Title: The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell
Author: Yudhijit Bhattacharjee
Bhattacharjee, Yudhijit (2016). The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell: A Dyslexic Traitor, an Unbreakable Code, and the FBI’s Hunt for America’s Stolen Secrets. New York, NY: New American Library
- “The thrilling, true-life account of the FBI’s hunt for the ingenious traitor Brian Regan–known as The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell. Before Edward Snowden’s infamous data breach, the largest theft of government secrets was committed by an ingenious traitor whose intricate espionage scheme and complex system of coded messages were made even more baffling by his dyslexia. His name is Brian Regan, but he came to be known as The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell. In December of 2000, FBI Special Agent Steven Carr of the bureau’s Washington, D.C., office received a package from FBI New York: a series of coded letters from an anonymous sender to the Libyan consulate, offering to sell classified United States intelligence. The offer, and the threat, were all too real. A self-proclaimed CIA analyst with top secret clearance had information about U.S. reconnaissance satellites, air defense systems, weapons depots, munitions factories, and underground bunkers throughout the Middle East. Rooting out the traitor would not be easy, but certain clues suggested a government agent with a military background, a family, and a dire need for money. Leading a diligent team of investigators and code breakers, Carr spent years hunting down a dangerous spy and his cache of stolen secrets. In this fast-paced true-life spy thriller, Yudhijit Bhattacharjee reveals how the FBI unraveled Regan’s strange web of codes to build a case against a man who nearly collapsed America’s military security”– Provided by publisher.
- “Before Edward Snowden’s infamous data breach, the largest theft of government secrets was committed by an ingenious traitor whose intricate espionage scheme and complex system of coded messages were made even more baffling by his dyslexia. His name is Brian Regan, but he came to be known as the “Spy Who Couldn’t Spell.” In December 2000,] FBI special agent Steven Carr of the bureau’s Washington, D.C, office received a package from FBI New York: a series of coded letters offering to sell classified United States intelligence from an anonymous sender to the Libyan consulate. The offer and the threat were all too real. A self-proclaimed CIA analyst with top secret clearance had information about US reconnaissance satellites, air defense systems, weapons depots, munitions factories, and underground bunkers throughout the Middle East. Routing out the traitor would not be easy, but certain clues suggested a government agent with a military background, a family, and a dire need for money. Leading a diligent team of investigators and code breakers, Carr spent years hunting down a dangerous spy and his cache of stolen secrets. In this fast-paced, true-life spy thriller, Yudhijit Bhattacharjee reveals how the FBI unraveled Regan’s strange web of codes to build a case against a man who nearly collapsed America’s military security”– Provided by publisher.
- Regan, Brian, 1962-
- United States. National Reconnaissance Office
- United States. Federal Bureau of Investigation.
- Spies–United States–Biography.
- Espionage, American–History–21st century.
- Dyslexics–United States–Biography.
- Intelligence service–United States–History–21st century.
- TRUE CRIME / Espionage.
- HISTORY / Modern / 21st Century.
- POLITICAL SCIENCE / Political Freedom & Security / Intelligence.
Date Updated: October 12, 2017
Date Updated: October 12, 2017
Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake
In the fall of 2000, Air Force master sergeant Brian Regan decided to enhance his retirement nest egg by selling secrets he acquired while assigned to the NRO. Toward that end he prepared an encrypted proposal, separate decryption instructions, and a separate key. Next, he wrote a clear-text letter with contact and dissemination details. He then created three packages—for security reasons—each containing classified documents, portions of the encrypted material and additional coded—and cleartext instructions. Finally, he mailed the packages to the Libyan consulate in New York. That is when everything began to go wrong—though he didn’t realize it.
The person who received the packages at the consulate was an FBI informant who turned the material over to the New York field office; the FBI was thus able to decrypt some of the instructions. A special agent in Washington assigned to the case soon discovered that whoever prepared the material could not spell. The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell describes the lengthy investigation that led to Regan.
