Jacob Silverman,  December 11

A Most Incompetent Spy

The strange case of Gregory Justice reveals the extent of FBI surveillance

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There are three types of satellites, he explained to his new friend. They orbit at about twenty-three thousand miles high (geosynchronous), five thousand miles (medium)[*], and two hundred fifty miles (low earth). They give us broadband, surveillance, scientific measurements, military communications, and the military’s gift to the public, GPS. He’s worked on many of them, down here on terra firma in a vast Boeing facility in El Segundo, a Los Angeles suburb known for its hospitality toward defense and oil concerns.

What else did his friend want to know?

To enter the premises, he has to show a badge to a guard. Later, he’ll swipe his badge again to enter the building where he’s spent the last three years, and far too much of the last decade, on the night shift. He settles into his station, where work computers demand the usual array of passwords and pin numbers, while some databases require that users re-enter the pin to gain access. Once inside the network, files are arranged to emphasize their various controls (i.e., whether they are considered sensitive or proprietary) and how they are supposed to be treated under the law. Everywhere there are these little reminders of how to behave, how to properly handle information. For a Boeing employee, security is a watchword—workers regularly take courses with titles like Information Security, Threat Management Training, or Trade Secrets and Proprietary Information. As if the message were not clear enough, a class known as Ethics Recommitment Training offers an on-the-nose reminder.

The case reveals how overbroad the FBI’s mandate has become, and how it will throw resources at even the most picayune instances of potential economic espionage.

But all of that training meant little to him. He was fed up. Driving in his car, he tended to talk aloud, arguing with those who had wronged him in absentia. On a late February day in 2016, he was nearing a breaking point. “I’m doing the work of people two levels above me, and it’s not good enough for promotion,” he said. “So, you know what, I give up. If, if I’m never going to get a promotion, then I’m just gonna, I’m going to give up. I’m going to stop trying. Why put out the effort, if there’s not going to be any reward? I’m tired and I’m done.”

Giving up, though, meant something other than a work shutdown or a descent into lassitude. Instead, Gregory Allen Justice was seeking to take control of his life. It was a chance to get back at his employer, but more than that, it was an opportunity to act out a fantasy of glamorous espionage that had been sold to him through countless films and TV shows. And as he ventured ever further into the unknown, the fantasy seemed to be coming true. By then, Justice was a couple weeks into a business relationship with a man who he thought was a Russian spy—a Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) case officer who would give him cash for secrets.

Eventually, Justice’s escapist fantasies of expertly milking the shady nexus of global aerospace espionage would prove hollow. He’d learn that the Russian spy was nothing of the sort; he was an undercover FBI agent who was expertly prodding Justice along as he committed a clutch of felonies. On May 22, 2017, Justice entered into a plea agreement with federal prosecutors that will land him in federal prison for up to five years. But Justice didn’t know any of this as he enumerated all the many small indignities of the night shift at “Cleared Contractor A,” as an FBI affidavit would later christen Boeing. So for a few strange months in 2016, Gregory Justice almost had the life he dreamed of. He had already told any number of lies to get there, but would he also kill?

The investigation and prosecution of Gregory Justice represents, in the view of the government, a successful counterintelligence operation that thwarted a potentially harmful release of sensitive information. But a close look at the particulars of the case, especially the government’s own filings, reveals how overbroad the FBI’s mandate has become and how it will throw resources at even the most picayune instances of potential economic espionage. There is little to admire in Gregory Justice the person, yet it is not clear he ever represented a threat to national security—an increasingly vague term whose parameters are defined by those who wield the state’s power to enforce it.

Satellite Drudgery

Hailing from northern California, Gregory Justice studied mechanical engineering at Cal Poly in Pomona. Initially he claimed to have graduated in 1998, but later told his employer that in 2002 he learned “that my degree had been denied because the grade for my Senior Project was never submitted, so the grade went from ‘Incomplete’ and then to ‘F.’”

