guy is more involved with Clyde Conrad than the authorities first thought. But...
JOE NAVARRO: There's nothing complicated here. There's no smoking gun, nothing. But I sensed there was something more.
NARRATOR: So Joe decided to try a little technique that he’d picked up over the years.
JOE NAVARRO: It's called a ‘door jam’ confession. And, what you do is, you conduct an interview and you exploit everything that you need to talk about. You save one question until the last minute. And you save it until you're near the door jam. So, as Rod was getting ready to go out, I waited for him to put his hand on the door handle and I said: “Oh, Rod, by the way, did Clyde Lee Conrad ever give you anything?” And he stops, he looks at me, he furrows his forehead and he looks down and grabs his wallet and he opens up his wallet and he says: “Well, he gave me this.” And I go: “What is that?” And so he goes to hand it to me. And I'm already thinking like a law enforcement officer. I don't want to touch this. I want to preserve it as evidence trying to figure out how to gingerly touch it without causing apprehension. So I said: “Well, if you don't mind.” And I just had him lay it down on a piece of paper that was in the room, a notepad, and I looked at it and it just had a few numbers on it and I said: “What is that?” And he said: “Well, he just said, in the future, if I ever want to get a hold of him, just call this number.” I said: “Okay, can I keep it?” And he said: “Sure.” So I just left it there and he exited.
NARRATOR: Worked like a charm.
JOE NAVARRO: Of course, as soon as he leaves, we're writing down the number and I'm folding the paper around it to protect the fingerprints that may be on there.
NARRATOR: And straight away, Joe noticed some unusual things about that small piece of torn paper.
JOE NAVARRO: One of the things that stood out about the paper is that it had the number nine written in it. And the number nine was written in the German form, which looks like a ‘G’. And I said this was not written by an American, and if he was, it was an American that had been in Germany for a long time because that G really stood out. The other thing was that the paper looked very flimsy.
NARRATOR: And then there was something strange about the number itself.
JOE NAVARRO: Now, where normally you have a predicate, which is the area code here in Florida, 813, then three more numbers, then four more numbers. This only had seven numbers. And so we thought this was very odd. But beyond that, we didn't suspect anything at the time. But we said: “Okay we will send this to the lab and have it examined.”
NARRATOR: Back at head office in Tampa, the paper went to the examination lab. Meanwhile, Joe went straight to the office of his supervisor Julian Kerner.
JOE NAVARRO: And I said: “I'd like to open up an investigation on him, on Ramsay.” And Kerner says: “Based on what he's giving us? Nothing.” And I said: “His cigarette shook.” And Kerner said: “Are you crazy? We're going to open up an investigation based on a shaking cigarette? How am I going to testify to that? And before Congress when we get called up for this?” And I said: “Trust me on this, there's something to it.” And, of course, at this point, I worked for Jay for a while and he said: “Okay, I'll tell you what, if you can line up a few more interviews with him, and he agrees to it, I'll let you pursue it. But you have to limit it to five interviews.” And that's what we did.
NARRATOR: So Agent Joe Navarro was given 90 days to find out if Rod Ramsay was involved in the Conrad-Szabo espionage ring. All he had so far was a scrap of paper and a hunch, but you can’t just barge in, drag him to the interrogation room, and shine a light in his face.
JOE NAVARRO: Most people who watch television look at interviews and they think that it's about getting a confession. And, as an FBI agent, that wasn't my focus. My focus was getting face time because you're not going to get a confession if you don't have face time with this individual.
NARRATOR: They had to get to know him, build a fake camaraderie, make him believe they were on his side. The FBI needed Ramsay to give them what they wanted without him realizing he was doing it. The first step was to get to know Ramsay a little better and find out more about him. Could he conceivably be the kind of person who would have no qualms selling out his country? Joe was assigned a new partner, an exceptionally experienced agent by the name of Lynn Tremaine. They decided to pay Rod another visit.
