PHILADELPHIA -- A former Army clerk at Fort Meade admitted through tears yesterday that he sold state secrets to the Soviet Union three decades ago in a case equal parts Cold War intrigue and slapstick farce.
Robert S. Lipka, 51 and seeking to avoid the possibility of life in prison, pleaded guilty to one count of espionage in exchange for a jail term of no more than 18 years.
Federal prosecutors said they agreed to the deal in order to protect the anonymity of a witness who would have had to testify in disguise if the case had gone to trial.
The plea agreement, signed just an hour before what had been scheduled as a routine pretrial hearing, marks the first time the man, known by his handlers as "the Rook," has admitted to selling classified documents to the Soviet Union.
The price of the secret information -- delivered as U.S. involvement in Vietnam escalated and the Soviets planned their 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia -- was $27,000. He would later use the money, more than 10 times his annual Army salary, for college tuition.
"It was about, to use his words, 'pure green greed,' " said Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara J. Cohan, who prosecuted the case. "That was a lot of money back then. It's fair to say he was passing out valuable information."
Lipka joined the Army in 1963. While stationed at Fort Meade and assigned to the National Security Agency's Priority Materials Branch from 1965 to 1967, he passed Soviet agents documents thought to have detailed U.S. troop movements, NATO communications and NSA electronic eavesdropping targets.
With "top-secret" clearance, Lipka had everyday access to reports from the State and Defense departments and the CIA.
Once, Lipka taped a secret package inside a toilet tank in a Maryland restaurant. Parks around Washington were popular "dead drop" sites. He sometimes sneaked material out of Fort Meade under his hat.
Lipka did not admit to selling documents after he left the Army in 1967, even though prosecutors believe he did business with the Soviets through 1974.
Dressed in orange prison garb, with his wife, Deborah, watching from the gallery, Lipka said: "I've lived a life of terror for 30 years that this whole thing would get found out. I've been threatened numerous times [that] if I didn't do things I would be subject to exposure.
"I went to school to be a schoolteacher, and I weighed very carefully what effect it would have on students if at some point later on in my life, after I had taught them, that this would be found out.
"So I determined that maybe that wasn't the best thing for me to be -- a person in charge of children," he said.
U.S. District Judge Charles R. Weiner will sentence Lipka on Aug. 15. Lipka's lawyer, Ronald F. Kidd Sr., said the government agrees that Lipka, who suffers from a chronic back injury, could serve time in a medical detention center near his Millersville, Pa., home.
Lipka has been in a federal prison in New Jersey since shortly after FBI agents raided his home in February 1996 minutes after his two sons had left for school. Lipka also has an adult daughter with his first wife, the former Patricia Davis of Baltimore, who has worked with federal investigators on the case.
In 1993, an FBI agent posing as a Soviet spy told Lipka his life was in danger. That started several months of the kind of cloak-and-dagger operation that Lipka decades earlier had become practiced in.
Lipka almost caught on to the ruse when the two men were sitting in the former clerk's Chevrolet van in the parking lot of a Lancaster, Pa., hotel. The agent, posing as "Sergei Nikitin," could not come up with the name of the Soviet defense minister.
But the agent recovered and mentioned Lipka's code name, "Rook." Lipka, according to court documents, breathed a sigh of relief.
Lipka, acknowledging the U.S. flag in the courtroom yesterday, said, "I've had occasion many times over 30 years to understand what that flag means."
He choked up. "I'm sorry, give me a second."
"Only a person who traveled in my shoes could understand what that means, to know that there are people who died for that flag and that in some way I didn't, that I betrayed that flag.
"I'm sorry for that."
Pub Date: 5/24/97