Clyde Lee Conrad and Rodney Ramsey may not be as well-known as Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, John Walker or other infamous spies and traitors, but according to Gen. Glenn K. Otis, the commander in chief of the U.S. Army European Command from 1983 to 1988, their acts of espionage had left the West so vulnerable and stripped of its own defensive capabilities that its defeat would have been assured had the Soviets acted on their intelligence and launched an all-out war.
Conrad, Ramsey and others in this spy ring gave the Soviets American’s defensive war plans, nuclear launch codes and other military secrets. It was a devastating breach of security.
As former FBI Special Agent Joe Navarro recounts in his book, “Three Minutes to Doomsday: An Agent, a Traitor, and the Worst Espionage Breach in History,” he became involved in this decade-long espionage investigation on Aug. 23, 1988 when he was instructed to locate and interview Roderick James Ramsey.
The message stated that Ramsey was last known to be living in Tampa, Florida, and Agent Navarro was to interview him “regarding his knowledge of or association with Clyde Lee Conrad, while stationed at 8th ID, Bad Kreuznach, West Germany: service years 1983-85. INSCOM (Army Intelligence) will liaise and assist: locate, interview, report.”
Mr. Navarro, who in 1988 served as a member of the FBI’s SWAT team and flew night aerial surveillance as well as his counterintelligence duties in the FBI’s Tampa, Florida office, located Ramsey, who was living in his mother’s trailer. He then began a long game of wits with the highly intelligent, narcissistic and manipulative former enlisted soldier.
Like Conrad, who had been arrested in West Germany and charged with espionage, Ramsey had worked as the custodian of highly classified war plans and documents in the U.S. Army’s G-3 Plans section. He told Mr. Navarro in the first interview that he lost his job when he flunked a drug test that indicated he had cannabis in his urine.
Mr. Navarro was an astute observer of non-verbal communication, or as some of his colleagues joking called it, “Voodoo.” Ramsey, despite his high IQ, had no idea that the FBI agent was reading his body language, such as when asked about Conrad, Ramsey’s hand holding a cigarette shook like a hard tremor.
“Is it meaningful? You bet,” Mr. Navarro writes. “Anything we do that potentially threatens us — burning a finger on the stove, say, or committing a criminal act — gets stored in the brain, in the hippocampus, and anything that awakens that threat — a glowing heating unit, mention of our partner in crime — puts us instantly on guard. That’s what happened to Rod: For just a moment he trembled and froze, the same way any of us would temporarily freeze if we rounded a bend and saw a snarling dog in front of us.”
During a series of interviews, Ramsey confessed to various crimes, eventually leading up to espionage, while discussing esoteric topics with Mr. Navarro and his FBI partner, Special Agent Lynn Tremaine. They met in a hotel room and Mr. Navarro plied his suspect with Cuban delicacies and flattery. Ramsey was talking, and yet for FBI bureaucratic reasons, Mr. Navarro and his partner were ordered off the case.
One year later, Mr. Navarro was ordered to resume his interviews, but the case, as Mr. Navarro notes, “had gone cold as a Russian winter.”
When Mr. Navarro again saw Ramsey, he was shocked at his appearance. His thin frame has gotten even thinner and he was unkempt. Ramsey told the FBI agent that he was driving a cab, but not making much money.
As Mr. Navarro continued his interviews with Ramsey, the press, specifically, ABC News, got wind of the espionage case and began to broadcast the developing story.
John McWethy at ABC came on the air and reported that Conrad was the only one arrested in West Germany, but a massive FBI investigation was underway. He reported that the spy ring began with Zolten Szabo, a Hungarian serving in the U.S. Army, in 1967, and he brought in Conrad in the mid-1970s. A third generation of spies were recruited by Conrad and the espionage continued in the mid-1980s.
Ramsey spoke to Mr. Navarro as he enjoyed sparring with the FBI agent. Ramsey possessed a photographic memory and scored the second highest IQ ever recorded by the US Army, so Mr. Navarro had to play a clever cat-and-mouse game with the suspected spy.
This is a talky book, mostly covering the back and forth between Rodney Ramsey and Mr. Navarro. “Three Minutes to Doomsday” is an interesting book about a dedicated, dogged FBI agent and a brilliant, yet sad sack spy.
• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism.
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THREE MINUTES TO DOOMSDAY: AN AGENT, A TRAITOR, AND THE WORST ESPIONAGE BREACH IN U.S. HISTORY
By Joe Navarro
Scribner, $26, 368 pages