TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - During the Cold War, when the world was threatened with potential annihilation, when the United States and its allies faced the Soviet Union and its satellites in a high-stakes nuclear standoff, a group of American soldiers in Germany was giving the enemy secrets that could have crippled NATO.
The spy ring was discovered in the late 1980s. The investigation landed in Tampa, where FBI agent Joe Navarro and a team of dogged agents and analysts matched wits with Roderick James Ramsay, a former Army sergeant with a near-genius IQ who drifted from his mother’s trailer to a friend’s house and living out of his car.
The more-than-year-long relationship that developed between Navarro and Ramsay unlocked the secrets of a spy ring that had operated for decades, compromising the most sensitive intelligence on how the U.S. and its allies planned to protect Europe in the event of an invasion.
In the end, Ramsay went to prison, serving about 23 years before being released in 2013. He gave information that led to convictions for three other American military personnel who participated in the massive betrayal.
But for the most part, the case drifted into obscurity after the last of the suspects went to prison.
“I frankly was always surprised that it never got as much notoriety as I thought it should,” said Tampa attorney Greg Kehoe, who prosecuted Ramsay for the Justice Department, “because what these guys did so significantly compromised our NATO forces that I don’t know of another case in Europe that so placed as many soldiers in jeopardy as this breach of security.”
Now, 25 years after the case broke wide open, it may be about to get much more attention.
Actor George Clooney’s production company, Smokehouse Pictures, has purchased the rights for a book yet-to-be-written by Navarro and another author, to be called “Three Minutes to Doomsday.”
The book is pitched as “a real-life John le Carre thriller, telling the never-before-told story of how Navarro, by noticing and decoding a suspect’s trembling cigarette, led him to uncover the worst security breach in US history: a multi-generational spy ring that had put the U.S. on the brink of annihilation at the height of the Cold War; he describes the 42 interviews that entailed hundreds of hours of questioning and thousands of hours of preparation, the bureaucracy that questioned the veracity of the confessions he extracted and the ramifications of a year of interviews and nine years of trials, which left Navarro emotionally, physically and spiritually exhausted.”
Navarro’s book agent, Steve Ross, said the publisher Scribner paid a “substantial six-figure advance” for the proposal. The completed manuscript is due in April 2016, and Ross said he expects the book will be published in early 2017. Navarro’s last book, “Dangerous Personalities,” was published last year.
Although Navarro, a nationally recognized expert in body language, has talked to The Tampa Tribune in the past about the case, he said he couldn’t now because of the pending book and movie deal. But Kehoe, Navarro’s former FBI supervisor Jay Koerner and Terry Moody, an agent who teamed up with Navarro for some of his conversations with Ramsay, shared their memories.
Koerner said the damage done by the spy ring was enormous.
“They had a military general do a damage assessment,” Koerner said. Absent the espionage, the expert estimated that “NATO could hold off a Warsaw Pact invasion for about three months before all the Americans and everybody could get up to speed,” Koerner said. But with the information funneled by the spy ring to the Czechs and Hungarians, the Soviets and their allies could have “driven us out of Europe in about three weeks or less. He said, had war broken out, it would have been a disaster for NATO because they knew everything, the battle plans, everything that was going to happen.”
Moody and Koerner agreed that Navarro was the key to unlocking Ramsay; few other agents could have persuaded the spy to share his secrets so expansively.
“Being around Joe, you feel unnerved,” Moody said. “You feel he’s always watching you. He’s a student of body language. He’s watching everything you do, where your hands are … because he’s a student of everyone.”
“Joe, he’s a perfectionist, bordering on obsessive compulsive,” Koerner said. “He’d come in to talk to me in my office; he’d start straightening stuff on my desk and look at the pictures, make sure they’re all lined up. But he was such a perfectionist that having one Joe Navarro working for you would be great; two would kill you. I mean you’d really, literally die.”
Ramsay came to the FBI’s attention as part of an investigation into Sgt. Clyde Lee Conrad for selling secrets to Czechoslovakia and Hungary from the Army’s 8th Infantry Division in what was then West Germany.
The military base where Conrad and Ramsay were stationed had the plans on how to stop a Soviet invasion. “Thank God it never came to that,” Koerner said.
“The base was an old Nazi army base, which was extremely well-made, fortified,” Kehoe said. “You could see the old swastikas had been drilled off.”
But Koerner said security on the base was almost nonexistent. “That place was a mess,” he said. “Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.”
He and Kehoe said the conspirators freely took documents out in duffel bags and whatever else they needed. They went to a safe house, where they used a video camera to record the pages. Kehoe said they took burn bags full of papers, stopping to copy them before burning them.
“Not only were they doing it, but they were taking it over from another group of guys who were doing it prior,” Kehoe said. “And those guys had taken it over from another group.”
As authorities investigated Conrad, the FBI sent out advisories to interview people who had come in contact with him. One of those people was Ramsay, in his late 20s, who had left the military three or four years earlier and had followed his mother to the Tampa and Orlando area.
Koerner dispatched Navarro to talk to Ramsay as a matter of routine.
When the two met, Navarro sensed something was off. Ramsay’s cigarette shook, and he seemed nervous and defensive. He was holding back.
Navarro told Koerner that Ramsay knew more than he was saying. He wanted to talk to Ramsay some more.
So Navarro went back, Koerner said. In that second conversation, Ramsay dropped a bombshell.