JOE NAVARRO: So I called up Rod and I said: "Hey, Lynn Tremaine, my partner, wasn't here yesterday and it's really her case. And do you mind if we come over and you can tell the story? And he said: “Sure.” So off we go to the single-wide trailer again. Fortunately, this time he was dressed and he readily welcomed having Lynn there. And Lynn was really savvy and sharp and she played up to both Rod's playfulness, but also to a little bit of his narcissistic side, which was very egotistical. He bragged a lot about what a ladies’ man he was, how well he lived, how much he enjoyed French and German wines, and all this stuff. And so, in many ways, it was easy for her to milk information out of him by just being curious and engaging that side of his personality. And again, we didn't know what we were going for there. At this point, there is no crime. All we know is that he has reacted to the name of a person that's been arrested for espionage and now it's trying to get information.
NARRATOR: In the company of Joe and Lynn, Rod got comfortable. He started bragging about aspects of life in Germany in the Army. Things that maybe you or I might think twice about telling FBI agents.
JOE NAVARRO: Ramsay started laughing and then he started talking about how cheap marijuana and ganja and other drugs were.
NARRATOR: Testament to just how good Joe and Lynn were at putting this guy at ease.
JOE NAVARRO: While he's doing that, he's also revealing how much he was spending on drugs. And we knew that his paycheck at the time was, I think, $86 a month. So where's the money coming from? If he's going out on dates, if he's taking these women to fine restaurants and drinking fine wine and he's buying drugs and he's living on $86, where is the money coming from?
NARRATOR: So there’s money coming in from somewhere besides his Army pay - heck, a lot of money.
JOE NAVARRO: It was very revealing. It let me know how far I could push getting him to talk about his morality. We knew he had a top-secret clearance. Now, in the United States, when you get a top-secret clearance, you sign a form that basically says if you waiver in behavior here, if you're doing things that are not sanctioned by the law, that you know that there's a heavy responsibility to bear.
NARRATOR: Rod went on to reveal more of his questionable activities while on the base in Germany
JOE NAVARRO: A lot of guys would sell these coupons they had for gasoline to the Germans so that they could buy gasoline cheaper or even food cheaper. From everything that he was telling me, he was saying that he was amoral. If he could make money, he would do it. Spending money on prostitutes - and not just one, but maybe two at a time - for him, was not a problem. And although prostitution was legal at the time, the issue is one of... Here's someone who is living in such a way that a foreign intelligence service, especially a hostile foreign intelligence service, could compromise so easily because of all these activities. And here he is bragging about it. And so now with this amoral component, this fits into someone who conceivably could betray the United States because his loyalties here are so fluid that he would be willing to commit criminal acts.
NARRATOR: You might be thinking it’s a big leap from selling gasoline coupons to selling state secrets, but there was something else unlikely about Rod Ramsay that they learned over the next interviews.
JOE NAVARRO: One of the things you immediately notice about Rod was his vocabulary. He has a graduate-level vocabulary, his references to historical events, his references to literature, his references to mathematics, his references to many, both esoteric and eclectic things, were breathtaking.
NARRATOR: Rod would go from talking about the Byzantine empire to the Ming Dynasty to Winston Churchill’s proclivities for art all in one interview.
JOE NAVARRO: It really tested you. And these were the things that he liked to talk about. You can't go into an interview and say: “Hi, I'm the FBI and we're going to talk about what we want to talk about.” That doesn't work in the real world. In the real world, you go into someone's home and it's whatever they want to talk about if you want to really get to the truth.
NARRATOR: So, behind the scenes, Joe did some digging.
JOE NAVARRO: We had requested from the Army some information about Rod. In comes this report from the Army and my jaw dropped. Ramsay had scored the second-highest intelligence quotient score in the history of the Army since they had started giving IQ tests, maybe as early as the '30s.
NARRATOR: This is a man willing to cross the line and with an intellect far beyond that of a petty criminal. What’s he up to?
