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Caught in a Honeypot – Marine Clayton Lonetree Betrays His Country

Marine Security Guard Clayton Lonetree was seduced by a Russian woman, “Violetta Seina,” at the annual Marine Corps Ball in November 1985. She worked as a telephone operator and translator for Embassy Moscow but lived a double life as a KGB agent. Lonetree was so highly regarded that he was chosen to be part of the Marine unit assigned to provide security for the 1985 summit between Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan. However, despite the strict non-fraternization (“no frat”) policy imposed on all MSGs in such parts of the world, Lonetree and Seina began a relationship soon after they met. She introduced him to her “Uncle Sasha,” KGB operative Aleksey Yefimov, who asked Lonetree to become a “friend of the Soviet Union.”

Lonetree was soon convinced to turn over confidential information, including embassy floor plans. After he was transferred to Embassy Vienna in 1986, he passed on blueprints of that embassy and burn bags with top secret cables, including on U.S. arms reduction. On December 14, 1986,  Lonetree came forward to the CIA station chief in Vienna and confessed. He was immediately turned over to the Navy Intelligence Service (NIS) and placed under arrest, charged with espionage.

Lonetree was convicted on multiple counts of turning over classified information, was court-martialed in 1987 and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He was the first U.S. Marine Corps member ever convicted of espionage. Because of his cooperation with authorities, his sentence was reduced to 25 years of which he served nine before being released in February 1996.

Chaos ensued as this scandal began to unfold. Secretary of State George Shultz phoned Ambassador to Thailand Bill Brown, in the middle of the night. Brown was a former Marine who had served in Moscow and was considered a useful resource. As Brown notes in his oral history, when the Secretary of State “asks you to do something, you do it.” Brown went straight to Washington to help remedy the problem. What was initially supposed to be a quick fix turned into an ordeal that took a decade for everyone involved to get over. Embassy Moscow was assumed to have been so infiltrated that staff took to using children’s “magic slate” writing pads to pass messages back and forth, while the new embassy building was discovered to be “one huge, KGB radio station.” Brown was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in November 1998.

Read also the Spy who loved (to follow) me, other honeypot episodes, and more Moments on espionage.


“Things Really Hit the Fan”

BROWN:  [This] is what I would call the “Moscow scandal.” Around midnight one night, I received a phone call from Secretary of State Shultz, who said to me: “Bill, we’ve got a scandal involving a Marine Security Guard assigned to the Embassy in Moscow. His name is Lonetree, and another Marine is also involved in this affair. The issue is ‘white hot’ back in Washington. Demands have been made for the establishment of commissions to investigate this matter. I need someone whom I can trust to do a quick and dirty review of this situation, taking perhaps, five or six weeks. You’re an old Marine and you served in the Embassy in Moscow. I’d like you to come back to Washington right away and handle this matter for me.” Some 30 seconds later, my wife said, “What kind of a conversation was that? All you said was, ‘Yes, sir.’” [Laughter] I said, “Well, that’s it. When the Secretary of State asks you to do something, you do it.”

So I got together with my new DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission], Joe Winder. I said, “I’ll be gone in Washington for five or six weeks on this matter. Don’t sell the farm too cheaply.” I flew immediately to Washington and arrived in the middle of a maelstrom.

A Marine Security Guard, a Native American named Lonetree was the person principally involved. In Vienna, Lonetree walked into the Embassy and conveyed a confession that he had been suborned by the KGB in Moscow during his tour of duty there. There emerged the impression that together with another Marine Security Guard, he had given the KGB access to the inner workings of the Embassy in Moscow. That caused an uproar.

[This happened in] 1987, the spring of 1987. Things really hit the fan at that time. I arrived in Washington and was immediately whisked into Secretary Shultz’s office and then to Colin Powell’s office in the White House. There was a frenetic atmosphere about the whole incident. Hearings in Congress were taking place that day. Ambassador Arthur Hartman, a distinguished American diplomat then finishing his tour as Ambassador to Moscow, was on the griddle. This turned out to be his last day in 40 years spent in the Foreign Service. And what a day it was for him!

I went over first to a hearing in the House of Representatives. There, were then-Representative Olympia Snowe [R-Maine] and another Representative from New Jersey who had just made an investigatory trip to Moscow, where they found that the whole Embassy was assumed to have been fully penetrated by KGB bugs.

Therefore, they had resorted to communicating with each other and accompanying staff by the use of Mickey Mouse writing pads. That is, you write on the pad, and the writing shows up. Then you lift the sheet of plastic, and the writing disappears. These two Committee members were charging Ambassador Hartman and the Foreign Service with having permitted this gross scandal to take place.