He had begun working at Boeing in March 2000, often on the night shift, which runs from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. He did not have access to classified information, only material considered “sensitive,” but in at least one meeting with an undercover FBI agent, Justice implied that he possessed a clearance that he didn’t have. By 2004, Justice was a production engineer in Boeing’s Defense Group and worked on testing security features and components for satellites used by various military customers, along with NASA. Known by acronyms like WGS, GOES, MILSTAR, and GPS IIF, these orbiting satellites power military and scientific communications around the world and ensure that the sun never sets on the American empire’s global surveillance-and-communications network. (Boeing’s satellite group also builds spacecraft for foreign and corporate customers.)

Justice was a couple weeks into a business relationship with a man who he thought was a Russian spy.

For his efforts, Justice likely made in the low six figures. But as he pondered his stalemated progress up the Boeing corporate ladder, he felt slighted and under-appreciated. Although he worked on sensitive programs, his professional life hardly lived up to his fantasy life of online spycraft courses and espionage films. A coworker who said he worked briefly with Justice about seven years ago recalled: “All I remember is a guy that was pretty irritable. I just figured it was because we were working the graveyard shift.”

In November 2015, Boeing’s internal monitoring systems caught Justice inserting a USB drive into his computer. Screenshots, usually taken every six seconds by a security program, would later provide investigators with essential evidence of Justice’s plan to spirit away valuable data from the Boeing archive. Justice’s USB drive contained folders whose names matched those of folders on Boeing’s computer network; the files also contained information about various satellite programs and schematics. The folders’ metadata indicated that Justice may have copied files onto them five months earlier, in July. It was clear that Boeing had a problem. On November 24, 2015, according to an FBI affidavit, Justice “was administratively debriefed from the TDRS program”—a set of NASA communication satellites—“and was asked to return his access badge for the program.”

If Justice had any notion that he was headed for trouble, he didn’t show it. Soon he fell under the watchful eye of the FBI, who observed his fumbling efforts to contact Russian intelligence. (A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office declined to say how the FBI became involved with the case, but the bureau’s heavy surveillance of Russian diplomatic facilities is an open secret.) The FBI recorded Justice making an awkward attempt to reach the Russian naval attache by phone. “Last autumn I sent a technical schematic and I called to follow up on that,” Justice told the Russian operator on the other line. He identified himself as “a private citizen”—a suggestive phrasing, given that Justice had once declared himself a sovereign citizen immune from taxation—who wanted to see if there was any interest in what he had to offer. Apparently there was little. “I will try to call again later,” Justice promised.

By early 2016, the FBI had a full-spectrum view of Justice’s life, monitoring his bank accounts, following him on errands, recording his conversations, and surreptitiously searching his car. During one of these searches, they found two handwritten notes. One bore the addresses of the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., along with the address of the Russian naval attache; the other note had the address and phone number of the Russian consulate in San Francisco.

This might all call to mind the neglected Coen Brothers farce, Burn After Reading, which records the bumbling efforts of Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt to interest Russian agents in a former CIA agent’s financial records stemming from his bitter divorce-in-the-making. But since the data Justice was clumsily seeking to purloin had actual, if rather indeterminate, value on the global espionage market, the FBI launched a massive effort to entrap Justice. In early 2016, FBI officials dispatched an undercover agent who would pose as a Russian agent and tell Justice that his spy fantasies would finally come true. On February 12, 2016, this agent left Justice a voicemail. The Boeing engineer called back the next day. Two days later, the two men spoke again and arranged a meeting. On February 17, they met at a Los Angeles coffee shop. The undercover agent told Justice that he was “very, very important to the Russians” and asked what Justice wanted. Justice in turn explained that his wife was ill. “Right now, I just need money,” he said. He offered the pretend spy “everything on our servers, on our computers” related to the Air Force’s Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) satellite system, which Justice glibly defined as a “worldwide surveillance” network. (In Boeing’s patriotic formulation, the WGS system’s purpose is to “provide broadband communications connectivity for U.S. and allied warfighters around the world.”)

During his meetings with the undercover agent, Justice strived to be as helpful as possible, apologizing at times for the insufficiency of his material. He asked what his case officer wanted, offered to procure more information, to connect an external hard drive to his system. He dug around in colleagues’ shared folders, and at one point lingered around a satellite so that he could write down some classified markings on it. He even proposed giving the undercover agent a tour of his workplace. Whether he was thinking of James Bond or just an opportunity to try out Snapchat’s picture-taking spectacles, Justice suggested that the agent could wear some camera-glasses while they toured Boeing’s grounds in El Segundo.

