Spies Like Us
The Average Joe Accused of Trying to Sell Russia Secrets
When promotion after promotion passed satellite engineer Gregory Allen Justice by, he allegedly turned to the Russians to solve his family’s dire financial straits.
When Gregory Allen Justice arrived at work every evening, pulling into a secure parking lot near the sprawl of LAX to start another long night on the graveyard shift at Boeing, he would have known that there were more than just stars up there, shining down onto the roof of his car and across the distant waters of the Pacific.
Hidden amidst those constellations were the invisible arcs and lines of passing satellites. These orbiting machines, Justice knew, would have been sending data-rich signals around the planet, letting our military spy on its enemies, helping our own handheld devices navigate streets and cities in real-time, even guiding heavy jets down to the runways of the international airport that roared and glowed across the street.
Among those satellites were sensitive military systems that Justice himself had worked on at Boeing for more than 15 years. Concealed in his pocket many of those nights as he walked across the parking lot to swipe a well-worn employee badge and disappear into the corporate interior would have been a thumb-drive. In his mind would have been a plan.
Justice knew things about satellites that you and I don’t know—that you and I will never know—trade secrets he had sworn never to tell, let alone sell, to anyone outside the corporation. But Justice apparently had other worries, fears far greater than letting his employer down or even betraying the national security of the United States: dread at a lonely future that seemed to stretch ahead of him, filled with ever-increasing medical bills, his wife allegedly housebound with a serious illness, and resentment at the more than a decade and a half of hard work that was always overlooked when it came time to discuss a promotion.
And so it was, federal prosecutors claim in a 72-page affidavit filed in July 2016, that Gregory Allen Justice allegedly began meeting with an agent of the Russian government to sell restricted information about Boeing’s satellite programs. Frontline military communications satellites, NASA weather-tracking systems, even GPS—from key operational data to design schematics, anything he could access would be on offer.
Justice’s trial, against allegations both of economic espionage and of violating the U.S. Arms Export Control Act, begins on Tuesday, Aug. 30. At the time of publication, his lawyers had no comment when reached.
The story of Justice is a cautionary tale of low employee morale combined with a 49-year-old man’s overactive imagination. As described in the affidavit, Justice’s preferred method for escaping the frustrations and anxieties of everyday life seemed to be watching Jason Bourne films and popular spy shows, like The Americans, a critically acclaimed series about deep-cover Soviet spies that Justice supposedly mentioned multiple times to his contact. Even the questions he allegedly asked about his handler’s exact role in the Russian government—quizzing him about the FSB, Russia’s successor to the KGB—sound as if he had watched The Bourne Supremacy one too many times.
The affidavit itself is a remarkable document. Through descriptions of FBI audio recordings, automotive surveillance tapes, computer logs taken from Boeing itself, and surreptitiously intercepted FedEx packages, it reads more like a Cold War thriller as rewritten by the Coen Brothers—the tragicomic downfall of a Los Angeles man trying to live-out an escapist fantasy with no actual idea of how to do so. He was intoxicated, it seems, by the sheer power and promise of espionage—he could steal the secrets of the sky itself for a foreign adversary of the United States—but, in the end, he simply didn’t have very much to sell.
Justice had apparently been prepping for this act of corporate and national betrayal for several years. Starting back in 2013, he allegedly began spending thousands of dollars on online training courses, signing up for such topics as “Spy Escape and Evasion” and “Legally Concealed.” According to FBI computer records, Justice also researched the “sovereign citizen” movement and its highly esoteric arguments that U.S. citizens are, in fact, Constitutionally immune to any form of federal oversight, including income tax.
Justice clearly reveled in what many military and security professionals jokingly deride as “tacticool.” He was perhaps the kind of guy who might wear a paracord bracelet or bring a military-style MOLLE backpack with him to a family-friendly resort in San Diego. It was all dress-up—a wannabe secret agent double-checking security cameras in the hotel lobby for a sense of adventure—until his alleged attempt to make the fantasy real.
If there is something else in the affidavit, however, it is a growing, almost unbearable sense of claustrophobia. Of feeling lost. At one point, the FBI allegedly recorded Justice alone in his car, possibly speaking on the telephone, complaining out loud that he was “doing the work of people two levels above me, and it’s not good enough for promotion. So, you know what, I give up. If, if I’m never going to get a promotion, then I’m just gonna, I’m going to give up. I’m going to stop trying. Why put out the effort, if there’s not going to be any reward? I’m tired and I’m done.”