From the House of Representatives we raced across on the underground Congressional subway to a meeting in a “Secure Hearing Room” of the Senate. There the Senate Intelligence Committee looking into this matter. The Director of the Navy Investigative Service and other, senior security officers were being grilled as to the investigation of this matter and the confessions which Lonetree and the other Marine Security Guard, an African American had made. I remember Senator [William] Borah [R-Idaho] asking the Director of the Naval Investigative Service: “Did you do it ‘right’ this time?” He clearly implied that there had been other cases which had not been handled very well. The NIS Director assured him that the Navy Investigative Service had conducted a proper investigation and that the confessions and testimony which had been taken from Lonetree and the other Marine were valid.

Well, I returned to the office of Secretary of State Shultz. I gave him a quick report. Deputy Secretary of State Whitehead attended this meeting. I was told to make and investigation prepare an “eyes only” report for Shultz. I managed to secure the assistance of help of Vic Dikeos, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Security, with whom I had worked when he was a “fraud fighter” in the consular Fraud Unit at the Consulate General in Hong Kong in 1957. I also recruited Bill Courtney, a good drafting officer who later became Ambassador to one of the Central Asian Republics, formerly part of the Soviet Union. He was a solid officer with an extensive background in Soviet affairs. I also got a secretary or two, repaired to an office in the Operations Center, and opened up my own approach to this issue. I did not have authority to take formal testimony as a legal investigator with full powers; I was simply to investigate the situation and report back with recommendations to Shultz.

We read through the files made available to me. The Foreign Service Inspection Corps had already gathered its own files from its own Foreign Service Inspectors over the years on the question of the security status of Marine Security Guard units. This was not the first problem which had arisen in connection with Marine Security Guard detachments in various embassies, including some in Communist countries. Inspections by Foreign Service Inspectors had revealed “peccadilloes” or breaches and suspected improper conduct by Marine Security Guards. We touched base with people in the CIA and, of course, in the Marine Corps.

Then I flew with Secretary Shultz to Moscow where he had scheduled major meetings with then-Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze and, ultimately, with Soviet President Gorbachev. I had already come to some preliminary conclusions which I conveyed to Shultz’s executive Secretary Charley Hill. Charley Hill took me up to the front of the plane to talk with Secretary Shultz, en route to Moscow.

“By this time, Secretary Shultz had turned crimson…”

I’ll never forget that conversation. I said, “Mr. Secretary, by the time I’m through, you’ll probably want to throw me off this plane at 35,000 feet.” Already, Moscow, I had discovered patterns of conduct which were very disturbing, not only regarding the behavior of Marine Security Guards. I had learned some of this from former Directors General of the Foreign Service and senior security types. There had been quite a few cases which have developed over the years, in which Americans have been blackmailed and suborned by the KGB and other Communist security services. These cases by no means involved just Marine Security Guards. Foreign Service Officers, including some fairly senior Foreign Service Officers, and, in some cases, ambassadors, have been ‘lured’ by the KGB and its sister services.

I told Shultz that we had a very serious problem. Even though Shultz had asked me to look at the problem affecting Marine Security Guards, he had authorized me to look at anything else of this nature. I told him that I had some ‘drastic’ options to submit. One option would require polygraphing senior Foreign Service Officers, including Ambassadors who are posted to communist countries. Immediately, I could see a flush rising in Secretary Shultz’s face, because he was on record as being adamantly opposed to taking polygraphs. …

Finally, it was suggested that everybody be polygraphed. Shultz and Jim Baker [then White House Chief of Staff] said that they would quit before they would go through such an indignity. I was well aware of this background and appreciated the problems associated with it.…

I gave the Secretary of State the option of authorizing a limited series of polygraphs as deterrents. That is, put on a 3″ x 5″ card “open questions” to be asked an Ambassador, a DCM, or anybody else who had authorized access to the “crown jewels” [highly sensitive files] of the Embassy, especially one in a communist country, including the Communications Room, the neighboring storage vaults, and so on. I drafted a question which would be asked such officers before they were ever appointed to a position in a communist country. It would go something like this: “Did you, during your tenure, give unauthorized access to the crown jewels?” It was as simple as that. You could carry this card in your pocket as a reminder, and that would be it. Well, as I said, a flush rose on the Secretary’s face when he heard this. There’s a passing reference to that conversation in his book of memoirs.

I also told Secretary Shultz that I was deeply disturbed at the time over the issues of accountability and responsibility. As I interviewed senior people up the chain of command in the Department of State, I found a distinct disinclination to accept responsibility. I had been a Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and had, along with Frank Wisner and other counterparts, co-drafted a directive which reminded every new ambassador that his chain of command ran through the regional, Assistant Secretary of the Department of State and, thence to the Secretary of State and the President. This was intended to cut off cowboy conduct which some Ambassadors engaged in, intending to could circumvent their regional, Assistant Secretary.

