By Evan Thomas
EARL PITTS, FORMER FUTURE Farmer of America, army captain, FBI agent – and, more recently, spy for the KGB – stood before the judge to receive his sentence.
“Mr. Pitts,” federal district court Judge T. S. Ellis III said last week, “I have just one question: why did you do it?”
Pitts, looking pasty and worn in an olive drab jumpsuit with PRISONER stenciled on the back, hesitated.
“I gave in to an unreasoning anger,” he stammered.
The judge was contemptuous. “You never mentioned simple greed,” he told Pitts, and sentenced him to 27 years in prison.
To FBI officials, who caught their own man through an elaborate sting operation last year, greed is enough to explain why Pitts sold out the bureau and his country for $224,000 during the seven years he was secretly spying for the Russian intelligence service.
In the clannish FBI, whose motto begins with the word “fidelity,” Pitts is only the second agent to be convicted for cold-war espionage.
But for Pitts, who calls his own crime “loathsome,” greed is a “simplistic” and “insulting” explanation.
Nor does ideology account for his betrayal. Pitts always regarded himself as a “patriot,” and still does.
The real reasons he spied, he believes, are more complex, rooted in a rigorous childhood that gave him a streak of perfectionism and an enduring fear of failure.
In some ways, he is like two other recently convicted spies, Aldrich Ames and Harold Nicholson of the CIA — self-hating malcontents who worked out their anger by betraying their own spymasters.
A craving for order and anxiety about falling short are not uncommon in the ranks of the CIA and the FBI.
But for Pitts, a number of factors — from his upbringing to his duty postings — turned seemingly pedestrian psychological problems into the seeds of treason.
What pushed him to such a desperate act?
His own life ruined, Pitts, 43, now wants to make himself a “guinea pig,” according to his lawyer, Nina Ginsburg, to allow others to study the “mind of a spy.”
Last week Pitts gave psychiatrist David Charney, who has spent 18 hours interviewing him in prison, permission to discuss his case with NEWSWEEK.
Pitts’s mother, Loma, and his wife, Mary, also talked about why a “good man,” as Mary calls her husband, did something so wrong.
Pitts was a “good boy” growing up on a farm in Missouri, says his mother.
In a regimented household from which his father was often absent (he drove a truck), Pitts had to meet the expectations of his taskmaster mother: if he didn’t, he faced the consequences.
“He always obeyed,” said Loma, who still believes her son is innocent of espionage.
“We believe in spanking, and we believe in discipline. But we weren’t abusive.”
Pitts paid his way through college and law school and served as a military policeman for six years before joining the FBI — a lifelong ambition — in 1983.
He was, however, constantly afraid of failing, he told Dr. Charney.
A “B” in school was unacceptable.
He hated surprises — even a surprise birthday party.
He disliked receiving presents unless he knew what was inside the package.
Pitts was “caring and giving,” says his wife, but he was “very shy. He liked to sit back in the shadows. If you wanted information from him, you’d better ask specific questions.”
Pitts’s first job with the FBI, as an agent operating alone in rural Virginia, was very “frustrating,” he told Charney.
He couldn’t seem to accomplish much, and he was afraid of disappointing his supervisor, whom he resented as a martinet.
In 1987 Pitts was transferred to the FBI’s New York office to try to catch Russian spies.
The work sounds intriguing, but Pitts thought the office was overstaffed, and — like many other junior FBI agents — he felt that a $25,000 salary was too little to live on in New York City.
Morale in the office was poor, and petty cheating on expense accounts was rampant.
Burdened with debt from student loans, Pitts had to ask his father, the farmer/truckdriver, for a loan.
He felt humiliated.
Pitts later told Dr. Charney that he was “overwhelmed” by a sense of rage at the FBI.
Pitts’s psychological profile is not very different from many other disgruntled federal workers, but a fatal combination of circumstances pushed him over the edge.
