TOPICS > Politics

FBI Agent: A.K.A. Russian Spy

December 18, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHARLES KRAUSE: Earl Edwin Pitts, a 13-year veteran of the FBI, was arrested today on charges of selling secrets to the Soviet KGB and its Russian successor, the SVRR. Allegedly–Pitts allegedly began spying for the Soviets in the summer of 1987 and was paid more than $224,000. Taken into custody this morning at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, Pitts was then formally charged with several counts of espionage. This afternoon, FBI Director Louis Freeh and U.S. Attorney Helen Fahey outlined the case against him.

HELEN FAHEY, U.S. Attorney: According to the affidavit, which was filed with the complaint, the conspiracy began when Pitts worked on FBI foreign counterintelligence investigations in the New York City division from 1987 to 1989. In 1987, an official at the Soviet mission to the United Nations in New York City received a letter believed by the FBI to have been sent by Pitts. Pitts requested a meeting with the official who at the time was believed by FBI personnel to be a KGB officer.

The official, who is now a cooperating witness in the government’s investigation, met with Pitts in the New York City Public Library and turned Pitts over to Alexander Karpov, a high-level official with the KGB, and later with the SVRR. The meeting between Karpov and Pitts was the beginning of five years of active espionage activity by Pitts on behalf of the KGB and the SVRR. Between 1987 and 1992, Pitts had access to a wide range of sensitive and highly classified operations. In a letter Pitts wrote to an undercover FBI agent last week, Pitts stated that he had provided to the Russians everything he was aware of during that period.

In August 1995, following an investigation that included the FBI’s de-briefing of the cooperating witness, analysis of Pitts’ financial and travel records, the FBI began an undercover operation known as a false flag. The purpose of the false flag operation was to confirm Pitts’ 1987 to 1992 suspected espionage activities and, most importantly, to determine what FBI information, projects, and operations Pitts had compromised. According to the affidavit, during the course of the false flag operation, Pitts made numerous incriminating statements concerning his 1987 through 1992 espionage activities with the KGB and the SVRR.

Nothing was sacred to Pitts. He was willing to betray his country, his agency, and his fellow agents. During the false flag operation Pitts gave the undercover agents, posing as SVRR officers, sensitive and classified documents relating to the national defense, personal, medical, and family information about fellow FBI special agents who might be vulnerable to recruitment. He provided strategies by which the SVRR might recruit additional agents, plans to smuggle into the FBI Academy an SVRR technical expert. He provided an FBI cipher lock combination, an FBI Academy key, and his own FBI identification badge which they could use to make identification badges of their own.

LOUIS FREEH, Director, FBI: During his career Mr. Pitts had access to highly classified information and investigations. As the government’s court filing against him makes clear, the success of the false flag operation leaves no doubt about the continuing threat to the national security that this defendant posed.

REPORTER: Could you characterize, in general, without discussing how this–how the damage might compare to Ames or Nicholson.

LOUIS FREEH: I certainly would not compare him with Aldrich Ames in any degree. And I don’t want to go further than what’s set forth in the affidavit with respect to what that assessment is. We have not completed that damage assessment yet, and that will be an important part of what we’re doing at this moment.

REPORTER: Was the cooperating witness involved in producing the initial suspicions that led to the false flag investigation?

LOUIS FREEH: Yes. It certainly directed us immediately in that regard. He was, as the affidavit sets forth, a Soviet citizen assigned to the Soviet mission to the U.N. when Mr. Pitts wrote that letter in 1987. So he directly introduced us to the defendant.

REPORTER: Did the cooperating witness make the first contact, or was he–I didn’t understand whether he was part of a recruitment effort–did he come forward, or can you explain the contact.

LOUIS FREEH: We went to the cooperating witness, recruited him. He made the first contact with the defendant.

REPORTER: On that point, you mentioned that you, the FBI, for some years or for some period was concerned about a penetration in the New York office. Can you describe a little bit more. Were people hurt, or killed, or just people found out their fate–were there investigations by Soviet authorities–and told you–

LOUIS FREEH: No information that anyone was killed. We had an analytical project which in the spring of 1993 indicated from a number of different sources, including defector sources, including the review of operational successes and failures, that we were concerned about a penetration in the FBI between roughly 1986 and 1990, and we began to look at all the individuals in the New York office who had access to some of those operations, and that’s how the analysis began.

CHARLES KRAUSE: We get more on today’s developments from Elaine Shannon, a Time Magazine correspondent who’s been covering the FBI since 1977. Elaine, welcome. Tell me, how high ranking an officer was Mr. Pitts, and what kind of sensitive information would he have had access to?

ELAINE SHANNON, Time: Oh, boy, he had access to the family jewels. When he was in New York, that’s one of the most important posts in the country for the FBI in terms of counterintelligence, because they were aimed at the United Nations mission to the Soviet government at that time and the Chinese government and a few others, Cubans. Then when he moved to Quantico, he was not as an important position but before that, he was in headquarters. And he had to do with classification. He had SCI clearance, which is above top secret.

CHARLES KRAUSE: So he was certainly well connected.

ELAINE SHANNON: Yes. His title wasn’t grand, but he certainly had names of, as we’ve seen, names of sources and methods. It’s devastating to the FBI.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Does the FBI know what kind of information the Russians were seeking from him?

ELAINE SHANNON: The Russians apparently were seeking everything they could get about everything the FBI was doing to surveil their people in this country, who they knew about, who they didn’t. He told them, they say, about illegals who are Russian spies who are here not under diplomatic cover, hidden. He told them about surveillance of known diplomats. He told them about in later days, recently in the false flag, about agents who might have medical problems, drinking problems, marital problems, financial problems, targeting them for recruitment, and betraying them.

