The testimony could have come from the pages of a best-selling espionage thriller. The spy was an embittered young man who had spent much of his life behind the Iron Curtain. The spy catcher, a woman, was an intrepid U.S. navy officer who led him through a yearlong operation orchestrated by the U.S. and Canadian intelligence communities. But the tale of Stephen Joseph Ratkai, 26,
that unfolded over four days in a St. John’s, Nfld., courtroom last week also served as a real-life reminder that, even as East-West relations improve, spies continue to ply their shadowy trade. Ratkai was to be sentenced this week after his conviction on one charge of espionage and another of attempted espionage. According to the testimony of Cpl. Gary Bass, head of RCMP intelligence in St. John’s, Ratkai was trying to obtain secret documents on submarine tracking measures that represented “the technological edge in the balance of power between the East and the West.”
Newfoundland’s Supreme Court had been prepared for a not guilty plea and a month-long trial. But Ratkai surprised the court by pleading guilty. Still, Mr. Justice Finían Aylward asked the Crown to submit facts to support a conviction. During the next three days, the prosecution presented a 90-minute videotape of Ratkai’s final meeting in a St. John’s hotel
room with U.S. navy Lieut. Donna Geiger, excerpts from an audio tape of a five-hour RCMP interrogation and testimony from Bass. The officer said that although Ratkai tried to portray himself as a simple courier, Canadian and U.S. intelligence agents believed that he was a skilled spy who feigned ignorance of his mission. Said Bass: “He made very few mistakes. Had Lieut. Geiger not been working for us, it
was doubtful that he would have been caught.”
U.S. and Canadian security officials began spinning their web more than two years ago when they suspected that Soviet research vessels were collecting intelligence about the U.S. naval base at Argentia, Nfld., 161 km south of St. John’s. Geiger, who did not appear at the trial, posed as a disgruntled officer who needed money for her sick mother and her husband’s business. She approached a Soviet vessel docked in St. John’s harbor in December, 1986, and said that she was prepared to enter a “business relationship” with the Soviets. Later, she began receiving letters signed “Love, Peter” at a St. John’s post office box and, through them, she arranged meetings with a man who turned out to be Ratkai, a native of Antigonish, N.S., who had lived in his father’s homeland of Hungary for several years as a boy and again from 1983 until 1987.
Surveillance of Ratkai by RCMP and Canadian
Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) agents began on May 17, 1987, when he showed up at the Hotel Newfoundland for his first meeting with Geiger. During the next 13 months, Ratkai had three more meetings with Geiger, and gave her a total of $6,000 for classified documents relating to the acoustic surveillance of submarines, ships and seagoing weapons carried out by Argentia’s Sound Surveillance System. The information, said Bass, would tell the Soviets “how their vessels are tracked and allow them to develop countermeasures.”
The trap for Ratkai was baited with real secrets. In fact, said Bass, documents sold to Ratkai at the final June 11 meeting last year— including photographs of parts of the U.S. navy’s secret Naval Warfare Publications manual—were so sensitive that the U.S. navy provided them on the understanding that they “would not get out of the hotel.” They did not: with 46 agents from the RCMP, CSIS and U.S. Naval Intelligence in and around the Hotel Newfoundland, both Ratkai and the material were seized after the meeting in Room 105.
Ratkai, the third Canadian to be convicted under the Official Secrets Act since 1962, took notes from time to time during his court appearances last week and occasionally traded quips with two Mounties who stood on either side of him. His lawyer, William Collins, argued that Ratkai was just a low-level messenger. He knew so little about espionage, said Collins, that he thought CSIS was the name of a military machine and Canada’s intelligence agency was the CIA—the Canada Intelligence Agency.
But last week, Bass said that Ratkai knew more about espionage activities in Canada than he admitted. For one thing, he said, Ratkai told Geiger that he was working on another case and had the authority to select a meeting site and to decide the amount of money he would give her. As well, Bass testified that Ratkai was well-schooled in surveillance and countersurveillance. And during his interview with the Q RCMP, Bass said that “Ratkai did a masterful job of appearing to co-operate. But everything of consequence we already knew. He has therefore given up nothing.”
But both the defence and the Crown agreed that Ratkai was a man with a hauntingly tragic past. His Nova Scotia-bom mother killed his half-sister and herself when Ratkai was 5. Then the family sent him to live in Hungary with his grandmother. He returned to Canada to go to high school in Antigonish in 1976, but after graduating, he worked at odd jobs or drew unemployment insurance. After his father died of cancer in 1982, Ratkai went back to Hungary to study electrical engineering and trade currency on the black market.
At one point during his taped interview with RCMP officers, Ratkai said that he was aware of the trouble he could be in. He said, “I know I’m facing some years—somebody does something, they’ve got to pay for it.” Ratkai was to learn the price of his actions—up to a maximum of 14 years in prison—at a sentencing session this week.
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