Cloak & Dagger

The Hoarder Who Tried to Spy for Saddam

Brian Regan pulled off the largest theft of U.S. government secrets before Edward Snowden—and he nearly got away with it.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

The idea of committing espionage began taking shape in Brian Regan’s mind through the early months of 1999 as he found himself in the vortex of a perfect storm created by the continuing humiliations at work, the worsening of his financial situation and the growing rift in his marriage. From the average evaluations he had been getting, he knew he wasn’t going to be promoted any time soon. The Air Force wanted to transfer him to Europe but Regan wasn’t willing to move because of the disruption it would cause to his family. When the Air Force turned down his request to defer overseas deployment, he had to choose between accepting the transfer and retiring a year later, on Aug. 31, 2000, when he would complete 20 years of service. Grudgingly, he opted for the latter.

With the clock ticking toward retirement, Regan’s anxieties about the future transformed into a rising sense of panic. Because of the narrow scope of the work he’d been doing at the National Reconnaissance Office (the spy agency responsible for managing the nation’s spy satellites), he wasn’t sure he would be able to find a well-paying job in industry, certainly not with the ease that his co-workers expected to. Clutching at straws, Regan finally saw a way out of this insecurity.

He would cash in on the nation’s secrets.

Growing up, he had learned that getting what he wanted sometimes meant having to break the rules. He hadn’t experienced any negative consequences for having stolen the ceramic art tools from his neighbor’s house, or for cheating on his military entrance test. Those may have been small misdemeanors but the principle he’d taken away from them applied equally to the crime he was now planning to commit.

All that mattered was not getting caught. As long as he could get away with it, espionage was a legitimate answer to his troubles.

It was also one that seemed to lie within easy grasp. One of Regan’s secondary responsibilities at his job was to help maintain his division’s webpage on Intelink, the intranet of the U.S. intelligence community and a platform for the sharing and dissemination of information among the country’s various intelligence agencies. In doing that part of his job, Regan had become keenly familiar with Intelink and what it held. Resident on the intranet’s thousands of webpages and databases—he knew—was an array of secrets the United States had spent billions to acquire, from reports of intelligence gathered by American spies around the world to analyses of images and signals captured through reconnaissance. The way Regan came to see it, Intelink was the doorway to a basement stuffed with treasures waiting to be sold to enemies of the United States.

Regan began exploring the depth and breadth of Intelink, browsing content that went far beyond his assigned responsibilities. To do his job as an exercise agent, he mostly needed to access pages relating to signals intelligence, as well as air defenses in the Middle East and North Africa. But through the fall and winter months, Regan accessed a diverse selection of images and intelligence reports—a profile of a Libyan general, the U.S.’s capabilities for destroying military sites hidden deep underground, an adversary’s handbook for conducting biological warfare. His surfing sessions became longer, and more frequent. By early 2001, he was spending hours on Intelink every week.

Regan devoted part of his surfing to educating himself about espionage. He searched Intelink for reports by analysts on how spies through U.S. history had committed their acts of betrayal—how these men and women went about stealing secrets and transferring them to other governments, how they were discovered and investigated, and how they were brought to justice. While researching this literature, Regan learned about a counterintelligence course that he was eligible to take as a member of the intelligence community. His supervisor didn’t ask any questions when he requested approval to attend the course, for even though Regan’s job had nothing to do with counterintelligence, learning about it could help him become more alert to potential espionage in his environment, making him a better sentinel of the nation’s secrets. And so, for a few days in late 1999, Regan took time out of his job at the NRO to attend classes at Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, where he heard former FBI and CIA agents present espionage case studies.

By learning about these cases in detail, Regan hoped to gain insights that would help him craft his own plans. He wished to avoid the mistakes that traitors before him had made. With sufficient foresight and planning, he told himself, he would pull off the perfect espionage conspiracy. Unbeknownst to all those co-workers and classmates who had ever doubted his intelligence, he would transform himself into the ultimate spy.

Starting in the fall of 1999, Regan’s visits to the printer at his office grew increasingly frequent. He was printing out hundreds of pages of classified information from Intelink. He would first compile the information digitally, on his desktop, using a program called SnagIt that allowed him to copy several pages into one file. He could then print out a large set of pages with a single command, saving himself the trouble of walking back and forth to the printer too many times.

In his four years at the NRO, Regan had never been a heavy user of the printer. If his co-workers had paid any attention, they would have wondered why he was collecting printouts with such regularity. But luckily for Regan, nobody was noticing.

