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“I’d come back from an op and couldn’t wait for what happens next,” says Douglas Groat (shown in a reenactment with tools of the trade). (James Quantz Jr.)

The CIA Burglar Who Went Rogue

Douglas Groat thought he understood the risks of his job—until he took on his own employer

After training came the real thing. “It was exhilarating,” Groat recalls of his first mission, targeting a South American embassy in Northern Europe. When he traveled to a target, he used an alias and carried phony ID—”pocket litter,” as it is known in the trade. His fake identities were backstopped, meaning that if anyone called to check with the real companies listed on his cards, someone would vouch for him as an employee. He also was given bank and credit cards in an alias to pay his travel expenses.

Because Groat’s work was so sensitive, he had to conceal it. Although his wife understood the nature of his work, for years his children did not. “I didn’t know where my father worked until I was in high school, in the ninth or tenth grade,” says Groat's son, Shawn. “My sister typed a report on special paper that dissolved in water, although we didn’t know it. My father realized what she was doing and said, ‘You can’t use that paper.’ Then he ate the paper.

“He then sat us down and said, ‘I don’t work for the State Department. I work for the CIA.’” The State Department had been his cover story to explain his frequent travels to friends, relatives and neighbors. He said he inspected security at U.S. embassies.

Groat would not talk about which countries’ codes he and his colleagues stole. Other intelligence sources said that in 1989, he led an extraordinary mission to Nepal to steal a code machine from the East German Embassy there—the CIA and the NSA, which worked closely with the Shop, wanted the device so badly that Groat was told to go in, grab the safe containing the code machine and get out. Never mind the rule about leaving no trace; in this case it would be immediately obvious that a very large object was missing.

According to two CIA sources, the agency and the NSA had collected three decades’ worth of encrypted East German communications traffic; the machine would allow them to read it and, if the Soviets and the other Warsaw Pact countries were linked in a common system, perhaps to decrypt Soviet traffic as well.

The CIA station in Katmandu arranged for an official ceremony to be held more than an hour away from the capital and for all foreign diplomats to be invited. The agency knew the East Germans could not refuse to attend. That would leave Groat’s team about three hours to work. Posing as tourists, they arrived in Katmandu two days before the mission and slipped into a safe house. On the appointed day, they left the safe house wearing disguises crafted by a CIA specialist—whole-face latex masks that transformed them into Nepalese, with darker skin and jet-black hair. At the embassy, Groat popped the front door open with a small pry bar. Inside, the intruders peeled off their stifling masks and with a bolt-cutter removed a padlock barring the way to the embassy's security area. Once in the code room, Groat and two teammates strained to lift the safe from the floorboards and wrestled it down the stairs and out to a waiting van.

They drove the safe to the American Embassy, where it was opened—and found to contain no code machine. Based on faulty intelligence, the CIA had sent its break-in team on a Himalayan goose chase.

In planning an operation, Groat says, he would normally reconnoiter the target personally. But he was told there was no budget to send him before his 1990 mission to the Middle East capital, so he had to rely on assurances from the local CIA station. Although the team accomplished its mission and returned to the Shop within two days, Groat was enraged at what he believed was sloppy advance work.

“It was a near miss, very scary,” he says. “I had to complain. It could have been disastrous for the U.S. government and the officers involved.”

Not to worry, Groat’s boss told him; he would personally tell the official who supervised the Shop what had happened. Groat says his boss warned him that if he went outside channels and briefed the supervisor on his own, “it would end my career.” He went to the supervisor anyway. “I told [him] if we had been caught our agent would be killed,” he says. “He said he didn’t care. That it was an aberration and wouldn’t happen again.” Groat did not back down; in fact, he escalated matters by taking his complaint to the CIA inspector general. The IG at the time was Frederick P. Hitz, who now teaches law at the University of Virginia. Hitz recalls that his office investigated the matter.

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