Home News Stories 2004 December A Byte Out of History: The Spy Who Struck Out

A Byte Out of History: The Spy Who Struck Out

A Byte Out of History
The Spy Who Struck Out

12/30/04

To Catch a Spy map graphic

Monday, December 10, 1984. The Cockatoo Inn, Hawthorne, California. Thomas Cavanagh, a defense contractor engineer in Pico Rivera, offered to sell secrets on U.S. radar deflecting stealth bombers to two undercover FBI agents posing as KGB officers. Cavanagh said he needed money to "get the creditors off my back." Strike 1.

Wednesday, December 12. The Lucky Lodge Motel, Bellflower. Cavanagh handed over manuals and blueprints he'd smuggled out of the company plant underneath his coat. He told our undercover agents the info was worth "billions of dollars." He added: "I feel like I can bring more documents out [but] I gotta have money, okay?" Strike 2.

Tuesday, December 18. Hyatt Hotel, City of Commerce. Cavanagh turned over more materials. Our agents paid him $25,000. Cavanagh agreed to sell more secrets for another $30,000. Strike 3, you're out. We arrested Cavanagh on the spot. He pled guilty, and in March 1985, was sentenced to life in prison.

To borrow from Ben Franklin, in this case an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure. FBI agents had learned of Cavanagh after he'd contacted Soviet embassies in San Francisco and Washington. They set up the sting, and as then FBI Director William Webster said, prevented "irreparable damage" to national security.

Turns out, the Cavanagh case was just the tip of the iceberg. In the mid-1980s, we uncovered a wave of spies in the U.S.—the most since World War II. A dozen individuals were charged in 1984 alone. And the press dubbed 1985 the "year of the spy" after a series of major arrests and prosecutions.

Their motivations? Unlike the ideologues of the 1940s and '50s, the spies of the '80s were mostly free agents driven by greed. Forty-year-old Cavanagh, for example, wanted to erase his heavy debts. "I'm after big money," he'd told our agents.

The end of the Cold War brought this chapter of espionage to a close, but the story continues. Now, two decades later, the names and faces have changed, but the foreign counterintelligence threat is as potent as ever.