© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Misspellings Caught A Spy


And now we're going to hear a story that sounds just too bizarre to be true. More than a decade before Edward Snowden famously leaked thousands of classified records to the world, another U.S. government contractor tried a similar move the old-fashioned way. His name is Brian Regan. And in 1999 and 2000, he smuggled classified documents out of his office and buried them in the woods hoping to sell them to a foreign government. But he was foiled in part by his own terrible spelling.

This thrilling story is out this month in a new book called "The Spy Who Couldn't Spell: A Dyslexic Traitor, An Unbreakable Code And The FBI's Hunt For America's Stolen Secrets." Michel Martin talked with author Yudhijit Bhattacharjee about the strange story of Brian Regan.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Why do you think most people have never heard of this story?

YUDHIJIT BHATTACHARJEE: The main reason is that Brian Regan was arrested just two weeks before 9/11. And so his story got completely overshadowed by the coverage of what was arguably the biggest story of the last 20 years.

MARTIN: So how did this all - how did he do it?

BHATTACHARJEE: So Brian Regan had access to Intelink which is the intelligence community's version of the Internet. It's a purely classified and closed-off network of government servers. And Brian Regan saw an opportunity in accessing hundreds and thousands of classified documents that were on these servers, print out satellite images, top secret documents which he then smuggled out of the building of the National Reconnaissance Office, hid in his basement and then ultimately went out to the forest and buried in several packages out in Virginia and in Maryland.

MARTIN: And so the plan was that once he got paid, he would tell people how to get the information.

BHATTACHARJEE: Exactly. His plan was a very meticulous and detailed plan and a rather complicated one. Once he buried these secrets, he read out the GPS coordinates, the geo coordinates of these hiding locations, and he encrypted them. And so what he was left with were these sheets of paper with numbers and letters that nobody would have understood had he gotten caught. And, in fact, that's what happened later on. His plan was to offer a sample of these secrets to foreign governments in order to induce them, and then once he got paid $13 million, he was going to provide these sites so that these intelligence services could dig up the information and use it.

MARTIN: So take us back to the beginning. Who is Brian Regan and why did he do this?

BHATTACHARJEE: In 1995, Brian Regan joined the NRO which is the National Reconnaissance Office which is the agency that manages all of the spy satellites. Brian Regan - sometime in 1998 because of his severe debts and because of his feeling of being disrespected at the workplace and just in general in society - decided that he was going to betray the country in order to try and make some money.

MARTIN: But he did have - you know, he had a family. He was married. He had kids. He did seem to be respected within his field, even though he did have a significant learning disability, and yet he didn't see himself that way. Do you know why?

BHATTACHARJEE: Brian Regan had a very difficult childhood. And I think it left a deep impact on him. Because of his dyslexia and his odd personality, he got ridiculed at school. He got made fun of by his neighborhood friends. And despite his success, he still felt that more respect was due to him, and one way to put it is that Brian Regan was underestimated by everybody else and overestimated by himself, and that mismatch kind of sums up his psychology.

MARTIN: So the first break in the case, at least for the U.S. government, was the fact that somebody informed on him.

BHATTACHARJEE: That's exactly right.

MARTIN: But they didn't know who they were informing on, correct? They just knew that somebody was passing information and an informant told - somebody who was an informant on the receiving side let the government know - the U.S. government know - that somebody was trying to pass these secrets, so they were kind of on their trail. What was the relevance of the fact that he couldn't spell? How did that become important?

BHATTACHARJEE: His misspellings were, in fact, one of the clues that allowed the FBI to narrow down the list of suspects because, you know, Brian Regan used to misspell words in his email communications, in his internal reports. And because the government had found so many misspellings in this intercepted package, investigators went looking for somebody who was a bad speller.

MARTIN: Ultimately, Regan was - I mean, this is not a spoiler. This is a matter of public record. He was convicted and sentenced to life. Why was the punishment so severe?

BHATTACHARJEE: The punishment was very severe because Brian Regan attempted to blackmail the government. He tried to ask the government to give him a reduced sentence in exchange for his willingness to tell them where he had hidden the secrets that he had stolen. What the government had at that point was simply these sheets of encrypted sites which the government didn't know what they meant, and he wasn't going to tell them. If he had come clean right after he was arrested, if he had cooperated, I believe he might have gotten away with a shorter sentence.

MARTIN: So what can we learn from this? I mean, the fact that the government had an example of a person who engaged in this conduct - and he thankfully from the governor's perspective was stopped in time before he was able to actually transfer any secrets. But is there something we should learn from this?

BHATTACHARJEE: After the Brian Regan case, there was considerable reform undertaken at the National Reconnaissance Office, but many in the intelligence community and the broader intelligence community still to this day don't know anything about the Brian Regan case, although, it was the perfect sort of example of an insider threat, and anybody studying that case could have foreseen the possibility of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. So it was sort of unfortunate that this important case got lost in history, and I'm glad that I was able to bring that story out.

MARTIN: Yudhijit Bhattacharjee's latest book is "The Spy Who Couldn't Spell: A Dyslexic Traitor, An Unbreakable Code And The FBI's Hunt For America's Stolen Secrets." Yudhijit Bhattacharjee was in our studios in Washington, D.C., to talk with us about this. Thank you so much for joining us.

BHATTACHARJEE: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.