Espionage in the Defense Industry

In the early 1970s, a Soviet spy attempted to lure defense secrets from a New York engineer.

The engineer wisely contacted the FBI, and our agents later caught the spy red-handed. 

Here's how the case played out.

Initial Outreach 

During a social gathering held in 1970 at a commercial establishment in the New York City vicinity, one Sergey Viktorovich Petrov (fictitious name), a Russian citizen, happened to strike up a casual conversation with an individual employed as an engineer with the Grumman Aerospace Corporation.

In the course of the ensuing verbal exchange, Petrov explained that he was Russian and was employed at the United Nations (UN) where he translated papers relating to various scientific affairs. He added that he lived in New York City with his wife and daughter and that he was trained in aeronautical engineering. He also related that he had a five-year contract.

An F-14 aircraft used by the U.S. Navy. Image from the NASA website.

An F-14 aircraft is tested by the U.S. Navy. Image courtesy of NASA.

The engineer revealed his employment and noted that he was engaged in design planning relating to the F-14 fighter aircraft that was being developed by Grumman for the United States Navy.

He explained that his company had been dismissing a large number of engineers, and therefore, his future employment prospects at Grumman were rather bleak. The American illustrated his points by commenting on certain economy measures he had undertaken in his personal spending habits due to his uncertain future.

Before the chance meeting was over, Petrov bought his new-found friend a drink. He told the engineer he would enjoy seeing him again in the near future at which time he could perhaps treat the American to a steak dinner. The engineer accepted Petrov's invitation at 7 p.m., one week later.

First Meeting 

Petrov and the engineer met as planned the following week. At Petrov's suggestion, the engineer followed the Russian's car to a restaurant in Amityville, Long Island.

During the two-hour-long dinner, they discussed a number of general topics. At one point, Petrov said he was seriously considering starting a business in the New York City area. He added that he would enjoy having the engineer as an employee should the latter lose his job at Grumman. Petrov went on, explaining that in the meantime he was preparing his doctoral thesis. In this regard he wished to obtain some engineering data about the F-14 aircraft. Petrov said he would pay the engineer for any information he could provide, but quickly added that he did not need any classified data. Petrov said he especially desired some information about the F-14's wing sweep mechanism since this concept greatly intrigued him. He remarked that in case the engineer was unable to provide him with details of the wing sweep mechanism, he would, nevertheless, appreciate any information whatsoever concerning the work performed at the Grumman plant.

Petrov then told the engineer that if he could provide anything of value, he would be paid approximately $300 per month. The engineer promised Petrov he would consider his request and would inform the Russian of his decision at an engineering conference which was to be held soon. The engineer added that Petrov would, no doubt, wish to attend this meeting since the subject matter would be of interest to him. To the engineer's surprise, however, the Russian replied that he did not think it would be wise for him to attend his forthcoming conference. He also cautioned the engineer to give no sign of recognition should their paths cross at any future scientific meeting.

Before concluding their meeting, Petrov obtained the engineer's home telephone number but declined to provide his own in return. They then agreed to meet again in front of their present location at 7 p.m. on a date about three weeks later. Petrov told the engineer that if for some reason he could not make it on that day, then they would meet on the following Monday at the same time and place.

The FBI Investigation Begins 

At the conclusion of this second meeting, the engineer, suspicious of Petrov's intentions, reported his suspicions to the Grumman security office which immediately notified the New York Field Office of the FBI.

Special agents interviewed the engineer who agreed to cooperate by meeting again with Petrov in order to ascertain the Russian's intentions. The engineer explained that his remarks concerning his somewhat precarious financial situation seemed to impress Petrov. The agents then instructed the engineer to continue to express a need for money at future meetings.

At their next meeting, Petrov asked the engineer to be alert for any reports or publications relating to the F-14. He added that he was also interested in any other material to which the engineer had daily access. In reply, the American inquired as to what he could expect in the way of monetary compensation. The Russian promised to pay him from $100 to $300, the exact amount depending solely on the material's value.

Petrov asked the engineer if he would have any problems in removing material from the plant. Petrov then commented that if the engineer could borrow the requested data overnight, he would return it the next day. Although Petrov previously had said he did not require any confidential material, at this point he mentioned that any confidential information the engineer could provide would be "worth more."

Future meetings between Petrov and the engineer continued on a almost monthly basis. They were invariably held at different restaurants on Long Island on Monday evenings at 7 p.m. FBI agents, conducting a surveillance of the meetings, observed that most of them were held within close proximity of Long Island railroad stations. Future meetings between the American and the Russian were always arranged at the conclusion of each previous meeting. The date, time, and place of the next meeting were agreed upon together with an alternate meeting date in case either party was unable to attend on the original date.

As their relationship progressed, Petrov provided the engineer with small sums of money—usually about $250—for each report the American gave the Russian. Petrov never ceased to pressure the engineer for F-14 technical reports, especially confidential ones. The engineer, however, continued to bring routine reports to the meetings, explaining that confidential reports were very difficult to obtain. Petrov then suggested that the engineer should request a transfer to another area of the Grumman plant where he would be in a position to have access to a much larger variety of engineering data. He promised to compensate the engineer for any decrease in salary that might occur as a result of any such transfer.

Several months later, in response to Petrov's urgings, the engineer offered him some drawings relating to the F-14's wing design. He warned the Russian that he had to have the drawings back before he returned to work the next day. At this point, Petrov told the engineer he would furnish him with a copying machine, thereby eliminating the necessity of bringing the actual reports and drawings to future meetings.

At a subsequent meeting on March 1, 1971, Petrov gave the engineer an inexpensive, portable copying machine. He then suggested that the American use the machine in a motel room and promised to reimburse the engineer for all expenses incurred in this regard. Such an arrangement would enable the engineer to return the original reports to his office the next day while having a copy available for Petrov at their next meeting.