JOE NAVARRO: One thing is to deal with a criminal, one thing is to deal with someone who is maybe your peer. But when you're dealing with someone who is of high intellect, now you're dealing with someone that can really play games.
NARRATOR: For the first time, Joe considered that maybe Rod Ramsay was capable of playing them too.
JOE NAVARRO: This is chess at a very high level. This is someone who can strategize. This is someone who could potentially get you in trouble, who could manipulate you if you allowed them to, and who could on a whim. Put an agent, a law enforcement officer on the defensive by saying things or asking things that are so intellectually challenging that, basically, they become the dominant force in the theater of interview and that is just something that you can't have. You can't have the suspect become the most dominant person in the interview because then it's over.
NARRATOR: And things were only going to get more unsettling.
After their fourth interview, that little piece of paper - the one that Rod had given Joe at their first meeting - came back from the lab.
JOE NAVARRO: And it says this is a Russian KGB paper.
NARRATOR: A special paper that will simply dissolve when wet. Particularly useful for destroying evidence or secret documents.
JOE NAVARRO: And the number is not just any number. That number, which I can't repeat, is the same number that the Czech intelligence service used in another espionage case that we were controlling. And that number is a genuine sort of spy number that is used by the Czech intelligence service working for the Soviets to handle any issues that might come up with one of their agents or spies.
NARRATOR: It’s called a ‘hello’ number. If a secret agent is in trouble, they call the ‘hello’ number. If the person on the end of the phone simply says ‘hello’ then the secret agent must say the code word. If they don’t know the code word, then the operator will hang up. Simple as that.
JOE NAVARRO: These are emergency phone numbers, such as when somebody needs to escape, somebody feels like they're being compromised or they need to get somebody out of the country or destroy evidence. And so these numbers are very important.
NARRATOR: It was a different ballgame now.
JOE NAVARRO: There is no reason why Rod Ramsay should have this number unless there's some sort of complicity.
NARRATOR: But for the higher-ups to take it seriously, Joe needed a confession and the evidence to back it up. All the signs were pointing towards Rod Ramsay being part of this spy ring selling top-secret military plans to the Soviet, but Joe still didn’t have any proof of him committing the actual crime of espionage. And that’s what he was going to need for a case against Rod to stand up in court. For the next stage in Joe’s investigation, he was assigned another partner, Agent Terry Moody.
JOE NAVARRO: Who really is just the kindest, sweetest lady, very glamorous, and so forth. And Rod is enchanted with her.
NARRATOR: And together, they laid out a five-interview plan to get Rod to confess to espionage. At this point, Rod had taken a job in Orlando working 12 hour days as a cab driver. The FBI agents would make the journey across the state in time for the end of his shift in order to carry out the interviews. But how do you get someone to admit they’ve been selling their country out to the enemy?
JOE NAVARRO: Mrs. Moody would tell you I'm almost obsessive-compulsive when it comes to this, but I have to design how everything's going to take place to the point where we're going to meet Rod in the same hotel room each time we talk to him so that he grows comfortable in the hotel room. Because we always, I always felt that the worst place to interview someone about espionage is in an office. I can't think of a worse place to conduct an interview on espionage [than] in an office.
NARRATOR: It was about creating a psychological hierarchy. Rod was a genius. He could eat them alive mentally. They had to make sure that didn’t happen.
JOE NAVARRO: Whenever we would enter the hotel room, I would enter first or let Mrs. Moody enter first. Then I would enter and then Rod would enter last. But, prior to him even getting there, we had already arranged the room so that Rod always sat on a couch which sat lower than the chairs that Mrs. Moody and I would sit on. And, for instance, if he wanted to drink he would have to go through us to get a drink. And he was obviously entitled to a drink any time you wanted. So we would be the ones that would say: “Hey, Rod, do you want a drink?” Or: “Hey, Rod, do you want to go to the bathroom now?” And, even if he said: “Can I get up for a bathroom break?” We would say: “Oh, one second.” And then just delay him by a few seconds so that psychologically we never lose control over him. We always set the controls for the temperature and everything like that. And what that does is at a subliminal level, it establishes a higher hierarchy, which actually works to everybody's benefit because, when you don't do that, it's very easy to have people all talking at once and there is no order. We had an order. We had control. But we also wanted to have psychological comfort so that Rod always felt comfortable coming to us.
