The CIA Burglar Who Went Rogue

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

“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.)
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One of the agency’s most ambitious known theft attempts took place after a Soviet submarine sank in 1968 several hundred miles northwest of Hawaii, losing all hands. After spending at least $200 million to build a ship designed especially for the mission, the agency tried in 1974 to steal the sub from its resting place, 17,000 feet deep. Using a giant claw, the ship, the Glomar Explorer, lifted the sub from the ocean bottom, but it broke in two as it was raised. The agency recovered the forward third of the vessel, but former CIA director William E. Colby confirmed in the French edition of his memoir, which slipped through the agency’s censorship, that the operation fell short of its main objective—recovering the part of the sub containing Soviet nuclear missiles and codebooks.

Codes have always been primary espionage targets, but they have become more valuable as encryption programs have become both more common and more complex. Today, even the National Security Agency, the nation’s code-making and -breaking arm and its largest intelligence agency, has trouble keeping up with the flood of messages it intercepts. When decrypting other countries’ codes is so difficult, the most obvious solution is to steal them.

That is why by 1955, and probably earlier, the CIA created a special unit to perform what the agency calls “surreptitious entries.” This unit was so secret that few people inside CIA headquarters knew it existed; it wasn’t even listed in the CIA's classified telephone book. Officially it was named the Special Operations Division, but the handful of agency officers selected for it called it the Shop.

In Doug Groat’s time there, in the 1980s and early ’90s, the Shop occupied a nondescript one-story building just south of a shopping mall in the Washington suburb of Springfield, Virginia. The building was part of a government complex surrounded by a chain-link fence; the pebbled glass in the windows let in light but allowed no view in or out. The men and women of the Shop made up a team of specialists: lock pickers, safecrackers, photographers, electronics wizards and code experts. One team member was a master at disabling alarm systems, another at flaps and seals. Their mission, put simply, was to travel the world and break into other countries’ embassies to steal codes, and it was extraordinarily dangerous. They did not have the protection of diplomatic cover; if caught, they might face imprisonment or execution. The CIA, they assumed, would claim it knew nothing about them. “It was generally understood, from talking to the other guys,” Groat recalls. “Nobody ever said it in so many words.”

Groat started working at the Shop in 1982 and became the CIA’s top burglar and premier lock picker. He planned or participated in 60 missions in Europe, Africa, South America and the Middle East. He received several $5,000 awards for successful entry missions—a significant sum for someone earning less than $40,000 a year at the time—as well as an award from the CIA’s Clandestine Service and another from the NSA. In several instances, as in the operation in the Middle East capital, he led the entry team. But that operation was Groat’s last. The simple fact that a cleaning lady had unexpectedly shown up for work set off a chain of events that pit him against his employer. The operations of the Shop, as described by Groat, other former members of the Shop and other intelligence professionals, illustrate the lengths to which the CIA went to steal other nations’ secrets. What happened to Groat illustrates the measures the agency took to protect secrets of its own.

Groat would seem an excellent candidate for the job of stealing codes. Six-foot-three, handsome and articulate, he is a former Green Beret trained in scuba diving, underwater explosives, parachuting, survival and evasion; he knows how to build homemade pistols, shotguns, silencers, booby traps and bombs. He also speaks Mandarin Chinese. He says he relished his work at the Shop—both for the opportunity to serve his country and for the adrenaline rush that came with the risks.

He grew up in Scotia, New York, near Albany. He joined the Army in 1967, before marrying his high-school sweetheart, and served as a captain in the Special Forces. He left after four years and worked in a series of law-enforcement jobs. As a police officer in Glenville, New York, Groat displayed a streak of unyielding resolve: He ticketed fire engines when he believed they were breaking the law. “The trucks would run with lights flashing even when they were not responding to a fire. They were checking the hydrants,” he says. “I warned them, ‘Do it again and I’ll ticket you.’ They did and I did.” After he ticketed the fire chief, Groat was fired. He sued and won his job back—and then, having made his point, quit to become a deputy U.S. marshal in Phoenix.

By then Groat and his wife had a daughter and a son. In 1980, he joined the CIA and moved his family to Great Falls, Virginia. At age 33, he was sent off to the Farm, the CIA's training base near Williamsburg, to learn the black arts of espionage. Two years later, after testing well for hand coordination and the capacity to pay painstaking attention to detail, he was accepted for the Shop.

In training there he demonstrated an exceptional talent for picking locks, so the CIA sent him to vocational courses in opening both locks and safes. As a result, the CIA’s top burglar was also a bonded locksmith, member number 13526 of the Associated Locksmiths of America. He was also a duly certified member of the Safe and Vault Technicians Association.

Although Hollywood films show burglars with an ear glued to a safe to listen for the tumblers, Groat says it doesn't work that way. “You feel the tumblers. In your fingers,” he says. “There are three to four wheels in a typical safe combination lock. As you turn the dial you can feel it as you hit each wheel, because there’s extra tension on the dial. Then you manipulate one wheel at a time until the drop lever inside falls into the open position and the safe is unlocked.”


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