“Ramsay said, ‘Yeah, Clyde gave me a little souvenir.’ What was it? ‘Well I got half of a dollar bill. It’s cut in a certain way and if somebody comes up to me and has the other half, that’s another friend of Clyde’s.’
“That’s called a clue,” Koerner said. “That’s a signal in the intelligence world and why Rod brought it out, I had no idea.”
And so began a long-term mental chess game between Ramsay and Navarro, a veteran FBI agent and spy chaser, a Cuban immigrant described by Moody as a legend in the Tampa bureau.
The Ramsay case would test Navarro to his limits and beyond, taking a physical and psychological toll that would last for months after the case was over.
Navarro said in 2003 that Ramsay was brilliant and a voracious reader. His IQ score was the second highest earned on a military test.
Navarro said he had to study intensely just to know enough to keep Ramsay’s attention during their conversations. “I had to do a lot of reading.”
Ramsay read two to three books a day and liked to talk about quantum physics and obscure periods of history. He had no patience for anyone he thought was stupid, Navarro said. “It was a challenge every day just to be able to spar with him on that type of level.”
Navarro’s intelligence level is “very close” to Ramsay’s, Koerner said. “But what Joe doesn’t have in intellect, he can make up with in manipulation. Manipulation. Preparation. Planning. Perseverance. And he’s a very persuasive son of a gun.”
They did a profile of Ramsay, who in spite of his intelligence, was socially awkward and had few, if any, friends. He drifted from one low-level job to another, driving a cab around Orlando International Airport, busing tables at restaurants. His father was absent from his life - an important fact that played in Ramsay’s relationships with both Conrad and Navarro.
Koerner said he set one hard and fast rule for the meetings: Ramsay was to have no more than two beers. No such rule was needed for Navarro, who never drank. “He would have lost control and that’s one thing that Navarro will never do is lose control.”
The overriding goal for each meeting, Koerner said, was to make sure there was going to be another meeting. Getting more information was a priority, but if nothing came out of a meeting, that would be OK as long as there was another meeting to come.
The pressure on Navarro was enormous. For a time, they didn’t know if the spy operation was continuing and if NATO was still in danger. There were turf wars and strategy disputes with FBI headquarters.
“The weight of the world was on him,” Koerner said. “One thing scares the hell out of Navarro more than anything else - failure. He will not fail if he can help it. … I didn’t think he was going to fail. But all it would have taken was for Rod one day to say, ‘I don’t want to meet with you. I don’t want to talk to you anymore.’”
With espionage cases, Koerner said, the only evidence comes from the spy and the people on the other side, who aren’t going to talk.
“There’s guys walking around there now outside that should be doing life, all because they were able to beat the agent in their interrogation or interview,” Koerner said.
And a confession isn’t enough to gain a conviction. They had to be able to corroborate what Ramsay was saying. For that they needed exact details. After every meeting, they would scramble to find proof. When they learned the location of the safe house in Germany, for example, they had to prove it actually existed, that it looked the way Ramsay described and that Ramsay was on the lease.
At some point, Koerner assigned Moody to work with Navarro because he wanted someone to balance Navarro’s intensity.
“She had certain great instincts,” Koerner said. “And we’d rehearse, and she’d say, ‘Joe you’re going too far. Going too far. Let’s pull it back, pull it back.’ And they made a great team.”
Moody says she was much less experienced than Navarro. She investigated white collar crimes and felt out of her element in an espionage case. But she was excited to work with Navarro.
When she was assigned the case, Navarro pointed to a filing cabinet full of documents and told her to read them.
“Joe had a grand plan,” she said. “I think if Ramsay had gotten any other person, if any other person had been told to go and interview Ramsay, I don’t know if it would have proceeded the way it did.”
Navarro mapped out each encounter ahead of time. “When we went to do the interviews, nothing went by chance,” Moody said. “He had it in his mind what he wanted to accomplish that day. We talked about it. We rehearsed it. If Rod goes in this direction, we’re going to go in this direction. … I was kind of his sidekick. Joe was the brains behind everything.”
She said they would book hotel suites for privacy and talk to Ramsay for hours in the hotels, breaking only to go out to dinner. Before each meeting, Navarro would tell Moody where to sit and would decide where he and Ramsay sat.
Navarro never took notes during the conversations because he didn’t want Ramsay to be intimidated. When Ramsay said something significant, Moody said, she’d excuse herself and go to the bathroom, where she’d write down some notes.
Moody, who was newly married and pregnant during the investigation, took a nurturing role, showing concern for Ramsay and giving him relationship advice. When she went on maternity leave, Ramsay gave her a baby blanket as a gift.
Ramsay “was eating mints for meals, so we’d take him out to eat and I’d make sure he had some pieces of fruit or something to take back to him,” Moody said.
Ramsay had a near- photographic memory and soaked up the attention from Navarro and Moody. The spying had been exciting, and he had no one to tell.
“He had plenty to give up,” Moody said.
Sometimes Ramsey didn’t want to answer a question. “But Joe would always get around it,” Moody said. “He would back away and then go at it in a different direction and he’d talk more about it.”
As they were getting ready to arrest Ramsay, someone leaked it to the media.
Koerner said Navarro was with Ramsay in a hotel room in Tampa when the news flashed on the television that authorities were about to charge a former military person in Tampa with espionage.
Ramsay looked at Navarro, who assured him, “I’m not going to arrest you,” which was true. Koerner wanted other agents to arrest Ramsay so Navarro could keep his rapport with the former spy.
Information from: The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune, https://www.tampatrib.com
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