The honey trap that trapped a sailor in a sexpionage case
On this date, 35 years ago, August 21, 1987, Marine Corps Sgt. Clayton Lonetree, a member of the US Embassy Moscow Marine Security Guard Detachment, was convicted of espionage and 12 related charges by an eight-member military tribunal. Lonetree would be sentenced to 30 years in prison and would have that sentence reduced several times over the following years. He eventually served nine years in United States disciplinary barracks and was released in 1996.
The honey trap
Lonetree was one of 23 Maritime Security Guards (MSGs) at the United States Embassy in Moscow. I had met him during his tour of duty as he overlapped mine, and he was sometimes patron of Uncle Sam’s aka the American Club at the Embassy which I owned. He was a quiet man, then in his early twenties, now he must be in his sixties, who fell in love with an embassy foreign service national, Violetta Sanni, a Soviet of Ukrainian descent, who worked at Embassy Government Services Office (GSO). During her 18-month assignment in Moscow, her relationship with Sanni went unnoticed.
During his many interviews and testimonials, Lonetree has opened up about how he and Sanni met. He followed her out of the embassy and home, he did this several times, finally finding the courage to talk to her on the subway, and after which he walked her home. The next day, he was waiting at the front door of the embassy when offices closed and accompanied her from the embassy to the metro and then to her apartment, which she shared with her mother.
While Lonetree probably believed himself to be discreet, it is absolutely impossible that his activity did not attract the attention of the KGB, which monitored the comings and goings at the embassy and would have cataloged this meeting.
Lonetree would visit Sanni at her house several times. A 1998 Washington Post article quoted Lonetree with an admission: “I would use counter surveillance techniques when leaving the embassy and going to Violetta’s. These techniques included changing my mode of transportation, varying my routes, backtracking, and wearing and changing different coats. I used counter surveillance to avoid being followed by the KGB. The absurdity lies in the explanation of how he learned such techniques – he read spy novels.
One thing leads to another, the personal relationship with Sanni becomes an intimate one, and Sanni, whether coerced or collaborative, introduces “Uncle Sasha” to the youngster, Sgt. Lontree. Uncle Sasha was introduced as a lawyer with interests in American culture and well-connected. It turned out to be Alexei Yefimov, who Lonetree figured out was affiliated with the KGB.
Uncle Sasha obtained information from Lonetree and tasked him with collecting low-level information. Despite the fuss around Lonetree and another Marine letting KGB agents into sensitive areas of the embassy, including the communications center and sensitive office spaces, the likelihood of this happening was low and the most sensitive areas have not been penetrated.
Lonetree was transferred from Moscow to the United States Embassy in Vienna and Uncle Sasha followed, made contact and handed the management of Lonetree to a KGB officer based in Vienna. The Soviets had a nascent recruit on their hands, whom they had not yet fully exploited. They tasked him with identifying intelligence officers in Vienna and pulling out an embassy directory. He claims to have provided an embassy telephone directory which he took from the unclassified trash. They paid him $1,800, which he used $1,000 to buy a dress for Sasha to take back to Sanni. He was tasked with drawing up a floor plan of the United States Embassy in Vienna and providing photos of those he believed to be intelligence agents. He complied and drew a sketch of the embassy by hand and initially provided three photos. Later, he would confess and plead guilty to the charge of having identified nine American intelligence officers in Moscow and Vienna to the KGB.
Christmas is coming and Lonetree is feeling the pressure. At a Christmas party at the embassy, he approaches the CIA station chief and asks to speak to him in private. He confesses to the chief. With this act, what would follow would often be compared to a three ring circus without Ring Master. The CIA, NCIS, State Department and USMC all got involved as the Marine Security Guard program in Moscow became the center of attention, a worldwide investigation ensued and it was immediately believed that Lonetree and others had allowed the Moscow embassy to be penetrated. It was, in a few words, a big mess.
Lonetree does its time and is freed
The reality, which comes with the luxury of 20/20 hindsight, is that Lonetree did provide information to the KGB, including the identities of intelligence agents. He also provided information about the building and the security regime to which he had access. What he didn’t do was provide free access to the embassy. The interviews with Lonetree and the other Moscow Marines were intense, some of them too much.
To his credit, Lonetree stood by his conviction and said he was ready to serve his sentence, whatever it was. He blamed no one but himself. The reality was that Lonetree got caught in the switches of the “big game” and was manipulated by the KGB, who took advantage of his infatuation with Sanni.
The military tribunal wanted to make an example of him, and they did. That his sentence has continued to be reduced over time speaks to the overzealousness of the intergovernmental investigation in seeking facts that fit a predetermined narrative.
Lonetree is now free and should be around 60 years old. But being free is not the same as being free from history. Rod Barker, author of the book ‘Dancing with the Devil’ on Lonetree commented in 1996, “Legally he will have served his sentence, he will have paid his debt . . . but he will still have to live with the legacy of being the first Marine, the only Marine ever convicted of espionage.