In late 1988 the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested a woman named Winifred Ann Bartowski, who worked in the Pentagon as a personal assistant to the Secretary of the Navy.
Bartowski had the second highest civilian security clearance available, and was arrested after a Soviet defector had revealed that the KGB had an extraordinarily well-placed source in the Navy Department. After months of surveillance, federal agents had determined that Bartowski had in fact been removing classified documents from her office and leaving them at a drop for Soviet agents.
Upon arrest, agents had been surprised to find that not only was Bartowski not upset at her arrest, but was in fact annoyed at the fact that the federal agents did not seem aware that she was operating under FBI instruction. She was even able to present a document purporting to be issued by the Justice Department authorizing her to break her security clearance and provide the secret information.
This was a common tactic of the KGB at the time, to convince ordinary patriotic Americans that they were not working for the Soviet Union but another branch of the US government which was itself testing the security of their department or organisation, or hunting another alleged spy.
Bartowski agreed to be polygraphed, and during her questioning not only convinced agents that she believed she had been working for her own government, but that she had visited a fully functioning FBI office operating in plain sight in Washington DC, where she had been given her mission and even spoken by phone with Vice President Bush who had assured her about spying on her cabinet officer boss and thanked her for her efforts.
This detail greatly alarmed the agents, because a number of them had recently worked on another counter-intelligence case where a suspect in the Department of Energy had given the exact same details. He too claimed that he had been taken to an FBI facility and tasked by federal agents.
On hearing of this, the Deputy Director of the FBI, Charles Farnsworth III, had requested that a special unit be set up to confirm the existence of this fake FBI operation (designated Red Office)and deal with it. Absolute secrecy was paramount, with the bureau being well aware that if the existence of Red Office became known in Washington circles, other agencies would immediately cease cooperation with the bureau on its investigations. Among the agents assigned to Red Office were Richard Anderson and James “Digger” Farroe, two counter-intelligence specialists. Farroe was the most junior agent assigned, straight out of Qunatico, and had been eager to make his mark. As the investigation begun, agents pored over the details given by Bartowski and Thomas Mellor, the Department of Energy employee who had told a similar story, trying to pinpoint from their evidence a possible location. Both had been blindfolded, and both said that they had driven for at least forty five minutes before entering through an underground car park. Both recalled seeing the Capitol from an office window. Agents spent hours poring over aerial shots of the city and searching buildings within line of sight of the Capitol without luck.
Late one night, Farroe decided to try a different track, and worked with Anderson to identify comedians and impressionists in the DC area who did impressions of the Vice President. Both men compiled a list, and proceeded, over the following days, to visit the list in the slim chance of finding the man who had spoken to Bartowski. On the second day, Anderson discovered a struggling part-time comedian named Johnny Seary who included the Vice President in his radio impressions, and who had died the previous day from a hit and run.
A search of Seary’s apartment revealed $4000 in cash hidden, with no clear identity as to its source.
The investigation had run out of ground when a second Department of Energy employee, Steven Parker, contacted the FBI. He produced a document similar to Bartowski’s and reported that he had, by chance, heard a radio station that had hosted Seary replay an old sketch in honour of his passing. Parker immediately recognised the voice, and suddenly had doubts about his secret FBI recruitment. Speaking to Farroe, his story was almost identical to the first too, save for one detail. On his blindfolded trip to the Red Office, he recalled the vehicle stopping and the loud cutting of an electric saw into wood. He also remembered flashing lights so bright that they penetrated his mask.
Farroe wondered as to whether this had indicated a tree that had fallen on a main road and was being removed by emergency services, and using the date given by Parker, proceeded to question both the DC Police and the Virginia State Police. The VSP came back quickly, confirming that a number of trees had been brought down on a road leading from Washington DC to Harrisonburg.
Farroe, not willing to wait for his partner, proceeded to visit the road, coming across a facility protected by unidentified security officers. On identifying himself as a federal agent, the security guards detained Farroe at gunpoint.
When Anderson, searching for his partner, visited the facility, he was shocked to find a large warehouse with an underground car park that housed a de facto movie set of an FBI office with false windows and lighting. Farroe was unconscious but unharmed, which the FBI later attributed to an unwritten rule that neither the US nor USSR kill each other’s operatives.
The FBI were never able to determine how long the Red Office operation had been active, nor how many agents it had recruited. The facility had been forensically cleaned, denying the FBI even the fingerprints of possible visitors.
Three weeks later, White House FBI liaison Paul Harris, who had been briefed by Farnsworth, resigned quietly, after he realised, studying photos of the facility, that he himself had been a Red Office operative, and had inadvertently tipped off the KGB to both the search for the Bush impressionist and Special Agent Farroe’s search of Virginia. Harris only revealed this fact on his death bed in 1994.
He also revealed that he had been ordered to direct the FBI towards a CIA operative named Brian Kelley who was believed to be a KGB spy but was in fact totally innocent. It later emerged that the Kelley operation had been created as a deliberate distraction to protect the KGB asset in the FBI Robert Hanssen, who was uncovered in 2001.