Monday, June 13, 2011


lonetreeClayton Lonetree was a Marine sergeant serving as a security guard at the United States Embassy in Moscow in the early 1980s. It was a particularly sensitive post during the Cold War, one the Marine Corps exercised a good amount of care in filling.

As one might expect, being an embassy security guard in the Soviet Union in those days was an isolated and difficult position, especially for a young 25-year old.

But Sergeant Lonetree was up to the task when he was selected for it, and he remained good for it right up to the point that he met a Russian woman while on liberty. He probably didn’t realize she had noticed him long before he noticed her.

Although Sergeant Lonetree had been warned about situations like these, he couldn’t believe the warmth and companionship he found in the Russian woman was a ruse. She seduced him, then she blackmailed him, sending his life and his aspirations into a sudden and dramatic tailspin. Before it was over, Sergeant Lonetree had sold blueprints of the embassies in Moscow and Vienna and revealed the names of intelligence agents working in the Soviet Union.

He sold out his country, not because he dreamed of being a spy or because he set out to betray the nation he served. He did it because he was duped, sucked in, ensnared by a female Soviet agent who understood that all she had to do was establish a forbidden relationship with the young Marine and turn it against him.

Such a relationship was forbidden, not because the U. S. government had something against young Russian women or because it wanted to meddle in the private love lives of its Marines. It was forbidden because the government understood how minor indiscretions by people in sensitive positions are easily leveraged against them and against the interests they’re supposed to protect.

It was a well-worn caution for everyone who served on active duty in those days not to allow yourself to become compromised. One’s integrity was guarded not only for reasons of character, but also because agents have a way of exploiting small indiscretions and threatening to turn them into humiliating revelations if not kept quiet by “small” favors that ultimately crescendo into larger ones. It worked on Sergeant Lonetree.

Ultimately, he was caught, then he was court-martialed and convicted of espionage. He was sentenced to 30 years in Leavenworth, reduced in rank to private, awarded a dishonorable discharge, and fined $5,000.

The Commandant of the Marine Corps petitioned the Secretary of the Navy for some leniency because the impact of his betrayal was relatively low and because he was not a traitor but a young man caught up in “the lovesick response of a na├»ve, young, immature and lonely troop in a lonely and hostile environment.”

Ultimately, Lonetree’s sentence was reduced to 15 years. In the end, he was released after serving 9 years, but the scar of the dishonorable discharge and the brand of “traitor” persist.

I remember the Lonetree case because I was a Marine while he was on trial, and the whole thing was an embarrassment to all of us. His betrayal of our country was an affront to our Marine Corps culture and all that we stood for. Still, though, we understood how wicked the trap he was caught up in was. No one believes it can happen to them until it does.

I think of him every time officials of our government get caught up in sex scandals and I hear the media, pundits, and citizens defend them on the grounds that their sex lives are “private matters.”

When I hear about their sexcapades, I don’t think about their wives; that’s where this is a private matter for them to sort out. I also don’t think about the sleazy details because they always sound terrible and unflattering when aired out.

I do think about how they’ve disappointed thousands of people who expected and deserved better of their elected representatives.

But I think most about Sergeant Lonetree and how easily he was compromised with so little to be bartered and used against him by the spies who “owned” him. He wasn’t wealthy, he wasn’t married, and he didn’t have property or a famous name. He was a simple Marine. He was quite unlike our sophisticated millionaire politicians who seem to have so much more to lose than he did, but then again, in some ways he seems very similar to them.

I think of Sergeant Lonetree, then I consider how easily compromised a politician with access to secrets, a vote, and a microphone with which to sway others would be if he was to be dumb, arrogant, and careless enough to e-mail nude photographs of himself to women he’s never met. It would be a cinch to turn that kind of guy, almost too easy.

I think about how easy it would be to get to such a politician if he was foolish enough to make a “pass” at someone under a bathroom stall door, or have sex with an intern in his office or a House page in his apartment, or patronize high-class escort and prostitution services.

What would such a politician give in exchange for a well-kept secret? And once the blackmail is taken, what would he give to keep two secrets quiet? At what point does it stop being a question for him and start becoming a process, a normal way of doing business?

I don’t care what these guys do in their private lives, but I do care about how easily compromised they are and how oblivious they seem to be – or would like us to believe they are – about the prospect of it. Moreover, sex isn’t the only way our officials become exposed to blackmail, and our foreign enemies aren’t the only ones they have to worry about doing it to them.

It doesn’t take much for a compromised official to become corrupt beyond repair (and counseling). Until we realize what these “private” issues and poor choices really mean to us, we’ll continue to deserve the government we get.

I hope we catch on soon.