The undercover agent in turn flattered Justice. “I always tell them you are very impressive person,” he said to his mark at one of their meetings. Justice admitted that the name he had originally used, Brian, was a fake. “I know it’s not like real life but I like spy movies,” he said, naming Jason Bourne, James Bond, and the TV show The Americans as inspirations. (In one meeting, the undercover agent compared his role in Russian intelligence to the show’s stars who pretend to be normal Americans while working as deep-cover Russian spies.) Justice was seeking excitement, but he was also nervous and risk averse, he explained, and he needed money. “Right now my main concern is trying to cover existing medical bills,” Justice said. “I’m so underwater with, with everything right now that I don’t even know how far.”

Catfished

“Underwater” only hinted at the larger truth, which is still being sussed out. One of the many bizarre things about the Justice case was that the defendant was indeed in dire financial trouble, although it appeared to have little to do with his wife’s medical expenses. Justice’s wife did have several medical conditions, including diabetes and chronic pain, and spent much of her time at home. (Justice’s wife declined to comment for this story, as did his father and his lawyer.) Over a two-year period, Justice spent $5,873 on medical expenses—a significant sum for some cash-strapped families but nowhere near what Justice would eventually spend on a woman who most certainly was not his wife. That would not stop Justice from telling his wife, in a March 15, 2016, phone conversation recorded by the FBI, that they couldn’t come up with the cash to repair their car. As a result, Justice said, they should cancel her upcoming medical appointments.

The source of Justice’s financial problems was stranger and more baroque than he had let on. Rather than drowning in medical debt, Justice was deeply in hock to a woman he knew only online. On his work computer, Justice kept nine photos of the woman, whose name appeared to be Chay. Justice apparently never thought to do a basic reverse-image search on the photos, but the FBI did. It turned out that the photos were of a professional European model and not a woman living in Long Beach with her boyfriend and child.

Almost every week, Justice sent about $1,000 or the equivalent in gifts and Amazon purchases to Chay. Throughout its investigation, the government claims, it never became clear why exactly Justice was doing this. Was Justice in love with a woman he had never met? Did she have some compromising information on him? Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, offered this gloss:  “We can’t really characterize it other than that it was an individual that he met online, that he was sending money to. I think he made an argument that he was being victimized by this person, but the whole thing is kind of unclear to us quite frankly.”

Whatever the answers, Chay expected her payments promptly and strictly accounted. On February 1, 2016, at 6:29 in the morning, she texted Justice, “Hey so how much this week no when?” Justice replied that because of ATM and mailing fees, he could only send her $975 that week. “Add the $25 to what I owe you lo,” he wrote. Keeping up with Chay’s payments wasn’t easy. In 2015 and 2016, Justice ended up withdrawing $64,686 from his retirement account and thousands more from his checking account. A “substantial portion” of these withdrawals went to Chay, according to the FBI. Justice also bought her gifts—a charcoal grill, a purse, an iPhone, multiple televisions. Between January 2015 and January 2016, Justice made eighty-six orders on Amazon, amounting to nearly $6,000, all on behalf of Chay.

Justice was also spending on himself, doling out more than $4,000 on online courses with aspirational, tough-guy names like “Legally Concealed” and “Spy Escape and Evasion.”

When it wasn’t indulgent or inexplicable, Justice’s behavior was hopelessly naïve. He let the undercover agent dictate how much he would be paid. After their first meeting, Justice signed a receipt for the $500 in cash that the agent gave him (he continued to sign receipts for the other $3,000 in cash payments he received). “I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with you,” he said as the agent left. Justice then went to a Fedex store and mailed all $500 to the woman who was catfishing him.

Murder in His Heart

Having grown comfortable with his putative case officer, Justice began asking for more than money. During one of their phone calls, he asked if his Russian friend could procure him Anectine, a muscle relaxant that is always administered under a doctor’s care, although Justice claimed otherwise.

By early 2016, the FBI had a full-spectrum view of Justice’s life, monitoring his bank accounts, following him on errands, recording his conversations, and surreptitiously searching his car.

