In reply, Zirkle wrote that before the agency would consider “the very substantial settlement” being sought, Groat would have “to accurately identify the person...responsible for the compromise of the operation” under investigation. “If he can provide us with clear and convincing corroborating evidence confirming the information that he would provide, we would be prepared to consider not using the polygraph.” But the exchange of letters led nowhere. In September 1996 Groat was divorced, and a month later he was dismissed from the CIA, with no severance and no pension.
Seeking new leverage with the agency, Groat made another risky move: In January 1997 he telephoned Zirkle and said that without a settlement, he would have to earn a living as a security consultant to foreign governments, advising them on how to protect their codes.
Groat’s telephone call detonated like a bombshell at CIA headquarters. Senior officials had long debated what to do about him. Some favored negotiating a money settlement and keeping him quiet; others wanted to take a hard line. Groat’s call intensified the agency’s dilemma, but it seemed to have worked: Zirkle urged patience; a settlement was imminent. “We are working very hard to come to a timely and satisfactory resolution,” the lawyer wrote in a subsequent letter.
That March, Zirkle sent Groat a written offer of $50,000 a year as a contract employee until 2003, when he would be eligible to retire with a full pension. The contract amounted to $300,000—$200,000 less than what Groat had sought. Again, Zirkle reminded him, he would have to cooperate with the counterintelligence investigation. He would be required to take a polygraph, and he would have to agree not to contact any foreign government. Bradley urged his client to take the money and run, but Groat believed the agency's offer was too low.
Later that month, he visited 15 foreign consulates in San Francisco to drop off a letter in which he identified himself as a former CIA officer whose job was “to gain access to...crypto systems of select foreign countries.” The letter offered his expertise to train security officers on ways to protect “your most sensitive information” but did not disclose any information about how the CIA stole codes. The letter included a telephone number and a mailbox in Sacramento where he could be contacted.
Groat says he had no takers—and claims he didn’t really want any. “I never intended to consult for a foreign country,” he says. “It was a negotiating ploy....Yes, I realized it was taking a risk. I did unconventional work in my career, and this was unconventional.” He did not act secretly, Groat notes; he wanted the agency and the FBI to know. He told the CIA what he planned to do, and he gave the FBI a copy of his letter after he had visited the consulates. The FBI opened another investigation of Groat.
Molly Flynn, the FBI agent assigned to the case, introduced herself to Groat and stayed in touch with him after he moved to Atlanta for training as an inspector for a gas pipeline company. In late March, Groat called Flynn to say he was heading for Pennsylvania to start on his first inspection job.
Flynn invited him to stop off in Washington for a meeting she would arrange with representatives of the CIA, the FBI and the Justice Department to try to resolve the situation. Still hoping to reach a settlement, Groat says, “I accepted eagerly.”
On April 2, 1998, he walked into an FBI building in downtown Washington. Flynn greeted him in the lobby. Had the others arrived yet? he asked as she led him to a first-floor conference room. She said they had not. As the door clicked shut behind him, she delivered unexpected news. “I told him we had resolved the matter, but not to his liking,” Flynn recalls. A man in a white shirt and tie—a Justice Department official, Groat later concluded—told him: “We decided not to negotiate with you. We indicted you instead.” Then the man turned and left.
Groat was arrested and held in the room for five hours. Flynn and two other agents remained with him, he says. His car keys were taken away. “One of the FBI agents said, ‘It probably wouldn’t do much good to ask you questions, would it?’ And I said, ‘No, it wouldn’t.’” After being strip-searched, fingerprinted and handcuffed, he says, he was driven to the Federal District Court building and locked in a cell. Held there for two days, he was strip-searched again in front of eight people, including a female officer, shackled and outfitted with a stun belt. “My eyes were covered with a pair of goggles, the lenses masked over with duct tape,” he says. He was moved by van, with a police escort, to a waiting helicopter.