NARRATOR: And the subliminal power plays worked. Rod started to reveal astonishing things.
JOE NAVARRO: He begins to make admissions each and every time about how much time he actually spent with Clyde, the kinds of things that they were interested in. He begins to explain how both he and Conrad are working in the department where the war plans are stored, that they are, in fact, the librarians, of all things for these classified documents. That the documents are prepared by other people and they have to bring them to Rod and Conrad and, as I said, they're in essence the librarians and they can check them out to field commanders and so forth.
NARRATOR: Conrad and Ramsay were like children in a sweet shop. They had access to everything that every senior commander in Europe would have access to, the ingredients for waging war. The co-conspirators could take whatever they wanted, and give it to whomever they wanted - for the right price, of course.
JOE NAVARRO: You had war plans, defensive plans, What troops would do in different contingencies. Now, at the top-secret level, these documents are basically like what every chef would need to do to prepare a meal. It's what every troop would do, where people would be recalled, where the field hospitals would be, where would be the refueling stations? What frequencies of radio would we use? Where would the helicopters be? Where would the tanks be? Where would the reserve forces be? Who would join who? Everything. It was the master plan for going to war. And there were an infinite number of plans depending on the country, depending on what would happen.
NARRATOR: Then Rod revealed something even more terrifying. He told them that he had access to the nuclear plans. These were the documents on the use of nuclear weapons by US forces and NATO allies. The plans for the defense of Europe in the event of a nuclear attack. In the hands of the Soviets, these would assure the defeat of the West and the collapse of NATO.
JOE NAVARRO: In a way, they were the Armageddon papers because if the enemy knows everything you will do - and I mean everything...
NARRATOR: When Joe was sitting in a nondescript hotel room interviewing Rod Ramsay, it was summer 1989. The Iron Curtain still divided Europe. In a couple of years, the Cold War would end, but nobody knew that yet. The world was still waiting, expecting someone to press the nuclear button. And this man, this double agent, had seen the blueprints.
JOE NAVARRO: It was just horrific. Had hostilities broken out the defeat of the West would have been assured in three days. And there's no other espionage case in the history of the world where you have that condemnation. History is full of espionage cases, but not one of them where you have the senior-most general saying that if hostilities would have broken out defeat would have been assured in three days. That is both frightening and a reminder of what a spy in the right place can do.
NARRATOR: Had Rod handed nuclear secrets over to the Soviets?
At that meeting, Rod seems poised to confess to espionage, to admit he was helping the Soviet Union topple the United States. How do you play this? Good cop, or bad cop? Gently tell him what you think he’s done and get him to agree? Or maybe you take a hard line - tell him to quit the game playing and just tell the truth. Well, Joe decided to do something completely different. He decided to terminate the interview.
JOE NAVARRO: I said: “You know what? We'll finish this tomorrow.” I'm thinking of court. I'm thinking if I keep him here and we keep talking to him, his defense attorney is going to say: “Well, Mr. Navarro, isn't it true that Ramsay had worked a 12-hour day as a cabbie? At this point, he's with two FBI agents isolated and that now it's 9.30 pm and you keep pressing him.” And so, his admissions may have been kept out of the trial.
NARRATOR: A good idea - avoid any chance that a defense lawyer might say Rod’s confession was coerced or made under duress. This is shaping up to be one of the greatest espionage cases in American history, and you don’t want to derail anything with an inadmissible confession when it comes to the court date.