Lying awake before dawn one morning, he had an inspiration.
He would “self-recruit” as a spy for the KGB.
That way, Pitts figured, he could get out of his money jam and get back at his bosses.
“I was shoved by the bureaucracy,” he told Charney, “and I shoved back.”
Trying to explain it later, Pitts compared his treason to suicide.
He likened himself to other middle-aged men who are drowning in a sense of failure but feel unable to admit it — so they impulsively kill themselves.
His wife suggests that he was like a frustrated postal employee who suddenly shoots his fellow workers.
Pitts’s bad judgment may have been influenced by another factor.
His two-room cottage outside New York City had a carbon monoxide leak, and he and his wife were slowly being poisoned.
There are a number of medical experts who believe that gradual and long-term exposure to carbon monoxide can heighten irritability and loss of emotional control.
The prosecutors laughed at this explanation, however, and Pitts’s lawyer was afraid to even bring it up at the sentencing: the judge wanted to hear contrition, not excuses.
When he first made contact with the Russians, meeting his KGB handler at the New York Public Library, Pitts felt a surge of relief: he was back in control.
It didn’t last.
He soon felt trapped: he was unable to tell the FBI what he had done, but he wasn’t eager to keep working for the Russians.
He fed his handlers some real information, like a list of Russian diplomats whom the FBI suspected of spying for the Soviets, but he faked other documents.
Some of his secret “intelligence reports” were actually copied from the American press, including old issues of NEWSWEEK.
After two years he managed to get himself transferred to a bureaucratic job back in Washington.
Of diminishing use to the Russians, he became a “dormant” spy by 1992.
On Aug. 26, 1995, there was a knock on the door of Pitts’s suburban Virginia house.
A man with a Russian accent told Pitts that a “visitor from Moscow” wanted to see him.
Pitts accompanied the “visitor” to a nearby park; he was ashen and sweating when he returned home.
Pitts believed he was being reactivated as a spy by the KGB.
In fact, he was being set up by the FBI, which had learned of his treason from a Russian diplomat who had become an FBI informant.
According to the FBI, Pitts “enthusiastically” plunged back into spying, stuffing $15,000 in hundred-dollar bills into his pants pockets at his first meeting with the FBI agents posing as Russians.
He turned over parts of a special telephone used for coded communications.
Pitts, however, later told Dr. Charney that he knew he was doomed from the moment the “Russians” reappeared.
Pitts blundered on, Charney concluded, because he was in effect trying to get caught: he knew that he was being followed and that there was a surveillance camera in the light fixture over his desk.
His wife, Mary, suspected that something was wrong, although she was not quite sure what.
She had spoken to the man with the Russian accent at the door and discovered a mysterious letter referring to the SVRR (the post-Soviet successor to the KGB) in her husband’s study.
She reported her concern to another FBI agent, Tom Carter, who had been Pitts’s best man at her wedding.
Carter, who was in on the sting operation, feigned nonchalance and told her not to worry.
Still bothered, she confronted Pitts.
He made excuses, saying he was doing undercover work.
Despite the ready cash ($65,000 from the Feds posing as Russians), Pitts did not live grandly.
He did not buy a Jaguar like Ames, and he did not stay in fancy hotels like Nicholson.
Pitts’s one pleasure is reading, but he continued to borrow books or buy them secondhand.
Charney, who has handled patients from several U.S. intelligence agencies, believes that Pitts would have come in from the cold earlier if the U.S. government had offered immunity or leniency to spies who quickly confess.
But the FBI is determined to punish its apostates.
Pitts did less real damage than other spies, including Ames and Nicholson — he did not blow the cover of any agents.
But last week, when Judge Ellis sentenced Pitts to a prison term that was three years longer than the one sought by the prosecutor, the FBI agents in the courtroom exchanged broad smiles.
They shouldn’t be too smug: Pitts’s problems seem sufficiently ordinary that there could be more turncoats like him.