I was a typical Foreign Service Officer in that respect. I accepted that there was a chain of command. An ambassador reports to his regional Assistant Secretary, thence to the Secretary of State, and then on to the President. However, when it came to a disaster like this (remember that at the time it was alleged that our Embassy in Moscow and our Consulate General in Leningrad had been completely penetrated by the KGB) no one seemed willing to recognize this or any other chain of command for taking responsibility. Their attitude was: “This involves the Embassy in Moscow, and we have an ambassador over there. How in the world can I be expected to accept any responsibility for the meanderings of some Marine Security Guard?”

On the plane, I highlighted for Shultz the problem of enforcing responsibility and accountability. To dramatize it I said that I had recently learned that, within the Department of State, he as Secretary of State, couldn’t fire anybody. I was alluding to the case of an officer who was to be dismissed but appealed the decision. The ruling at the time was that the Secretary of State could not fire him. I added that I found that the most that an ambassador could do was to transfer somebody and issue an oral reprimand which could be done only under very special circumstances and had to be delivered face to face. Meanwhile, the person involved could not be suspended without pay.

By this time, Secretary Shultz had turned crimson, but I continued my remarks, I said, “If heads have to roll, you will be under great political pressure, but your options are limited, along the lines which I have just described. One of the things that you might consider would be a series of Letters of Regret. Ambassador Hartman has retired. You could write Hartman a letter which said, ‘Dear Ambassador, As you are now retired from the Foreign Service, I am writing you a letter in which I wish to praise the good work you did during your very distinguished career. However, I have to register for the record a sense of regret that, during your tenure as Ambassador to Moscow, this situation developed.’”

I also told Secretary Shultz: “You could send a similar letter to the DCM. You could also write a similar letter to the Administrative Officer in the Embassy in Moscow and the Security Officer, since they are in the line of command. You could also send a similar letter to the Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, who is senior to Ambassador Hartman and the Assistant Secretary of State for Security, who is responsible for overseeing the security situation in the Embassy. You could also go higher than that.”

Secretary Shultz looked at me and said, “What do you mean?” I said, “You could prepare a letter of regret from the President of the United States to you, saying: ‘Dear George, you’ve been a great Secretary of State. However, I note with regret that, during your tenure this deplorable event occurred.’” At this point Secretary Shultz said, “What about Secretary of Defense Weinberger?”

I also said that the Secretary of State could send a letter stating that, as an old Marine, he expresses regret that Marines under the Secretary of Defense had been derelict in their duties.

Well, while we were in Moscow, Secretary of State Shultz went off to his meetings with President Gorbachev and Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze. I talked with the DCM, Dick Combs, with whom I had served in Moscow and with a variety of other senior officers. The atmosphere was terrible. Marines on duty had a security officer seated next to them signaling lack of trust, and the assumption was that all rooms and all equipment had been compromised.

The new embassy building was “one huge KGB radio station”

I visited the Consulate General in Leningrad and found a similar mess. I went back to Moscow and arrived early in the morning just as Secretary Shultz was being shown the new building for the Embassy….

As I visited the new building with Secretary Shultz we saw that after boring into various parts of the new structure, security technicians found that the whole building was one huge, KGB radio station. That is, there were transmission elements in the columns supporting the structure which had been built under supervision by experienced teams of U.S. security specialists and to our specifications. In other words, right under our noses, the Soviets had fully penetrated the building. They had done so to such an extent that, in effect, it was a broadcasting station, transmitting to Soviet listeners. Whole teams of Seabees [Navy Construction Battalions] had been brought to Moscow to ensure the security of the Embassy construction, but these precautions had been in vain.

Diagram from Newsweek Magazine, April 1987
Diagram from Newsweek Magazine, April 1987

When we finished this inspection of the new building, Secretary Shultz asked me, “What are your recommendations on this?” I said, “Mr. Secretary, you have the Laird Commission and the Schlesinger Commission, which was specifically devoted to this problem. Really, I don’t think that I’m your man to make recommendations on this. However, I’ll say this. The old Chancery, built during the time of Stalin, is now run down because the Department knew that we were going to give it up, and it was not properly maintained for some years. Nevertheless, this old Chancery is still capable of holding the staff of the Embassy, so I would plan to continue in that old building for the next 10 years. You might consider that, by the time this scandal is over, it will take 10 years for the blood pressure of the U.S. Congress to recover. Meanwhile, all the new plans and procedures will also take 10 years to complete. Meanwhile, it will take the Soviets another 10 years to get over their hang-ups. So you should prepare for 10 years of continued occupation of the old Chancery.”

Lo and behold, that’s what it took, 10 years. However, I said that I didn’t want to get involved in this issue. (I could see, looming before me, the prospect of never returning to Bangkok.) Rather, I said that for comparative purposes I wanted to visit our embassies in Bucharest and Budapest, where old colleagues were serving as ambassadors, and get a feel for their Marine Guards’ situation.