WASHINGTON -- The FBI arrested one of its own agents yesterday for allegedly spying for Russia and the former Soviet Union for $224,000 over a five-year period ending in 1992.
Earl Edwin Pitts, 43, a 13-year bureau veteran who held a "top secret" clearance, was arrested at the end of a 16-month investigation in which his wife cooperated with the bureau. FBI agents posed as Russian spy chiefs during the undercover operation.
He is the second FBI agent ever to be accused of espionage, and the second U.S. intelligence officer in a month to be accused of spying for Russia. His arrest is bound to heighten concerns over the security of the nation's intelligence apparatus.
The national security community has also been shaken in recent years by spy cases involving two high-ranking CIA agents -- confessed spy Aldrich H. Ames, sentenced to life in prison in April 1994, and Harold J. Nicholson, a former station chief arrested last month on espionage charges.
"Second to the Ames case, this is the most significant in many years, because of the access [Pitts] had," said Ronald Kessler, author of "The FBI," a 1993 book.
Pitts allegedly was an active spy for the Russians and the former Soviet Union for five years from 1987 to 1992, but had since been a "dormant" agent.
"Nothing was sacred to Pitts," said Helen F. Fahey, a U.S. attorney in Virginia who is in charge of the prosecution. "He was willing to betray his country, his agency and his fellow agents."
Among the secret information he allegedly delivered to the undercover agents posing as Russian spies, according to Fahey: Sensitive national defense documents.
Personal, medical and family information on fellow agents, to help identify those who might be vulnerable to Russian recruitment.
Maps and timetables as part of a plan to smuggle a Russian communications expert into the FBI Academy, a training facility on the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Va.
An FBI cipher lock combination, an FBI Academy key and his own FBI identification badge.
A top-secret telephone handset used for transmitting classified information.
Experts on Russian intelligence described Pitts' alleged recruitment in 1987 as a coup for the KGB, the intelligence agency for the former Soviet Union.
Some said the case could jeopardize cooperation between the FBI and the Russian security services on nuclear smuggling, narcotics, terrorism and organized crime.
"It raises questions about cooperative agreements between our two countries in which the FBI is deeply involved -- in counterterrorism, counter narcotics, even training Russian police officials at the FBI Academy in Quantico," said J. Michael Waller, author of "Secret Empire," a 1994 book on the Russian intelligence and security services.
Waller, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, acknowledged that the CIA and FBI are still actively recruiting Russian agents and said it would be naive to expect less from Moscow. But he said the United States should consider showing its displeasure by pressing for a cutoff of International Monetary Fund loans to Russia.
"They really haven't changed their level of operations against the U.S. since the Soviet collapse," Waller said.
Oleg D. Kalugin, a retired KGB general who spied for the Soviet Union under diplomatic cover in Washington in the 1960s, said Russian spies have always seen the FBI as a formidable challenge.
"In my time the FBI was considered practically impenetrable," said Kalugin, who retired from the KGB in 1990 and now works as a Washington consultant on business in Russia. "The great prize would be to get an insider in the FBI. We never really succeeded. The FBI was considered a very disciplined organization."
Pitts was charged with attempted espionage and conspiracy to commit espionage, which carry life sentences upon conviction. He also could face 10 years each on a lesser spying charge and for conveying government property without authority.
At his arraignment in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., the slightly built Pitts, dressed in a blue, open-collar shirt and olive pants, remained silent. He will appear in court again tomorrow, when bail will be considered.
Over the past 16 months, according to Fahey, Pitts made 22 information "drops" to his undercover FBI "spymasters."
He was paid $65,000 during the sting operation, but according to court documents his bank accounts showed a total of $124,000 in unexplained deposits between 1987 and 1992, which the FBI attributed to espionage payments.
One of his accounts was in Baltimore, where between March 1990 and August 1992 he made 120 deposits totaling more than $33,000 -- "all unexplained by Pitts' known income," according to court papers.
He also allegedly told the undercover agents that more than $100,000 had been paid by his spymasters into a reserve account in Moscow.
His spying career began in 1987, court documents allege, after he wrote to an unidentified Soviet diplomat in New York telling him he was under surveillance and asking for a meeting. The letter was passed on to the then-KGB station chief in New York, who recruited Pitts and acted as his spymaster, the documents say.
The Russian diplomat was later "turned" by the FBI. He identified Pitts as an agent and last year began to help expose him by introducing undercover U.S. agents as his new Russian controllers.
Pitts' wife, Mary, became suspicious Aug. 26, 1995, when a stranger with a foreign accent called at the family's home in Spotsylvania, Va.
The stranger was the unidentified diplomat whom Pitts allegedly contacted with his original espionage offer.
Mary Pitts saw her husband leave the family house in "a panic" with the stranger, who by now was working for the FBI. She later searched his office and found a letter giving him instructions on how to make a "dead drop" -- a secret delivery -- at a location code-named "Pole."
Three days later, she called the FBI to report her husband's suspicious activities. She told a neighbor, "I probably shouldn't have gone to the bureau and it will probably be the end of my marriage either way it goes. There is no going back now. It's over, my life is over"
The FBI confronted Pitts, but he calmly explained that the stranger at the house was a former Soviet "asset," who had arrived drunk at the house to seek legal advice from Pitts, a lawyer.
"These statement were false," said an affidavit by FBI Special Agent David G. Lambert.
Even before the Russian tipped off the FBI, and his wife voiced her suspicions, Pitts was under suspicion.
An FBI internal analysis had identified him as one of a few agents who had access to information that had been compromised in New York in the late 1980s.
He joined the FBI New York division in 1987, where he had access to a wide range of sensitive and highly classified operations -- including recruitment of Russian intelligence officers -- the identities of spies and defectors, the surveillance of known espionage meeting places, and the targeting of KGB intelligence officers in New York.
According to court documents, he was kept under intense surveillance during the undercover operation as he purloined FBI documents, staff lists and counter- intelligence manuals, and delivered them to a "dead drop" in Virginia or to a numbered storage box.
A search last month of his office computer at the FBI Academy revealed, according to court documents, that he was working on what he termed an "emergency escape plan in the event that it needs to be used on short notice."
And in a Dec. 6 phone conversation with his undercover spymasters, he indicated it was "getting close to that time" when he would need a passport prepared by the Russian intelligence service. He said he would provide a photograph.
At a news conference at FBI headquarters to announce Pitts' arrest yesterday, Attorney General Janet Reno praised the "splendid professionalism" of the FBI undercover agents.
"Their efforts will make America safer," she said.
FBI Director Louis J. Freeh said Pitts' arrest "represents the apprehension and termination of a significant threat to our national security."
Pub Date: 12/19/96