/ Published May 13, 2011
My Life as a Spy: One of America’s Most Notorious Spies Finally Tells His Story by John A. Walker Jr. Prometheus Books, 2008, 349 pp.
An intense, captivating, and challenging book, John Walker’s My Life as a Spy reflects an important, growing political discussion about information security. It is interesting for a variety of reasons—first, as a true-life spy story. Curious readers will wonder how Walker got away with selling secrets to the Soviet Union and will compare his experience to the depiction of spies, fictional or otherwise, in the media. Second, the suspenseful narrative not only offers insight into a successful spy program but also addresses the mistakes that led to Walker’s undoing. Third, the book appeals on a personal level, revealing what this master spy was like and why he would risk his own life as well as the lives of friends and family members (notably, Walker’s plans to expand his spy ring over time even extended to his own son). Fourth, My Life as a Spy raises powerful, thought-provoking political questions by addressing the disingenuousness of politicians, America’s historical tendency to inflate the severity of Soviet threats, the Navy’s weak security measures, the Department of Defense’s long-standing practice of overclassifying records, and the matter of whether or not compromises of secret documents actually cause harm to national security.
Many of the political issues that Walker writes about are recurring ones—witness the current debate over the Wikileaks release of military and diplomatic records. This leads to questions that face world governments that must decide the proper level of access in this information age. Indeed, given the proliferation of computers and Internet connections, one wonders whether secrets can even exist. Walker obtained information by photocopying documents and taking pictures with a micro camera; currently, devices such as pinhole cameras, spy cameras, and other high-tech equipment are generally available to the public. Computer users have access to a wide range of information, including documents, audio and video files, and live video from broadcast agencies and webcams, not to mention satellite photos—all of which is easily posted on the Internet in seconds.
Thus, governments must consider the possibility that information released to the public might help their people move toward democratic governments and/or overthrow dictators. Instant information access could also lead to a state of perpetual unrest instigated by individuals demanding immediate gratification and results. Consequently, governments must decide if it is more important to control information by making it secret or to mine available open-source data.
Walker claims that he divulged secret information to assure the Soviet Union that the United States was not planning a first strike, arguing that if the two countries knew more about each other, they would be less likely to go to war. Readers must decide whether he is rationalizing or genuinely promoting the optimal use of information.
I recommend My Life as a Spy because it holds the reader’s interest on many different levels and because it intriguingly explores a variety of political issues. This worthwhile book should appeal to a broad audience.
Maj Herman Reinhold, USAF, Retired
Athens, New York
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."