Boeing Satellite Systems, located across the street from LAX, is surrounded by a carefully controlled world of badge-accessible gates and waiting. Turns in the road that should lead to a nearby freeway instead just disappear into parking lots, promising future directions without really taking you anywhere.
Justice had worked at Boeing since 2000, the affidavit claims. Over the course of those 16 years, he apparently had access to a number of the firm’s most sensitive satellite programs. As prosecutors explain, Justice had been assigned to various teams “working to build and test U.S. military satellites, including projects for the United States Air Force, United States Navy, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration.” Among these were the GPS satellite constellation, the Wideband Global Satellite Communications network (or “WGS”), and MILSTAR, a satellite communications platform built to survive a nuclear war.
Justice would also have known how important they were. WGS is described by the U.S. Air Force, for example, as providing “essential communications services” between military commanders and frontline warriors all over the globe; and MILSTAR, the Air Force adds, “provides the President, Secretary of Defense and the U.S. armed forces with assured, survivable satellite communications (SATCOM) with low probability of interception and detection.” It is “the most robust and reliable SATCOM system currently employed by the Department of Defense (DoD).”
That Justice would believe it easy to find a buyer of such secrets is by no means a stretch. Today, industrial espionage is going through something of a golden age, in the form of rampant online intellectual-property theft and cybercrime. An October 2011 report from the U.S. Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive warned that foreign powers, including Russian intelligence agencies, have been “conducting a range of activities to collect economic information and technology from U.S. targets.”
In a 2014 article for The American Interest, former inspector general of the National Security Agency, Joel Brenner, added that “American and European firms have lost automotive braking and battery technology, high-speed rail technology, aeronautical test data, and valuable chemical and pharmaceutical formulas in this way.” Satellite technology has also been both pilfered and compromised. Consider the unsettling example of the “Russian-speaking hackers,” as Ellen Nakashima reported for The Washington Post in 2015, who had been actively “exploiting commercial satellites to siphon sensitive data from diplomatic and military agencies in the United States and in Europe as well as to mask their location.”
Justice would have been very familiar with these sorts of risks; indeed, the affidavit specifically alleges that Justice had taken a number of internal security courses at Boeing, precisely to help prevent and avoid these sorts of breaches. Yet Justice did not, in fact, have much insight into how to access, let alone exfiltrate, the company’s most valuable files. He could retrieve proprietary technical data, to be sure, and his leaks could—potentially—have led to acts of low-level jamming and signals interception. But he did not have top-secret clearance. This meant that entire echelons of critical systems information remained out of reach.
To make copies of restricted documents, a spy with active technical help from a foreign power might rely on something like a tiny camera hidden inside an everyday object, such as a specially manufactured fountain pen. Spies without such connections—and thus without this technical help—instead might depend on a smartphone or an actual cameras, used discreetly under clandestine circumstances. Perhaps they might carry a folder or two of sensitive documents into a locked office bathroom for a quick photographic session, or they might try to copy the papers by smuggling them back and forth from home without detection.
For Justice, accessing valuable information at Boeing—and, more importantly, passing it on to someone outside the company—required a more digital approach. According to prosecutors, files and schematics of the kind he apparently hoped to sell would have been marked under a variety of security barriers, from no-print restrictions to specific flags making it clear that they contained sensitive information and were thus subject to federal export restrictions against international arms trafficking.
With the assistance of screen shots taken of his monitor every six seconds, investigators claim they were able to assemble a play-by-play account of Justice inserting a portable flash-drive into his computer and ignoring warnings that he had attached an insecure device. FBI records suggest multiple late-night copying operations such as these, dragging and dropping megabytes’ worth of design schematics over to his portable thumb-drive. That’s not a typo: it was megabytes, not gigabytes, and certainly not terabytes. Justice was doing the equivalent of sweeping crumbs off the table to sell to a foreign competitor.
In the end, the information he allegedly stole did contain sensitive details about Boeing’s satellite programs, including vulnerabilities that could have had a damaging effect on the nation’s naval and air force operations—but only if it had been put together with other files Justice did not have access to. To determine this, the FBI checked these files with other employees at the firm, as well as with investigators from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI). The resulting analysis only adds to the sense of futility—that Justice was to real espionage what rock, paper, scissors is to the Summer Olympics.
Justice had handed over files of “no obvious intelligence value,” investigators bleakly concluded. An unnamed coworker perhaps said it best in an interview with the FBI: the information “would be potentially valuable to a foreign entity that did not already have a satellite program, but otherwise wouldn’t be useful to a developed power unless they really wanted to know exactly how our existing satellites were put together.”