CHARLES KRAUSE: How did Mr. Pitts come under suspicion? He was apparently spying, allegedly spying from ’87 to ’92, but he didn’t come under suspicion till later. How did that happen?

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, as Director Freeh said, his name came up during that 1993 analysis, but they couldn’t narrow it down to a short list, obviously, or they would have gotten on this case sooner. But then they just lucked out. They recruited this former Soviet diplomat who now has a green card and is living here, and he fingered Pitts. Then they started running this sting against Pitts, and in the sting, they gave him a letter of here’s the tasking, here’s the things you’re supposed to do. His wife, Mary, found that letter and searched his office. After she saw the Russian show up, and she searched his office, and then she called the FBI.

CHARLES KRAUSE: That’s a part of this case that’s very interesting.


CHARLES KRAUSE: Apparently, his wife did, in fact, cooperate with the FBI beginning several years ago. What–what did she do, and how important was that cooperation?

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, that’s one of the most poignant parts of this story. She is a former support person for the FBI. They were married in 1985, two years after Mr. Pitts joined the FBI, and then he allegedly started spying in 1987. So their marriage was young. They have no children, two cats, two dogs. There are no apparent marital or financial problems, but something aroused her suspicions, and she reported him, and then she told a neighbor–their phone was tapped, so we have the transcript–“My wonderful life is over. It’s over. But I had to do this.” She said, “There are things wrong with this country, but it’s still my country.” So her cooperation was crucial.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Now, what’s happened to the cooperating witness, the Soviet diplomat?

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, we don’t know exactly. They declined to give out his name today. I think the FBI is probably taking care of him very well. He’ll have to be a witness if this case goes to trial, that is, if there is no plea agreement. CHARLES KRAUSE: Now, he was crucial to this?


CHARLES KRAUSE: Apparently, he received the original letter, or was aware of it.

ELAINE SHANNON: He received it.

CHARLES KRAUSE: And then somehow or another–how did he become involved, or how did the FBI get access to him?

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, as Director Freeh explained it rather elliptically today, the FBI’s always trying to recruit Russian officials because the Russian government is still considered not terribly friendly, and, indeed, friendly governments also still spy here, and we spy on them. It’s not talked about a lot. They approached this man. I suppose they offered him money and perhaps helped with a green card and whatever else he wanted. He’s living here now. And one of the things he told them was that this is–this is the answer to the riddle of 1993.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Now, is the FBI certain that there is no connection between the Pitts case and the other two recent cases, Mr. Aldrich and Mr. Nicholson?

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, nothing is ever certain in this life, but they have found no evidence to suggest that they’re all connected. It obviously was a very successful penetration for the Russian intelligence service, but that’s about all the connection we can make right now.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Now, the false flags investigation which began once Mr. Pitts came under suspicion, what kind of hard evidence came out of that, that implicates Mr. Pitts?

ELAINE SHANNON: Tape recordings and videotapes. He was inveigled into reciting a lot of the things that he had done for the Soviet Union in the ’87 to ’92 period, and he talked about payments. They got him to admit that he had an account set up for him of about $100,000 in Russia that would be held for whenever he wanted it. These are devastating admissions it’s going to be very difficult for him to defend against in court.

CHARLES KRAUSE: In fact, there was some mention of an escape plan. What was that all about?

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, he was communicating with these phony Russians, who were really American intelligence and FBI people, and he was saying, look, I’ve got this escape plan, and I want thirty-five or forty thousand dollars out of my account in Russia to fund it, and I’ll use it if I have to. That’s about all we know. But this will be the reason that they’ll go into court, I think, Friday and ask for him to be detained without bond, because they think he’ll flee the country.

CHARLES KRAUSE: That is the next step.


CHARLES KRAUSE: Some sort of arraignment on Friday. What happens then? Do we know?

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, he’ll have to enter a plea. He’s got the court-appointed lawyer at this point. He is a lawyer, which is very interesting, and then we don’t know. The FBI has come out with a very thick affidavit against him, hoping, I think, to convince him to plead guilty. I don’t think that they’ll give him a very light offer because the FBI goes after its own people much more harshly than anybody else in the universe. It’s just so appalling what he did, as far as they’re concerned.

CHARLES KRAUSE: What might the consequences be if he is, in fact, found guilty?

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, at this point the worst that he can get would be life in prison. There is a death penalty now for espionage, but that can only be applied if someone died as a result of the espionage, or if the spy stole crucial military secrets, such as information on nuclear weaponry or satellites, things like that. That doesn’t seem to apply at this moment, but they are still proceeding with the damage assessment.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Now, a last question. During the press conference, Director Freeh was asked whether this–how this case compared to the other cases. He said it wasn’t as damaging as the Aldrich case. But how damaging is it? Is this serious?

ELAINE SHANNON: Oh, my Lord, yes. The FBI–people–he gave away his badge, and he gave the cipher codes, and even worse, he talked about his fellow agents. It’s not just some classified memo from the Navy that nobody really thinks should be classified. These are medical problems and personal problems of people he worked with. Nobody expected this.

This is not a person who had obvious problems. His wife in her phone conversation said, “Our marriage has been wonderful.” This is a mystery why he could do this, and at the same time say to his Russian handlers, these phony undercover agents, you shouldn’t pay me as much as you did last time because I haven’t given you the quality of work that I did last time, but I’m hoping to improve that. There’s a funny, ethical strange thing going on here that’s a mystery to all of us.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Well, I hope we’ll probably get some more answers to that mystery.

ELAINE SHANNON: I hope so too.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Elaine, thank you very much.