By way of background, journalist Yudhijit Bhattacharjee explains what led Regan down the path of self-destruction. He reviews Regan’s troubled childhood and the dyslexia that plagued his life, and he tells how Regan managed to overcome his disability enough to join the Air Force, rise to a senior enlisted rank, be commended for his leadership, and then assigned to a trusted position at the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Along the way, Regan married, had children, and seemed to establish a normal lifestyle. But once at the NRO where the staff was .better educated and higher in grade, he became reclusive and began to demonstrate personality traits that led his colleagues to regard him as an oddball. At the same time, his wife was spending more than he could afford and his pending retirement offered little hope of improvement. It was then that he began copying documents, which he concealed in his basement and later buried in local parks. Things looked up briefly when he succeeded in returning to the NRO as a contractor after retirement, but not sufficiently to solve his financial problems.
Meanwhile, the FBI traced the intercepted documents Regan had sent to the Libyan consulate to his computer at the NRO and he was placed under surveillance in April 2001. Bhattacharjee reveals how the FBI—with NRO cooperation—recorded Regan’s copying top secret documents at work. Their hope was to catch him passing the material to a foreign agent, but when instead he scheduled a flight to Libya (he told others he was going to Orlando), they arrested him on a people-mover at Dulles Airport.
While readers might expect a conviction to be a “slam dunk,” the FBI wasn’t satisfied. Regan was found guilty only of mishandling of classified documents. A charge of attempted espionage was pre-empted because the documents he had mailed to the embassy could not be used as evidence, in order to protect the informant. Moreover, they wanted to recover the thousands of documents—paper and digital—he had buried in parks, and Regan would only reveal their location in exchange for a much-reduced sentence. In what is one of the most fascinating parts of the book, Bhattacharjee tells how the FBI overcame these obstacles.
Regan was sentenced to life in prison in March 2003, but the story doesn’t end there. Part of the sentencing agreement required Regan to reveal the 12 locations of the buried documents, but some of the locations came up empty: his dyslexia had struck again, and it turned out that he’d reversed some numerals in the coded coordinates that identified the burial sites. The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell is an attention-grabbing, well told espionage story with only one major flaw: there are no source notes. Bhattacharjee does identify the FBI agents and the other participants interviewed, noting that he also used court documents-but he does not cite them. Fortunately, most are available on the web. Overall, the book is a case study well worth reading.
Reviewed by Kai Bird
The story of the FBI’s hunt for the traitor Brian Regan. Before Edward Snowden, the largest theft of government secrets was committed by a traitor whose intricate espionage schemes and complex systems of coded messages came to confuse even him, supposedly because he was dyslexic.
Bhattacharjee reveals how the FBI unraveled Regan’s strange web of codes to build a case against a man who nearly collapsed America’s military security.
“Brian Regan was an all too human spy, a trailblazer in the digital age—a mole who managed to squirrel away thousands of classified documents—and a brilliant, dyslexic cryptologist who was caught in part because he couldn’t spell.”
 Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 1 Summer 2017, p. 132). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at http://www.cia.gov
 Kai Bird in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 2, Spring 2016, p. 138). Kai Bird is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist. He is now working on a biography of President Jimmy Carter’s White House years, under contract to Crown books (Random House). His most recent book, The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, was a New York Times best-seller. He chronicled his childhood in the Middle East in his memoir, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis—which was a Finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. He is the acclaimed author of biographies of John J. McCloy, McGeorge Bundy, and William Bundy. He won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2006 for American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (co-authored with Martin J. Sherwin). His work includes critical writings on the Vietnam War, Hiroshima, Nuclear weapons, the Cold War, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the CIA. Bird and Sherwin also won the National Books Critics Circle Award and the Duff Cooper Prize for History. He is an elected member of the prestigious Society of American Historians. Kai Bird lives in Miami Beach with his wife Susan Goldmark.