As he began accumulating these documents, Regan thought carefully about the next steps in his plan. Most U.S. spies who had betrayed the country were tasked by a foreign government to steal and pass information, but Regan had initiated his espionage scheme on his own, with no prior relationship with intelligence agents of another country. Unlike earlier turncoats like the CIA’s Aldrich Ames and James Nicholson, who served as U.S. spies for decades before selling out to an adversary, Regan had no experience or knowledge of how to operate in this shadowy world. He had never targeted foreign intelligence officers for recruitment, as Ames and Nicholson had done in the course of their work as CIA agents. He was going to have to devise his own way of contacting a foreign service and marketing the information he was gathering.

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What countries could he target? From all the research he had done, Regan had drawn one key conclusion. He wasn’t going to engage with Russian intelligence. For in some instances, Regan had learned, Russian agents who had defected to the United States had ended up disclosing the identities of American moles working for the Russians. Regan wasn’t willing to take that risk.

He turned his sights to the Middle East and North Africa, a part of the world he’d concentrated on during much of his career. In the decade since the end of the Cold War, the region had become a focus of increasing attention for U.S. military planners. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. no longer had a single, rival superpower to worry about. Instead, it had to contend with a growing military challenge from China, an emerging power, and a host of smaller adversaries, many of them oil-rich countries with a majority-Muslim population: Iraq, Libya, Iran, Sudan. Each of these nations, Regan thought, would be willing to pay for secrets that might help them militarily against the United States.

Regan tailored his explorations on Intelink accordingly. He collected images and reports on China, which could help the Chinese military understand precisely how much the U.S. knew about the country’s nuclear installations, missile systems and other strategic sites. He entered “Top Secret Iran” into the intranet’s search engine and sifted through the results. He cast another wide net by searching for “Top Secret Libya,” misspelling “Libya” on more than one occasion. He looked for material that would be valuable to the Iraqi regime, whose longstanding conflict with the United States was escalating toward the possibility of another full-scale war. Regan didn’t just gather information that would help the countries he had in mind—Libya, Iraq, and Iran among them—in hostilities against the U.S. He also downloaded whatever intelligence he could find on the military capabilities of regional neighbors like Israel, which he expected his target countries would be equally interested in.

Regan couldn’t simply stack this growing volume of printouts on his desk. He stored them in a credenza that sat between his cubicle and his neighbor’s. Every now and then, he would open it, add a new bundle of documents to the holdings, and lock it up again. Nobody asked him any questions.

The storage proved to be more secure than he could have imagined. Once, when Regan was traveling on assignment, members of NRO’s building management staff came by his office looking to pick up unused furniture. Nobody spoke up for the credenza, and so they took it away. Later, when they discovered that it was locked, they used a drill to unlock it. Inside they found hundreds of documents.

When Regan returned, one of them called him to ask if the papers belonged to him. He replied in the affirmative, trying to stay calm despite feeling a wave of worry about being found out. The staff wrapped up the documents and sent it all back to him. Whether by sheer good fortune or by the complete obliviousness on part of NRO’s management, Regan had dodged a major bullet. Relieved, he stuffed the printouts in an overhead cabinet, which felt like a safer storage space than the credenza, even if only because it was affixed to the wall.

One day in March 2000, Regan pulled out a sheaf of documents from his stash and placed it at the bottom of his gym bag. His sweaty workout clothes lay on top of the papers in a disheveled heap. At around 5 p.m., he logged out of his computer, picked up the bag and walked out of his cubicle toward the building exit.

His heart was racing, but Regan walked unhurriedly as he approached the turnstiles. As was to be expected at the end of the work day, dozens of employees were on their way out at that hour. Regan had been counting on it. He looked at the security guards who milled around at the front desk, chit-chatting amongst themselves as people streamed out. Regan was aware that the guards had the authority to stop anybody for a search. There was a chance, however slim, that one of them would want to look into his gym bag, rifle through the clothes and discover the classified documents concealed underneath.

But Regan was able to slide right through, unimpeded. The guards had seen him come in and go out of the building with that same gym bag hundreds of times in the past; they had no reason to suspect him. As he walked to his car, the tension draining from his body, Regan thought about how easy it had been to smuggle the documents out. He had gotten away by being just another face in the crowd, a signal drowned by a sea of noise.

In the weeks that followed, Regan removed hundreds of pages of documents out from the office in his gym bag, transferring his holdings, bit by bit, into the basement of his townhouse in Bowie, Maryland. None of the things he’d collected over the years—comic books, baseball cards, action figures—had made him rich; now, finally he was hoarding materials with real value that he expected to convert into a fortune.

His stash wasn’t limited to documents any more. He was copying information from NRO’s computers onto CD-ROMS that were even more convenient to smuggle out of the office. His supervisors had put him in charge of maintaining a small library of training videos on VHS tape containing instructions for accessing NRO systems. He took them home, knowing that they wouldn’t be missed since he was the custodian. Late at night, while his wife Anette and the kids slept, he would go down to the basement and copy the tapes.