JOE NAVARRO: That was my fear, so I cut it off, and of course, Mrs. Moody says: “Why did you do that? He's ready to confess.” I said: “He'll confess tomorrow. We've got to think about court. We can't afford to have a judge dismiss this and not admit it because of the perception of pressure.” So, sure enough, on the fifth day we locked down, we sat down with Rod, and we went over everything he said the day before. And he says: “I have something to say.” And I said: “Okay, I'm all ears.” I sat back and [he] just opened up and talked about how Clyde had recruited him to become the third generation of this spy ring that began when Zoltán Szabo was taken over by Clyde Lee Conrad. And now Rod Ramsay was the next generation of spy.
NARRATOR: There it was - the confession that Rod Ramsay was a spy protégé, the latest descendent of an espionage dynasty. But Joe knew they still needed more. What exactly had Ramsay done in this spy ring?
JOE NAVARRO: We have to present some sort of evidence to the court, and so it was one of getting him to tell a story that we could later corroborate. And so it began that Clyde gets Rod to steal a document from the top-secret safe and to copy it. This was done by Conrad to test Rod to see if he was willing to do it - if he could handle the stress of espionage because espionage is very stressful. And then it was a matter of: could Rod handle the tradecraft of rolling up the document, sticking it down your sleeve so that as you exited the military building, if you were asked to lift your coat up, nobody would see anything? And he did all of that. And then it was about hiding that document off the property.
NARRATOR: Rod told the FBI agents the next step was taking the top-secret documents that had been stolen from the safe on the US Army base to Vienna, where they would clandestinely meet with individuals who would take the documents in exchange for money.
He revealed how they had turned spying from a nuanced and delicate game into an industrial enterprise.
JOE NAVARRO: To prove an espionage case, we had to look at the details, such as: “What train did you take? Did you need a passport? What was the weather like?” Because if they said: “Well, it was really stormy,” we can go back to the Weather Service and check that. They said that they took the 12:05 to Tavern. We can verify that there is a train that leaves at 12:05 in that time period, and so forth. So it was getting all of those details from him. And, of course, he had a remarkable memory that we were able to show him traveling to Vienna, walking around Vienna, and going to a Wienerwald restaurant where Conrad had a long-established practice of meeting people in this Wienerwald restaurant because he could keep an eye on the front door. And who would enter and who would leave.
NARRATOR: It all came tumbling out.
JOE NAVARRO: That was the first instance that we could show where Rod had copied a top-secret document, secured it, transported it off the base, carried it across international lines, and in essence, sold it to a hostile intelligence service.
NARRATOR: For Joe, every new revelation was a burden. He felt as though the safety of the western world was on his shoulders.
JOE NAVARRO: I was under daily stress from headquarters, from the military, from prosecutors, from foreign governments, foreign governments who were living in fear of what had been compromised, and their troops and families. And the pressure that they were now under was being placed on me.
NARRATOR: He knew they had to put Rod Ramsay away - not just to punish him, but to curtail his ability to do any more damage. Maintaining the facade of composure was difficult.
JOE NAVARRO: Here's a spy. He's sitting in front of you and he's made a quarter of a million troops vulnerable. Maintaining that neutrality and you know, everything you do and say has to stand up to the scrutiny of a courtroom.
NARRATOR: Joe was always thinking about what they needed to get a conviction. It wasn't just enough that Rod admitted that he had been recruited, or even that he had traveled with classified documents. Joe needed one more nail in the coffin to secure a conviction for espionage.
JOE NAVARRO: The statute [18 U.S. Code § 794] requires that you prove that the individual knew that this would do grievous harm to the United States.
NARRATOR: One of the easiest ways to do that was to test him on his knowledge of one of the documents he’d handed over - what it was called, what it contained, and how damaging it was. It was a genius play because it played right into Rod’s ego. It was his chance to prove just how intelligent he was and show off the photographic memory he’d bragged to the agents about.
