The moral of the story of Brian Regan: No matter the circumstance or depth of financial trouble there is always a better answer to your problems than a sophisticated, get-rich-quick scheme punishable by the death penalty.
But that was ultimately the motive of Regan, a signals intelligence specialist employed by the National Reconnaissance Office who, in 2000, offered to sell state secrets to Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, the mullahs of Iran and China to get out of a financial bind of hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt and more piles on the way with young children to support.
His story of espionage is told by author Yudhijit Bhattacharjee in the nonfiction spy thriller The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell.
Aptly titled indeed as the FBI was led to Regan through a trail of spelling errors included in a letter passed to authorities from a foreign source. In it an unidentified U.S. intelligence official offered a trove of intelligence for an upfront payment of $13 million plus millions more for additional drops of military secrets.
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In the letter, he attempted to build trust in his sales pitch by reminding that he could be “enprisioned” for his “esponage.”
Those types of spelling errors are common for sufferers of dyslexia, like Regan, who battled the disorder that impairs one’s ability to recognize and process words and letters. The bad speller in the intelligence community led to the retired master sergeant of the U.S. Air Force who was put under months of surveillance.
Yudhijit Bhattacharjee was a staff writer for the weekly journal, ‘Science,’ for 11 years. Among his topics were astronomy and neuroscience.
What Regan was trying to peddle were tens of thousands of pages downloaded from the Intelink — the intelligence community’s secured intranet — and CD-ROMs and videotapes of the National Reconnaissance Office, all of which he stuffed in his gym bag over the course of a year and buried at various locations, including state parks in Maryland and Virginia.
The FBI arrested Regan in August 2001, a month before 9-11, at Washington’s Dulles International Airport. He had lied to his supervisors about taking a week off to visit Orlando. Instead, he was headed to Europe hoping to finally make a transaction. He had previously visited a Libyan embassy overseas, but he was ordered to leave because officials didn’t trust him.
At the time of his arrest, Regan was in possession of mysteries.
A paper tucked under the insole of his right shoe included the addresses of Iraqi and Chinese embassies in Europe. But in his pants pocket was a pad on which he had written 13 words, among them “tricycle,” “rocket” and “glove,” and none of them connected to the other.
In his wallet was a paper with a string of several dozen letters and numbers, and also on his person was a folder of four pages filled with three-digit numbers or trinomes.
In the Air Force, Regan had been trained in cryptanalysis, the art of deciphering coded messages.
He had crafted this complicated messaging language sequence to encode the coordinates of the sites where he had buried the stolen intelligence.
Much of the book is devoted to the FBI trying to solve Regan’s puzzles, and they had little success except for deciphering that his use of words such as “tricycle” was a reference to the number three and “glove” five. Using images to remember text is a strategy often employed by dyslexics.
The codes identifying where the treasure troves were hidden remained elusive. The FBI needed Regan’s help, but he gave it only after conviction. Indeed, he tried to use his advantage in a reverse plea bargain, his attorney trying to negotiate a lighter sentence for his cooperation.
Prosecutors, however, countered with their intention to seek the death penalty — only the Rosenbergs have been put to death for spying, in 1953 — and prosecute his wife for helping him bury seemingly innocuous items for a fictitious treasure hunt for his children as a ruse to throw off investigators.
Bhattacharjee has written features and essays on science, medicine, cybercrime and espionage for a variety of U.S. magazines.
Prosecutors won that game of chicken. A jury found Regan guilty on three counts of attempted espionage and sentenced him to life in prison.
His fear of a life in solitary confinement unnerved him, as did the potential prosecution of his wife. Regan agreed to help authorities find the buried caches.
Finding the secrets buried in Virginia didn’t even require breaking a code, Regan told investigators. He directed them to a fence line along Interstate 95 and Exit 12A where he had buried a plastic toothbrush container with 12 coordinates written in plain text. In the same container, he included the encoded coordinates for the sites in Maryland.
That’s where the search stalled. Regan couldn’t remember the codes he had written three years earlier.
Authorities sat with Regan trying to crack the code, which was based on the convicted spy’s yearbook. They focused on the alpha-numeric “13A,” which appeared seven times, suggesting that it represented each of the seven spots in the state park.
Law enforcement then surmised (guessed, really) that the No. 13 represented 13 yearbook pictures. They counted 13 and found the name “Frank.” Perhaps 13A translated to “feet.” That indeed uncovered the keys to the code.
Today, Regan sits in the U.S. Penitentiary in Lee County, Va., paying his price while reminding all of us that there is a better way.
The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell: A Dyslexic Traitor, an Unbreakable Code and the FBI’s Hunt for America’s Stolen Secrets
By Yudhijit Bhattacharjee
☆☆☆ (out of five)