During their March meeting, Petrov remarked that he would probably be returning to the Soviet Union in May for a vacation. He made it clear, however, that in the meantime he expected the engineer to "keep busy" obtaining and copying F-14 reports.

Additional Meetings 

Shortly before returning to Russia on May 19, 1971, Petrov set up a schedule of future meetings.

On odd months the meetings would be held on the first Monday of the month, while the even month meeting dates would be on the second Monday. Alternate meeting dates, in case one of them missed the regular day, would be on the following Monday of each month. Petrov then told the engineer he would return to the United States in August. They agreed to meet again on August 9th at a restaurant in the vicinity of Islip, Long Island.

Following Petrov's return from the Soviet Union, their dinner meetings continued on a regular basis. They met at previously designated restaurants and, during dinner, discussed the engineer's employment prospects at Grumman and what material the engineer had managed to bring with him.

After dinner they normally left the restaurant and entered the engineer's car where the F-14 reports and money were exchanged. Petrov would then get out of the car and depart the area on foot. During their earlier meetings, Petrov drove his own automobile to the meeting location. Later, however, the Russian started driving to a railroad station located several stops short of the meeting site and then rode a train to his final destination. Petrov explained to the engineer that no one would recognize him so far from New York City, but he was afraid the police might begin to notice his car after a while.

During their November 1, 1971 meeting, Petrov furnished the engineer with a specially altered 35-mm camera. This camera was capable of taking 72 photographs from each 36-exposure roll of film. Included with the camera were a couple of rolls of film and a high-intensity lamp. Petrov instructed the engineer in the camera's operation and told him to use both the camera and the copying machine until he was certain he could operate the camera correctly. The Russian explained that it would be much easier to pass the engineering reports if they were on film. The engineer could place the film in a cigarette package and give it to Petrov who would in return hand the American a similar package containing cigarettes.

During their January 3, 1972 meeting, Petrov told the engineer that his contract at the UN would probably terminate in October or November of that year. He stated that, should he have to return to Russia, he would introduce the engineer to a colleague with whom the American could continue to do business.

Petrov added that if he failed to appear at their designated meeting site on both of the first two Mondays of that month, then the engineer was to go to a movie theater in Freeport, Long Island the following Monday. The engineer was to walk up the right side of the theater entrance at precise intervals of 7:00 to 7:07 p.m. and 7:30 to 7:35 p.m. A man, standing in this area, would say to the engineer: "Hello. Are you interested in buying an antique Ford of 1930?" The engineer was to reply: "Yes. I am. After all, I was born in 1930." As an extra precautionary measure, the new man would have one half of a dollar bill. The engineer would have the other half of the dollar bill.

Final Meeting and Arrest 

Their fifteenth and final meeting took place at a restaurant near Patchogue, Long Island on February 14, 1972.

Petrov seemed pleased when the engineer told him he had brought along some confidential pages from a report on the F-14 project. Petrov then said that since their business arrangement was working out so well, he wanted to minimize the possibility of anyone recognizing them together. He mentioned a plan to use walkie-talkies to eliminate all unnecessary personal contact.

Petrov, unaware of his impeding arrest that evening, promised to give the engineer his walkie-talkie unit at their next meeting. He instructed the engineer to place the rolls of film, containing the Grumman reports, in small, metal containers which would then be cast in plaster of Paris bricks. The engineer was to place the bricks in predesignated locations and then transmit a radio signal to Petrov who would be stationed about one-half mile away. Upon receipt of this signal, Petrov would wait approximately one-half hour before retrieving the brick.

Petrov told the engineer that during the first three months of this new system, the drop-off points for the plaster bricks would be somewhere on Long Island. Subsequent drop-off points would be on the west side of the Tappan Zee Bridge in Rockland County, north of New York City.

When asked about payment for the confidential report that the engineer had brought along that evening, Petrov replied that he would have to look at it to determine its value. Upon finishing dinner, they left the restaurant and entered the engineer's car.

At this point, Petrov asked if the engineer had the confidential material ready. In response, the engineer removed a large grey envelope stashed in the back of the car which contained a copy of an F-14 engineering report, a roll of film containing a copy of the same report, and several pages that were classified "confidential" from another report. The engineer then handed the envelope to Petrov who placed it into his attache case.

Petrov, after giving the engineer a small, white envelope in return, got out of the car and started to walk toward the parking lot's exit. At this moment, based upon a prearranged signal, FBI agents immediately intercepted and arrested Petrov before he could escape. The Russian, seeing that capture was imminent, attempted to dispose of the evidence by throwing his attache case high into the air. However, it was immediately retrieved by one of the FBI agents.

Petrov Returns Home 

Petrov was taken to the Federal Detention Center in New York City. The following morning, he was brought before the U.S. magistrate for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn. The U.S. magistrate set bail at $500,000 and remanded Petrov into the U.S. marshal's custody until a Russian translator could be obtained the next day.

Ironically, Petrov, who worked as a Russian-English translator at the UN, remained silent during his court appearance, indicating that he did not understand the English language!

A search of Petrov's person turned up three index cards. Each contained hand-drawn diagrams of various locations within the New York area. These were obviously the drop-off sites that Petrov had had in mind when he discussed the use of plaster bricks with the engineer.

Petrov was arraigned and released after his $500,000 bail was reduced to $100,000. A federal grand jury returned an indictment on February 17, 1972, charging Petrov with espionage and violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

On August 14, 1972, the indictment was dismissed following instructions from the White House to the U.S. Department of Justice and after Petrov returned to the Soviet Union with prior court approval. It was decided by top U.S. officials that this dismissal would best serve the national and foreign policy interests of the United States.