Justice himself seemed to know this. At one meeting, prosecutors claim, he actually apologized to his Russian contact. “I did um, I did want to apologize though for the samples I gave you last time,” Justice allegedly stammered. “They weren’t, maybe what your people were looking for.” According to the FBI, Justice then triumphantly offered a whole new batch of technical information—for programs designed nearly 15 years earlier. His handler apparently responded with a series of tactful questions, including whether or not any of this was even classified, and, more to the point, “how would this help us?”
It was hardly the stuff of John le Carré, in other words, but it was nonetheless still espionage.
The affidavit suggests that Justice first made contact with representatives of the Russian Federation by calling their embassy in Washington, D.C. His phone call appears not to have gone anywhere, however, so Justice apparently then mailed a small package of files stolen from work directly to the Russian embassy. This, too, led nowhere.
When the FBI later performed a search of Justice’s car, they allegedly found handwritten notes with the addresses and phone numbers of the Office of the Defense, Military, Air and Naval Attaches of the Russian embassy in D.C., as well as the Russian Consulate in San Francisco. He was clearly struggling both with who to contact and exactly how.
Despite the rather endearing simplicity of his approach, Justice was not, in fact, much different from other, more successful spies looking to make contact with a foreign government. Indeed, these clumsy attempts sound remarkably similar to those of disgraced former CIA agent Edward Lee Howard, who defected to the Soviet Union in 1986. Howard allegedly left a handwritten note, in person, at the Soviet consulate in Washington, D.C., according to an FBI memorandum, placed a series of erratic, alcohol-influenced phone calls to the U.S. embassy in Moscow, and later mailed a postcard to the Soviet consulate in San Francisco. At long last, like Justice, Howard finally broke through.
Although the affidavit does not reveal when, or by what means, the FBI first picked up on the Justice’s behavior—and the Bureau would not comment on this story because it is still an active case—these early approaches would presumably have been easy for federal investigators to notice.
Whatever the truth may be, Justice allegedly received a phone call back from a Russian attaché in February 2016, responding to his various notes and phone calls, and seemingly proving that, at long last, someone had finally recognized that Justice might have some worth. The two men soon set up the first of many meetings, and Justice’s slow, agonizing, but entirely predictable downfall was set in motion.
In his book The Billion Dollar Spy, a history of CIA espionage operations in Cold War Moscow, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Daniel E. Hoffman describes the skills necessary for performing successful surveillance detection. It is a delicate choreography. An agent, Hoffman writes, “had to be as agile as a ballet dancer, as confounding as a magician, and as attentive as an air traffic controller.” The agent had to pay ceaseless attention to context, on the search for trailing vehicles or suspiciously recurring fellow pedestrians, people who seemed odd or did not belong. The successful agent required vigilance.
There is no indication that Justice performed these sorts of surveillance-detection runs en route to meeting with his handler—although, ironically, the lack of this behavior being noted might, in fact, indicate its success. Nonetheless, it is easy to imagine a fan of spy fiction checking his rearview mirror for a tail. Taking unexpected U-turns. Driving past the coffee shop where they were scheduled to meet not once, not twice, but maybe even three or four times, looking for police, coworkers, or family friends.
At many of the ensuing meetings, Justice allegedly broke the ice by discussing The Americans. Incredibly, prosecutors claim, he also pointed out several times that he was “risk averse,” which meant that, in his alleged words, “I try to think of things to make everything look normal.” For Justice that apparently translated into lying to his wife, telling her he was just heading out for another visit to the gym when, in fact, he was selling satellite secrets to the Russian government. But that, and the fake name “Brian,” was about as deep as his cover story went.
Over the next few months, the affidavit claims, Justice continued to steal files from work and to set up new meetings with his Russian contact to hand over thumb-drives at various spots around Los Angeles County. It seems likely that these meetings also took place in coffee shops, dozens of which are just a quick drive from LAX. Equally likely, Justice would have had to remind himself to use his assumed name when ordering coffee, so as not to give the game away with an obvious and embarrassing blunder, his actual identity shouted out for all to hear. While presumably sitting with his back to the wall in a well-positioned booth at a local diner, Justice allegedly became at least marginally more specific in the technical details on offer, describing such things as antenna design and military-transmission frequencies, down “to the type of metal used in all these screws,” the affidavit claims.