JOE NAVARRO: Now, I had heard of photographic memory and I had dismissed it because I had never really seen it - that was until Rod Ramsay. And there was one particular French document that he named. And he said: “Well, if you go to page 13 on the left side, a quarter of the way down.” And then he began to tell me word for word, everything that was in that document. And of course, I'm sort of chuckling under my breath because I'm thinking: “Okay, here's Rod showing off. This isn't going to pan out. And maybe there's a bit of hyperbole here.” And, sure enough, when we send this to the military, the Army comes back and says: “Yes, everything he said is accurate. Everything is exactly accurate.” Now, this is three, four years after he's already left the military. Now, it becomes really scary because he does have perfect recall that makes him even more dangerous because he doesn't have to have the top-secret documents in front of him. He can just sit in front of a briefer for the Soviet Union and tell them everything he knows. And that is really scary.And it was at that point then that the director of the FBI, who by then is reading my reports and says: “This guy cannot escape.”
NARRATOR: It was everything they needed to get Roderick James Ramsay charged with conspiracy to commit espionage. He was put under FBI surveillance for a year while they finalized their case against him. Then, on the 7th of June 1990, they closed in. It was assumed that, after all his work, Joe would be the one to make the arrest but he turned it down.
JOE NAVARRO: I don't want to have anything to do with the arrest. I'd been in the bureau for 12 years. I've been involved in hundreds of arrests and I know what a zoo it can turn into. And, I said: “Usually the agent that works the case gets the credit, does the actual handcuffing but there's nothing glorious here. A lot of people have participated in this case and they will never be known. So I decided - and Mrs. Moody agreed with me - to let one of the younger agents that had assisted us to actually do the arrest.” And, actually at this point, Mrs. Moody and I were both exhausted. We had been working on this for a long time.
NARRATOR: In fact, the case had taken its toll on the agents. Joe asked Rod Ramsay to come to Tampa from where he was working in Orlando so they could ask him some final questions. This was on the basis that Agent Navarro wasn’t well, and couldn’t travel. Rod obliged. He arrived at the hotel to meet them. Unbeknownst to him, this would be their last meeting.
JOE NAVARRO: We brought him to the hotel and we asked him a few questions and he thanked us and so forth. And then [I] said: “Okay, I'm really not feeling well.” And I wasn't. I was running a fever. And I said: “All right, that's it. Thank you for coming.” And then he left and he thought he was going back to Orlando. The agents that were going to actually do the arrest were waiting downstairs. And Mrs. Moody and I, we couldn't even get up. The best I could do is get on the radio and say: “The target has left.” But, I mean, we were just so worn out, so exhausted. We just sat there and looked at each other and then Ramsay was arrested by agents downstairs coming out of the hotel. And what was interesting was that the arresting agent called me on an alternate frequency. Because he was on the SWAT team with me and he says: “You're not going to believe what he just said.” I said: “What did he say?” And Rod turned to the arresting agent and asked: “Does Joe know what you're doing?” And that just really floored me.
NARRATOR: It seemed Joe had played the player perfectly. Rod had believed completely in their so-called ‘friendship’. But he was a spy and Joe was an agent. He was a traitor and Joe was the law. But to create something so convincing, so effective, there has to be a grain of truth at the heart of it.
JOE NAVARRO: Did I like Rod? I liked Rod. I liked, I think, pretty much every criminal I ever put away. I didn't hold any personal animosity. I never have. I think that shows up in your body language and it inhibits good interviewing. Would I want to associate with him, live next door to him, things like that? No, but I enjoyed his company. He was funny. He was erudite. He loved history. So we got a lot we had a lot in common, especially history, So we had a wonderful time that way.
NARRATOR: But what gave Joe the upper hand and meant Rod Ramsay ultimately failed? Joe never let his feelings get in the way of the job.
