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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

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After a short ride, he was taken to a windowless room that would be his home for the next six months. He was never told where he was, but he was told he was being treated as an “extreme risk” prisoner. The lights in his cell were kept on 24/7, and a ceiling-mounted camera monitored him all the time.<

Robert Tucker, a federal public defender in Washington, was assigned to Groat’s case. When Tucker wanted to visit his client, he was picked up in a van with blacked-out windows and taken to him. Tucker, too, never learned where Groat was being held.

A few days before Groat’s arrest, a federal grand jury in Washington had handed down a sealed indictment accusing him of transmitting, or trying to transmit, information on “the targeting and compromise of cryptographic systems” of unnamed foreign countries—a reference to his distributing his letter to the consulates. The formal charge was espionage, which carries a possible penalty of death. He was also charged with extortion, another reference to his approach to the consulates; the indictment accused him of attempting to reveal “activities and methods to foreign governments” unless the CIA “paid the defendant for his silence in excess of five hundred thousand dollars ($500,000).”

As a trial date approached, prosecutors offered Groat a plea agreement. Although they were not pressing for the death penalty, Groat faced the prospect of life in prison if a jury convicted him of espionage. Reluctantly, he agreed to plead guilty to extortion if the government would drop the spying charges. “I had no choice,” he says. “I was threatened with 40 years to life if I didn’t take the deal.” Groat also agreed to testify fully in the CIA and FBI counterintelligence investigations, and he subsequently confessed that he sent the letters about the bugged computers.

On September 25, 1998, Groat stood before Judge Thomas F. Hogan of the Federal District Court in Washington and entered his guilty plea. He was sentenced to five years.

The question of where Groat would serve his time was complicated by what a federal Bureau of Prisons official referred to as his “special abilities.” While still in solitary, he wrote to a friend: “The marshals are treating me like I'm a cross between MacGyver, Houdini and Rambo.” But in the end, he was sent to the minimum-security wing of the federal prison camp in Cumberland, Maryland. “My skills, after all, were not for escaping,” Groat notes. “They were for entering places.”

There Groat was assigned to a case manager, who introduced herself as Aleta. Given her new client’s reputation, she put him in solitary the first night. But officials gradually noticed she and Groat spent a lot of time talking to each other. As a result, he was transferred to the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, after two years, but the two corresponded often.

In March 2002, Groat was released a month short of four years, his sentence reduced for good behavior. Aleta was waiting for him at the prison gate, and they were married that December. Today, Doug and Aleta Groat live on 80 acres in the South. He prefers not to disclose his location any more specifically than that. He has not told his neighbors or friends about his previous life as a spy; he works the land and tries to forget the past.

When he looks back, Groat tries to focus on the good parts. “I loved the work at CIA. I’d come back from an op and couldn’t wait for what happens next,” he says. “I thought the work was good for the country. I was saddened by the way I was treated by the agency, because I tried to do my job.”

The CIA was unwilling to talk about Douglas Groat or anything connected with his case. Asked whether it has a team that goes around the globe breaking into foreign embassies and stealing codes, a spokesperson provided a five-word statement: “The CIA declined to comment.”

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