Delving into the physiology of breathing, Justice told an elaborate story about his wife taking part in a sleep study that had yielded a prescription for Anectine, which then significantly improved her breathing and quality of sleep. It was a lie. His wife had never been prescribed or administered the drug. She knew nothing about Justice’s plan to get it.

During his interrogation after his arrest, the FBI agents discussed with Justice how Anectine can be used. While he claimed he wanted it to help his wife sleep, Justice also showed deep familiarity with its more lethal uses. Justice said he had read a story about how someone used it to kill children and had visited websites that described its role as a poison. He knew many of its dangers—which would likely have been compounded in Justice’s hands, given his complete lack of experience with the drug. After his arrest, an agent asked Justice what the authorities should think about his conduct, given all this accumulated knowledge and the surrounding circumstances. Justice replied, his voice slow, his affect flat: “You’re supposed to think I’m trying to kill my wife.” As the government later put it in its sentencing argument, “Defendant himself conceded that it would be reasonable to infer he intended to murder his wife.”

During their clandestine meetings, the undercover agent had subtly tried to steer Justice toward talk of murder. He mentioned that he had heard that Anectine can be used for other things, “which is fine too.” The agent said he “wanted to make sure of any liabilities.” He jokingly asked Justice if the drug was because his wife nagged him. The two laughed, but Justice retained his composure. “No, this is just to help her sleep,” he said. 

“I trust you, you trust me, and we’ve developed a good relationship,” the agent said as he gave Justice a bottle of what was supposedly Anectine. “Yes,” Justice replied.

Justice may have found out about Anectine from someone at Boeing. One coworker reportedly showed him an article about its use as a poison. And on March 26, 2016, according to the FBI affidavit, Justice received a blank email from a colleague (it’s not clear if it’s the same one). The only content was the word “Succinylcholine”—the generic name for Anectine—in the subject line.

Justice Delayed

The FBI’s transcripts of the undercover agent’s meetings with Justice are parables of lonely desperation. Justice often apologizes to the agent for demands he’s made or inconveniences he may have created. He describes satellite components with the verve of a cheery high school science teacher, which only serves to emphasize his search for some kind of camaraderie. The two men discuss The Americans and talk about modeling their relationship after the show. One moment Justice is bemoaning his debts while in another he’s painstakingly describing the details of the International Traffic in Arms Regulation regulatory policy (ITAR), which he has further researched for the benefit of his new friend. “I asked some people and I did some reading,” Justice says, as he then goes on to summarize the details of the very export control protocols he’s in the process of violating. He adds that he found an old presentation about ITAR on his company’s network and has taken the step of including it on the latest thumb drive of documents he’s forking over. His wish to appear helpful is practically cloying.  

Besides his online paramour and the murderous designs he may have had for his wife, Justice had another secret, which the FBI discovered in the course of its investigation. He seemed to be involved in the procurement of illicit chemicals similar to Gamma-Hydroxybutyrate (GHB), commonly known as a date rape drug, which is sometimes used as an intoxicant. In its investigation, the FBI recorded conversations and text messages, and at least one in-person meeting at a hotel, between Justice and a man known as J.P. Justice’s role was to fill water bottles with a chemical called GBL while J.P. would tell him where to send it. Justice mailed the substance to one address in Compton, another in Panama City, Florida, and on one occasion left a box outside his apartment building for someone to pick up.

Although Justice and J.P. eventually began to use an encrypted messaging app, their tradecraft was still sloppy. They spoke in an ersatz code that would fall apart in the middle of conversations; in one call, J.P. referred to “water parts” before adding that he was “speaking in code sir.” While it appears the use of the messaging app concealed some of their texts from prying FBI eyes, many of their calls and texts were done in the clear, without encryption. And with its thorough surveillance of Justice, the FBI was able to intercept and examine every package he sent. One of those packages was sent to one of Justice’s coworkers, indicating that one of his Boeing colleagues was helping him traffic in GBL.

