A Scotia native once fired by the Glenville Police Department went on to become the Central Intelligence Agency’s “top burglar and premier lock picker,” according to a new article in Smithsonian magazine.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Douglas Fred Groat was part of a secret CIA unit that burglarized overseas embassies to obtain secret diplomatic codes, according to the article, which appears in the coming October issue.
However, after a falling out in which he left the agency, Groat offered to sell his services to foreign governments as a security expert, was charged with trying to extort the CIA and ended up pleading guilty to a felony and spending nearly four years in federal prison.
Parts of what author David Wise writes in the article, titled “The CIA Burglar Who Went Rogue,” can be confirmed from contemporary press accounts of his arrest and from available federal and state court records. But the article relies heavily on the version of events presented by Groat, who now lives in retirement in rural Tennessee.
The Smithsonian magazine is the official journal of the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. government’s official history and technology museum complex in Washington. Its monthly articles cover a broad range of topics.
Wise, 82, is the author of 11 books, most of them about the nation’s intelligence and security communities.
The account of the CIA’s embassy burglary unit appears to be ground breaking, with Wise saying he spoke with Groat, other former CIA members and intelligence officials. The CIA declined to comment on the unit’s existence for the article.
Groat, who is now about 65, grew up in Scotia and joined the Army in 1967, serving in the Special Forces, according to the article and his younger brother, Barry Groat of Schenectady.
After four years in the Army, Groat turned to law enforcement. He was a Glenville police officer in the 1970s but was fired for insubordination in 1977, after being brought up on disciplinary charges. He said these were related to his having ticketed a volunteer firefighter who was driving recklessly with his flashing lights on. A judge later ordered Groat’s reinstatement, according to state Supreme Court records in Schenectady County, but threw out Groat’s efforts to bring “malicious prosecution” charges against the town.
Groat went on to become a deputy U.S. Marshal and in 1980 joined the CIA, according to the Smithsonian article. Two years later, having tested well for hand coordination and attention to detail, he was assigned to “the shop,” the CIA unit that entered overseas embassies and picked the locks of safes to obtain the codes countries used to encrypt their diplomatic communications.
According to the story, Groat planned or participated in 60 missions in Europe, Africa, South America and the Middle East, and received $5,000 cash bonuses and awards from both the CIA and the National Security Agency.
His problems with the agency began in 1990, when during a mission in an unidentified South Asian country his team had to wait outside the target embassy for an hour because a cleaning lady unexpectedly arrived at the building. Groat concluded that this showed poor mission planning.
Back in Washington, he complained to his supervisor and then the CIA’s inspector general, although he says he was warned that might have repercussions for his career.
“We felt there was some reason for his being upset at the way his operation was prepared,” Frederick P. Hitz, a law professor at the University of Virginia who was the CIA’s inspector general at the time, told the Smithsonian writer.
Hitz recommended Groat be transferred. Groat told the magazine that when he was moved to another CIA office, he was given nothing to do.
“The way Groat saw it, he had risked his life for nearly a decade to perform some of his country’s most demanding, valuable and risky work. He was the best at what he did, and yet that didn’t seem to matter; some bureaucrats had forced him out of the Shop for speaking out,” Wise writes.
That’s when things took the turn that would land Groat in prison.
In September 1992, Groat sent three anonymous letters to the ambassador of an Asian country, revealing an operation he’d been involved in to bug that country’s computers in one of its embassies in a Scandinavian country. While Groat believes one letter got through, the CIA intercepted another, and the FBI started an investigation into who wrote it. Groat was suspected, and was put on administrative leave after refusing to take a polygraph test.
Groat was meanwhile seeking a $500,000 settlement from the CIA “for the loss of his career,” according to the article. In negotiations, the agency sought his help in identifying the letters’ author.
In January 1997, a few months after Groat went through a divorce from his high school sweetheart, the article says he telephoned a CIA counsel and said that without a settlement, he would become a private security consultant, telling foreign embassies how to protect their diplomatic codes.
In March, according to the story, Groat rejected a CIA offer of $50,000 a year for the six years remaining until he would be eligible to retire, with the condition that he take a polygraph test and have no contact with foreign governments.
Also in March 1997, Groat wrote to 15 foreign consulates in San Francisco, offering his security services.
“I never intended to consult with a foreign country,” Groat told the magazine. “It was a negotiating ploy.”
On April 2, 1998, an FBI agent with whom he was in touch asked Groat to stop by the FBI headquarters in Washington on his way from Atlanta to Pennsylvania to start a new job as a gas pipeline inspector. There, Groat was arrested on a sealed federal indictment containing five espionage charges.
Documents in the case were sealed, but a review of electronic federal court records by The Daily Gazette confirmed that Groat was indicted in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., on charges of providing national defense information and cryptographic information to foreign governments. The Gazette also carried contemporary accounts of the case, noting Groat’s local roots. On espionage charges, Groat could have received the death penalty.
The most serious charges were dismissed as part of a plea bargain, but on July 27, 1998, Groat entered a plea agreement to a single felony count of interfering with commerce by threat or violence.
“Mr. Groat’s arrest and his subsequent plea demonstrate that the U.S. Government will take action against those individuals who would violate the nation’s trust by attempting to blackmail the government by threatening to disclose secrets,” then-CIA Director George Tenet said in a statement issued the day of the plea.
Groat was sentenced to five years in a federal minimum security prison, of which he served just under four years.
Today, Groat is remarried and living in Tennessee, at a location he didn’t disclose.
The Gazette was unable to reach him Friday.