Magazine publishes CIA-trained burglar’s fascinating story

A captivating article about a break-in specialist for the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who turned against the Agency in the 1990s, appears in the October issue of The Smithsonian magazine. Written by David Wise (The Invisible Government, The Spy Who Got Away), the article contains some new information about “The Shop”, a secretive unit under the CIA’s Special Operations Division, which conducts what the agency describes as “surreptitious entries”. Based on “more than 80 interviews with 25 people”, including over a dozen former CIA officers, Wise says the unit features highly specialized teams of lock pickers, safecrackers, photographers, experts in disabling alarm systems, and others. Their mission, he says, is to break into foreign embassies around the world in order to steal classified documents and —most of all— codebooks used by foreign diplomats to communicate securely with their colleagues back home. Unlike most CIA personnel stationed abroad, the Agency’s non-destructive entry specialists do not enjoy the protection of diplomatic cover, says Wise, which means they cannot claim diplomatic immunity if caught red-handed. The author’s main source for the article appears to be Douglas Groat, a former US Special Forces captain, underwater explosives expert and Mandarin-Chinese speaker, who joined the CIA in 1980. Wise claims that Groat, who started working for The Shop in 1982, eventually became the Agency’s “top burglar and premier lock picker”. He designed or participated in approximately 60 different CIA- or National Security Agency-sponsored operations in dozens of countries in the Middle East, Africa, South America and Europe, which earned him several commendations, medals and awards from the NSA and the CIA. The article describes one joint CIA/NSA operation that took place in 1989 at the embassy of the German Democratic Republic in Katmandu, Nepal, which Groat’s team burgled in order to steal a code machine. The operation failed, as did another a few years later in “a Middle Eastern capital”, due to sloppy preparation on behalf of the CIA, says Groat. He claims that repeated instances of poor planning for increasingly daring operations eventually led him to complain to his superiors at the Agency. But instead of addressing his concerns, the CIA allegedly forced him out of The Shop after over a decade of service. In 1992, unable to stand his new desk job at a CIA administrative center in Northern Virginia, Groat eventually mailed three separate letters to an ambassador of an Asian country in the United States, informing him of a CIA operation he had led against his embassy in the 1980s. But the CIA got hold of one of the letters and started investigating him for possible treason. In 1996, after refusing to take a polygraph test, Groat was summarily dismissed from the Agency with no provisions for a pension or severance package. He then threatened to start working as a security consultant for foreign governments, unless he was given a severance package and pension. At that point he was arrested by US government agents and spent six month as an “extreme risk prisoner” in an undisclosed detention center, facing a possible death penalty. In 1998 he agreed to plead guilty to extortion, in exchange for the US government dropping espionage charges against him. He was given a five-year prison sentence and was released in 2002. He now lives on a small farm at an undisclosed location in the southern US. Wise says he contacted the CIA with questions about The Shop and about Groat’s claims, but the Agency “declined to comment”.

6 Responses to Magazine publishes CIA-trained burglar’s fascinating story

  1. Jack Wiles says:

    talented piece of scum.

  2. Kidd says:

    i see a movie in the making , maybe more than one, depending on the leading actors.

  3. AlbertE. says:

    You do NOT steal a code machine or steal code books, etc. You copy the books [photograph] or place some sort of “bug n the “code machine” to enable you to read the traffic without your opposition knowing they are being “bugged”. In the “From Russia with Love” novel Bond steals the “code” machine but that would not occur. They would tap or bug as if the opposition knows the machine is gone they merely replace with another type you cannot read.

  4. TFH says:

    @Albert E. True something is missing from the story, like there would be when it comes to high-level illegal interaction between world powers.
    What strikes me is how CIA leaves itself open to treason by treating a long time accomplice in this way. Guess that’s the way of bureaucracy, gotta keep itself busy.

  5. intelNews says:

    @Albert E.: Good point. However, in the article there is at least one instance in which the CIA/NSA burglars team was tasked with stealing a code machine. The article refers to a “mission to Nepal to steal a code machine from the East German Embassy there”. It also states that “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“. [JF]

  6. Mike Sierra says:

    I think in the case of the East German code machine theft, the CIA was interested in deciphering years of diplomatic cables, so they didn’t really care if they changed their codes.

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