Throughout this, it appears that Justice was also caught up in a still-unexplained financial relationship with a woman living in Long Beach—to the extent that he ended up sending her almost all of the money he made from these acts of petty espionage and may even have been one of the catalysts that pushed Justice to spy in the first place. The woman is referred to in the documents as “Chay” or, alternatively, “C.M.” Over the course of the investigation, the FBI explains, “Chay” received at least $21,000 in biweekly packages from Justice. All of these were intercepted, opened, and photographed by the FBI, down to the serial numbers of every hundred-dollar bill.
These cash payments were apparently supplemented by a series of Amazon orders and other gifts for “Chay” that the FBI also tracked, including a Kingsford charcoal grill, a Vizio television, and a Dyson fan. If Justice had been anticipating a spy’s lifestyle of European sports cars and luxury wristwatches, a Dyson fan would surely have been just one more disappointment in a long line of professional letdowns.
All of this appeared to be damning evidence: the audio recordings, the cash shipments, the thumb-drives and the documents Justice had allegedly saved on them. It was an exhaustive investigation, in fact, with the FBI even allegedly tracking Justice’s movements around Los Angeles by way of ATM surveillance footage, watching him deposit and withdraw cash. All the Feds needed to do, it would seem, was move in and make an arrest.
Yet several more weeks passed. Over that time, the affidavit reflects a growing sense of misplaced camaraderie between Justice and his contact, and this is perhaps best exemplified by a distinct sense of over-sharing. Justice finally revealed his real name, for example, dropping the pseudonym “Brian” and admitting that his first name was Greg. In many ways, it seemed as if Justice had simply been looking for a friend or confidant. He allegedly talked about his wife’s medical problems even in his very first phone call to the Russian embassy, for example, and, according to the affidavit, re-emphasized at a meeting in early April 2016 that he “wanted to try to build the type of relationship that existed in The Americans,” as if he simply couldn’t get the show out of his head.
This is also the point at which the case takes an unexpected and worrying turn. According to the affidavit, Justice allegedly approached his Russian contact at the end of April to make a strange request: his wife had been prescribed an intravenously administered skeletomuscular relaxant that helped her fall asleep. Justice could no longer afford to pay for the prescription, however—so could the Russians somehow get hold of some for him?
The chemical he allegedly requested was succinylcholine chloride, and it came with a warning from the FDA. The chemical can cause “sudden cardiac arrest within minutes,” the FDA cautions, and should thus be injected “only by those skilled in the management of artificial respiration.” Even then, however, “due to the abrupt onset of this syndrome, routine resuscitative measures are likely to be unsuccessful.”
When questioned by the FBI, those same doctors, described by the affidavit as Los Angeles-based “sleep technologists,” explained that they had never, in fact, prescribed such a thing. If Justice’s wife had ever been given this treatment—a big if—it had not come from them. Most ominous of all, the special agent in charge of the investigation alleges that Justice had recently visited a website describing how succinylcholine chloride “had been used in a murder and why it was an effective poison.” Of course, something that can be used in a murder can also be used in a suicide. Although the FBI’s criminal complaint does not go into detail about Justice’s home life, it is not hard to read between the lines and feel the pressure mounting, to see the strain of taking care of a homebound wife cracking through his orderly facade. But what was Justice actually planning?
At this point, the gathering darkness surrounding the case makes the affidavit almost painful to read. It is almost impossible to resist connecting these various dots, forming the desperate silhouette of a man so consumed with a need to escape his everyday circumstances that he became willing to inflict unfathomable damage—on his loved ones, his employer, and, at least in his own mind, on his entire country.
Before things could get worse, Justice learned that his plans for international espionage had been doomed from the very beginning: he had been meeting with an undercover FBI special agent all along. Justice was arrested at his home in Culver City in July 2016 on allegations of economic espionage and international arms export violations.
Justice’s alleged love of spy fiction—of globetrotting tales in which all-powerful antiheroes betray their countries with a seductive mix of glamor and technical sophistication—makes perfect sense. Overwhelmed by financial commitments, struggling to take care of a wife whose medical condition only seemed to be worsening, stuck in a job he allegedly valued even while complaining that it had become a dead end: in some ways, a turn to real-life espionage should have been predictable.
Of course, no one but Justice knows when, exactly, between binge-watching The Americans and taking online survivalist workshops, he must have looked up at the stars shining over his office at night, and realized that he, too, could have a go at this—that, hidden inside that black sky, were not just moons and comets but secrets he could steal and sell to the highest bidder.
It was when he decided to act on that impulse, to make the fantasy real, that Justice’s star began its own tragic fall.