Justice Denied

The overearnest and inept course of Justice’s short-lived espionage career is undeniably absorbing. But in this case, the devil may not, in fact, inhere in the details. Scale up to satellite level (as it were), and take in the whole sorry panorama. The general picture is one of a bumbling would-be spy who had access to little information of real consequence and had almost no idea how to properly peddle it. He was a dreadful husband who seemed to contemplate a heinous crime. He was probably involved in the small-scale sale of an illicit chemical that some people enjoy because it metabolizes into something similar to GHB. And at his own great expense, he was hopelessly devoted to enriching a woman he would probably never meet.

As a spy, Justice sought to make contact with the Russians, but they did not exhibit much interest in him. He worked for a major defense contractor but he didn’t even have a security clearance. He worked on important satellite systems but on some of the least consequential engineering tasks involved in their maintenance. He displayed the kind of immaturity and poor judgment—the accumulating debts, the catfishing—that made him easily recruited but impossible to trust. And when he did link up with a man he believed to be a Russian spy, Justice showed an utter lack of guile that only affirmed his unsuitability for the situation in which he had put himself.

The undercover agent told Justice that he was “very, very important to the Russians.”

A night-shift engineer without a security clearance chasing a promotion that would never come, Justice labored at the tail end of the security state. His experience of slowly being led on by a paternalistic undercover agent bears more than an analogical similarity to the many cases of mentally ill or otherwise marginalized young Muslim men who are coerced by informants and FBI agents into participating in rigged terrorism plots that they couldn’t commit alone. Without the FBI, Justice likely would have been another disaffected worker occasionally fantasizing that his life could resemble a TV thriller.

When asked whether Russian secret services had shown any real interest in Justice, Mrozek, the U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman, responded: “I can’t get into the details about how the case started. But the FBI was there at the start. What matters is his motivation. He thought he was dealing with a Russian operative.”

All of that, of course, is a separate matter from whether Justice broke the law—which he certainly did. Together, investigators determined, Justice had disclosed four trade secrets. He had also violated the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) and ITAR and committed economic espionage.

But could Gregory Justice have done any damage to our vaunted national security? A Boeing employee looked over some of the documents Justice provided the putative spy “and opined that there would be little value to a country with an established satellite program,” such as Russia. The U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations, which assisted in the investigation, said that some of the files had “no obvious intelligence value” while others could provide value, “depending on other information not available.” Still, some documents that Justice procured had to do with satellites’ anti-jamming measures, control functions, and encrypted communications, all of which elicited murmurs of concern from experts the FBI spoke with.

Justice may have overestimated his capabilities, but he did retain some sense of the stakes involved in his decision to go rogue with this passel of largely meaningless data. At almost every meeting with the undercover agent, he mentioned ITAR. At their third meeting, he told the agent, “Everything that we have is going to be governed by ITAR.” After Justice was arrested and advised of his rights, he admitted that he knew that his conduct was “pretty illegal.”

Despite this self-awareness, Justice initially pleaded not guilty. Nearly a year in jail and a change of lawyer later, he decided to change his plea. At his sentencing hearing, he claimed that he had had a religious experience in jail. In a dumbfounding irony that his wife likely did not find remotely funny, he asked for leniency so that he could take care of his sickly father. The government sought up to eighty-seven months in prison, with the evidence of a possible murder plot acting as a sentencing “enhancement.” The judge didn’t quite agree and offered that some people fantasize about killing a spouse without following through. Justice was sentenced to five years in federal prison, followed by a recommended three years of supervised release that would bar him from working on any military-related projects in the future. He could still be charged by local authorities for crimes related to the murder plot or the promulgation of GBL. His engineering career, along with his life as he knew it, is finished.

Over at Boeing, the company churns on as usual. Contacted for this article, Boeing’s PR flacks released this statement: “We won’t be commenting on any of our practices related to this incident. We do have a former employee by the name of Gregory Allen Justice.” The defense giant may have once employed such a man, but he has, like so many irritants of massive industrial concerns, been conveniently dispatched, another insider threat stymied. Meanwhile, the company is awash in contracts, satellites continue to be built, and someone new has quietly taken Gregory Justice’s seat on the graveyard shift.

[*]  Official estimates put the height at which medium earth orbit (MEO) satellites orbit between 6,300 and 12,500 miles.

 

Jacob Silverman’s book, Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, is published by HarperCollins.

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