It was around the same time, in April of 2000, that Regan started working on a plan to market what he had stolen. From the spy cases he had researched, he knew he would have to contact the intelligence services of the countries he was targeting. The simplest way to do so would be to walk into the embassies of these countries in the United States. But that would be dumb—Regan quickly realized—for the FBI kept a close watch on foreign embassies in the country. To minimize the risk of being found out through surveillance, he would make contact anonymously and remain incognito throughout the transaction, exchanging information for money without ever meeting with a foreign agent.

Regan began writing a letter addressed to the head of the Libyan intelligence service, whose name he had dug up on Intelink. Introducing himself as a CIA analyst, he highlighted some of the secrets he was willing to offer in exchange for $13 million. By the time he was done typing up his detailed instructions for how the transaction was to occur—the Libyans would have to set up a 1-800 number for him to call, and communicate that through a used car ad in The Washington Post—the letter had run to 13 pages. Drafting it was only the first step, however. To be secure, Regan decided he had to communicate the letter in code.

He had first become acquainted with codes during his training at Goodfellow shortly after he enlisted. What he’d learned about cryptology back then, going back nearly two decades, didn’t go beyond the basics. But he’d been fascinated with encryption ever since. He’d even used it in his personal life. Once, after having met up with a woman behind Anette’s back, he’d encrypted her name and number on a piece of paper, converting the plain text using a simple encryption scheme he’d learned at Goodfellow. When he found the paper on his desk some months later, however, he failed to decipher the number because he couldn’t recall the encryption key.

Regan encrypted the letter using a far more complex encryption scheme. He first assigned brevity codes to the different words in his text—for example, using the code “JK” to represent the word “signals.” This encoded version of the letter he then converted, through further encryption, into another string of letters and numbers. In a separate document, Regan typed up the steps for decrypting the letter. After weeks of painstaking effort, he had what he thought was a foolproof way of reaching out to the Libyans without risking his anonymity.

In July, when Anette and the kids were away in Sweden, Regan went through the trove of classified materials in his basement. By now, he had over 20,000 pages, in addition to CD-ROMS and video tapes. He’d made multiple copies of some of the documents over the course of many visits to the high-speed copy room at his office. These were images and reports that he believed would be valued by more than one country, and hence could be sold separately to each.

Sitting at home, he sorted the information by target country, bundling the printouts and CDs and tapes into packages intended for Libya and Iraq—the two that he felt most optimistic about selling to. He separated about 5,000 pages of documents into another pile. They contained what Regan believed to be the most sensitive of all the secrets he had pilfered—secrets that would severely compromise the national security of the United States.

He packed these documents in Tupperware containers, along with CD-ROMs and video tapes containing information of similarly high sensitivity. He put the containers—and whatever he couldn’t fit into them—into garbage bags, and wrapped them up into packages.

In the middle of a rainy day in July, Regan drove out to Patapsco Valley State Park near Baltimore, about 30 miles from his house. The woods in the park were lush green, the hiking trails damp from the rain. Regan got out of the car with a backpack and walked into the forest, his 6-foot-3 frame dwarfed by the surrounding trees.

After he’d trekked deep into the forest, Regan stopped and looked around. There wasn’t anybody in sight. He took out a shovel from his backpack and began digging a hole in an open patch between the trees. The air was hot and humid, and by the time he’d dug a foot and a half into the ground, Regan’s brow was beaded with sweat. He dropped one of the packages into the hole, and covered it up with dirt.

Then he walked over to a tree several feet away, and hammered some roofing nails into it. Next, reaching into his backpack, he pulled out a GPS logger that he’d brought home from work. He’d used the device hundreds of times before to record the positions of air defense systems deployed in training exercises. He peered at the logger’s screen to read out the coordinates of where he stood, next by the tree he’d just marked with the nails, and wrote them down on a piece of paper.

Over two more visits to the park, Regan finished burying all of the seven packages that he’d determined to be highly sensitive. On the last visit, he walked all the way to the edge of the park, without realizing that he had set foot on private property. As he was digging a hole, he heard a dog bark less than 50 yards away. He nervously finished burying the last package, hammered the nails into the nearest tree and jotted down the location’s latitude and longitude, hoping that the dog hadn’t drawn anybody’s attention to him. Relieved to see nobody around, he walked back to his car with his backpack and the coordinates of all the seven burial sites.

He wasn’t going to trade these secrets for money. Their value was much greater. They were part of his insurance plan.

Excerpted from THE SPY WHO COULDN‘T SPELL: A Dyslexic Traitor, an Unbreakable Code, and the FBI’s Hunt for America’s Stolen Secrets by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, published by New American Library, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee.