Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Joseph Helmich – The KL-7 for Cash Spy Case

Joseph George Helmich

The John Walker spy case from 1985 was covered extensively by the press. In 1968 he sold the technical details of the KL-47 crypto machine (Navy version of the KL-7) to the Soviets and provided them more than 17 years the secret key sheets of the machine, causing tremendous damage to U.S. Naval communications. But he was not the first.

Joseph Helmich already compromised the KL-7 five years earlier but his case is hardly known to the public. Both Walker and Helmich were only caught after 17 years, but textbook spy candidat Helmich could have been caught much sooner.

Career in Signals 

Joseph Helmich (°1937) entered the U.S. Army in 1954. After Signal School training he served two years in Korea. In 1958 he received a Top Secret clearance at the Signal Training Center in Fort Gordon.

Later that year he served at the U.S. Communications Zone Europe in Orleans, France and from 1959 until 1963 in the 275th Signal Company in Paris. Meanwhile, he was appointed Warrant Officer, now had Top Secret clearance and worked as custodian for classified cryptologic documents.

While in Paris, Helmich got into financial trouble and wrote some bad checks. To avoid court-martial and solve his debts he contacted the Soviet embassy and offered to sell classified information. He met with a Soviet agent, working undercover at the Soviet Trade Mission in Paris and received instructions in espionage tradecraft. He provided the Soviets with the repair manuals of the KL-7, the secret internal wiring of its rotor and the secret daily key lists.

Keys for Cash 

Helmich moved in 1964 to Fort Bragg and served in a signal battalion. He made several trips to Paris to meet his handler, a GRU Soviet Military Intelligence officer. Each time, he provided key lists copies from the KL-7, at that time the most used crypto machine by U.S. troops in Vietnam and by many of their allies. He was paid at least $131,000 but he was going to be sent to Vietnam soon.

Meanwhile, Helmich owned his own home and two jaguar cars, quite unusual for a 28 year old of his rank. This triggered an investigation and he explained that his wealth came from an investment in France and gambling. Both claims proved unverifiable and he refused a polygraph examination. As a result, his Vietnam assignment with the Army Security Agency (ASA), a unit responsible for communications security, was turned down. Instead, he was sent to a supply unit in Vietnam.

After returning from Vietnam, his security clearance was revoked due to serious financial problems. He decided to quite the Army, rather than being discharged, and got work as a car sales man. It seemed as they would never discover his betrayal…

Connecting the Dots

In 1974 the FBI received information from a well-placed source that someone with the codename “Greenwood” worked for the GRU. The unidentified person had served in France, had experience in radio interception, served from late 1964 a year in Vietnam and then quit the Army, although still ten years to go. This was the start of FBI counterintelligence operation "Hookshot" to identify the spy. They informed U.S Army Intelligence and Security Command INSCOM to investigate who could fit that profile.

INSCOM reported that Joseph Helmich perfectly fit that profile and the FBI started an extensive investigation with surveillance, all in utmost secrecy to avoid alarming Helmich. His telephone records, jobs, earnings and bank accounts were checked and they discovered several inconsistencies. He had earned $3,000 in three months ($18,000 in present 2022), way more than his wage as a car salesman. He was kept under surveillance for six years.

In 1980 it seemed that Helmich’s life went from poor to rich and back to poor. He now lived near Fort Gordon with its SIGINT training facility and the Charleston Navy nuclear submarine base, two sensitive locations. The FBI suspected that he might still have contact with Soviet intelligence.

New Contact and Arrest

From early on, the Soviets had deposited each of his payments in Switzerland. End of May 1980 Helmich traveled to Canada and visited the Soviet embassy in Ottawa to inquire about getting some of that money. He was told to go to Paris. The FBI however was on his tail and aware of the Soviet embassy visit. Helmich, at the time unemployed, returned to the United States but did not return to his home, had sold all his furniture and his home was for sale. 

It was now time for the FBI to bring in Helmich and debrief him, including polygraph tests. He was interrogated extensively in the following year and was also caught trying to deceit the FBI. Helmich was arrested in July 1981 and indicted on four counts of espionage.

Two months later he eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit espionage by giving the Russians a maintenance manual, technical details and key lists for the KL-7 crypto system. The government dropped three other counts under a plea agreement. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. In 2002, Joseph Helmich died in prison at the age of 65.

Clear Signs and Warnings 

This was a textbook spy case that could have been avoided. People with security clearance who can't handle money are always a risk because money is an important incentive to espionage. If such person nevertheless gets affluent, has no provable explanation and refuses a polygraph, then all bells should ring. You can either help to solve their problems or prevent access to classified information.

It's only due to a combination of circumstances that Helmich was thoroughly investigated. The source who tipped off the FBI, the criteria only fitted Helmich, records showed both wealth and debts, and his refusal of a polygraph. FBI counterintelligence then put its teeth in the case and had the patience to wait until he made a mistake. He did, and was caught. In the end, he paid dearly for having trivial financial problems and then solving them the wrong way.

Some newspapers reported that the FBI "stumbled" on Helmich when a Soviet KGB agent they were trailing met with Helmich to discuss a payment, "according to an American intelligence source". This was obviously a cover story to protect the well-placed source inside Soviet intelligence. Disclosing that information could have enabled Soviet counterintelligence to identify the mole.

Intelligence Documents

More Information on the KL-7

  • KL-7 in Service full history of the KL-7, its use by the U.S military, CIA, FBI, NATO and other allies, including many declassified documents.
  • TSEC/KL-7 detailed page with all technical details. 
 New York Times Press Releases

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