Yudhijit Bhattacharjee is a contributor to the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, National Geographic and other publications. He’s also the author of the bestselling book The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell, the story of Brian Regan, a dyslexic self-proclaimed CIA analyst with top secret clearance who tried to market stolen information to foreign governments. I recently interviewed Bhattacharjee about his book and the current relevance of Regan’s story. This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.
1/ Who is Brian Regan and how valuable was the information he stole?
Brian Regan was a signals analyst for the U.S. intelligence community who stole thousands of pages of reconnaissance satellite images and other top secret defense information off government servers and offered to sell them to two of the United States’ enemies — Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi — as well as other Middle Eastern regimes. Employed at the National Reconnaissance Office, Regan came up with a crafty plan to profit from what he had stolen, burying his trove of secrets in two state parks outside of Washington, D.C., and encrypting the coordinates of the hidden locations.
All he needed to do was to engage potential buyers and show them enough information to convince them that he had the goods that he was promising. Even after he got caught, he wouldn’t divulge where he had hidden the secrets, and it took the FBI more than two years to break his codes and recover the materials he’d taken. Despite ultimately failing in his plan, Regan proved to be a cunning and ingenious traitor in the way he pulled off the crime.
Had the documents he took ended up in enemy hands, it would have constituted the biggest intelligence leak in U.S. history up until that time. They included photographic and signals intelligence collected by U.S. satellites on air defense systems, weapons depots, munitions factories and other military assets throughout the Middle East and in other parts of the world. One of the things Regan tried to give away was a top secret manual that’s referred to as the Joint Tactical Exploitation and National Systems. It details the U.S.’s vast technological capabilities for collecting different kinds of intelligence used by our forces. Divulging that would be like giving away the keys to the kingdom.
2/ What motivated him?
The motivation was simple: money. Regan was about to retire and was worried about the financial future of his family, especially because he was deeply in debt. But there was a deeper psychological motivation that drove his crime. Since childhood, Regan had suffered considerable ridicule and humiliation because of his dyslexia, which, combined with his somewhat socially awkward personality, gave him the image of being less smart than his peers. Regan was determined to prove – to himself and to the rest of the world – how smart he was.
3/ How did he get caught?
Regan was well along executing his plan when the FBI got wind of his intentions, after intercepting a coded letter that an anonymous sender had mailed to the Libyan consulate in New York in late 2000. The letter was an offer to sell secrets for a price of $13 million. It was filled with spelling errors, which was one of the pieces of evidence that ultimately helped investigators identify Regan as the sender. Agents arrested Regan in August, 2001, just as he was about to leave the country to market the secrets to Iraqi, Libyan and Chinese embassies in Europe. Apprehending him was just half of the investigation, though, because the agents still didn’t know what he’d taken and where he’d hidden it.
4/ How did the intelligence community react after Regan was exposed? Were there important lessons learned from the case?
The National Reconnaissance Office management was flabbergasted that Regan had been able to steal so many documents from right under their noses, printing out thousands of documents and images he accessed through Intelink – the intelligence community’s classified network of servers. He took these pages out of the building over a period of months. His downloading of documents that had nothing to do with his job should have raised red flags, but apparently nobody was monitoring. The NRO made improvements to its digital security after Regan was caught but the lessons were clearly not applied to other intelligence agencies, as made clear by what Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden were able to get away with years later.
5/ How easy — or hard — would it be to steal secrets today? Could Regan’s methods be replicated?
Well, they were replicated. Manning downloaded thousands of documents using the same kind of access that Regan had, and nobody noticed. Snowden was more sophisticated in how he covered his tracks but he too, essentially did the same thing. I’m sure the intelligence community has improved its safeguards since these new breaches but from my interviews with cybersecurity experts, I understand that detecting insider threats on the network isn’t a trivial problem. So, yes, the risks are still very much there.
6/ What about getting secret information to the media, without being caught? How hard is that to do today, in the post-Snowden and Manning era?
Look, only a few months ago, we heard about an NSA contractor named Harold Martin who is alleged to have taken thousands of classified documents and files home from the agency. It’s unclear what his motives were but the fact that we’re still hearing of an incident like that does not inspire confidence that the intelligence community has an impenetrable fence. So I’d speculate that getting secrets out to anybody, including the media, has not been rendered impossible, despite the steps agencies have taken. It’s another matter that the media itself might be under increased surveillance after the Manning and Snowden leaks.