JOE NAVARRO: I couldn’t stand his morals. I couldn't stand his lack of loyalty, his willingness to commit crimes. I abhor that. But I wasn't judgmental about it. And what's interesting is that for years - even after he was convicted for espionage - both he and his mother continued to send me Christmas cards every year. And so for me, it wasn't a moment of cheering, there was no cheering, for me, there was no jumping up and down.
NARRATOR: A court found that Ramsay had received $20,000 for selling military secrets that could have caused the collapse of NATO. He was convicted on espionage charges and sentenced in August 1992 to 36 years in prison. A conviction that all began with the slightest shake of a cigarette and the keen eye of the federal agent who noticed. Meanwhile, Clyde Conrad had been convicted of espionage and high treason in a German court in 1990 and was sentenced to life imprisonment. It was the case of a lifetime but it had taken everything out of Joe.
JOE NAVARRO: As you're working through a case, all you're thinking about is the case itself. You're not sitting there evaluating yourself. And one of the things that people started to point out to me was: “Hey, Joe, you're not eating as much. You're losing weight.” I had lost 27 pounds. All of a sudden now I'm catching colds all the time, and I'm feeling tired. My lymph nodes under my arms were swollen.
NARRATOR: The burden of Rod’s revelations eventually became too heavy.
JOE NAVARRO: In those days, in 1990, nobody talked about post-traumatic stress. But that's what I was living through, I became depressed. I became anxious, which I don't mind telling [you], because if somebody's listening to this podcast - and if you take nothing away other than - if you're clinically depressed, get some help. Fortunately here in Tampa, I had good supervisors, a good special agent in charge and they basically just said: “Joe, just get better. Just come back when you're feeling better. Don't worry about anything else.” And I did. But it took nine months of laying in bed. I wasn't even able to, in the beginning, to roll over in bed. That's how weak I was. And... actually there were a few times there where I thought I was going to die because it seemed like I was just getting worse and worse. But in the end, I healed. And I was able to go back to the case and eventually put three more people away in prison who were involved in the case.
NARRATOR: The price of keeping your country safe can be steep indeed. The three others were Jeffery Rondeau and Jeffrey Gregory, who were sentenced to 18 years in prison in 1994, and Kelly Warren, who was sentenced in 1999 to 25 years in prison 11 years after Joe initially took the case. In 2013, Rod Ramsay was released after serving 23 years. Joe has written a memoir about his work on the Rod Ramsay case. It’s called Three Minutes to Doomsday. Whenever he tells this story, people always ask him the same question: Why did Rod Ramsay give him all that information? Why did he dig his own grave like that? He could have asked for a lawyer at any moment.
JOE NAVARRO: I think in part, it had to do with how we structured the interviews, that they weren't interrogations, that they were pleasant events. I think it had to do with the fact that we presented two individuals that were curious but not threatening. To a certain extent, we made the experience enjoyable. He - Ramsay - would get off 12 hours working as a cab driver, and then we would get together, have a meal, and then sit down and talk for a few hours. And we did that 37 times. And he always looked forward to getting together with us and talking to us. Could I have done that with everybody else out there in the world? No. But for him and his personality, for the kinds of things that he was interested in talking about, I think we presented two individuals who he felt comfortable around. If somebody asked me: “Well, what was the trick?” I would say: “Well, it's not really a trick. It's really thinking about who I am interviewing. What is this personality like? How do I talk to this individual? How do I encourage him to feel comfortable?” And always be nonjudgmental, which is very difficult to do because he's a spy. Any nation can have bank robberies, you can have murderers. That doesn't affect much. But espionage can affect the whole security of a country. And in this case, we had to find out who was involved, what was involved, and it merited these extraordinary efforts.
NARRATOR: Join us next week for another debrief with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former head of training at British intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.
Joe Navarro is a Cuban-born American author, public speaker, and former FBI agent. Navarro specializes in nonverbal communication and body language, and has authored numerous books including What Every Body Is Saying.