Thomas Patrick Cavanaugh

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Thomas Patrick Cavanaugh
Born 1945
Occupation Aerospace engineer
Criminal charge Espionage
Criminal penalty Life imprisonment
Criminal status Paroled in 2001

Thomas Patrick Cavanaugh is an aerospace engineer who was sentenced in 1985 after being convicted of trying to sell stealth bomber secrets to the Soviet Union.

Cavanaugh was arrested at a hotel in Commerce, California, in December 1984, by FBI agents posing as Soviet spies. Cavanaugh, who worked at Northrop, was debt-ridden, undergoing a divorce, and was "willing to take 25,000 American dollars in cash for technology that cost the United States billions to develop".[1] He made it clear to his handlers he wanted tremendous payments every time they had meetings.

For his attempted espionage, Cavanaugh was sentenced to life imprisonment. Because his conviction occurred before the abolition of parole for federal cases in 1987, Cavanaugh was granted parole in 2001 and released from prison.

Cavanaugh's case has often been a study in security. While the false flag operation was occurring, the FBI agents impersonating Soviet intelligence officers had to go to great lengths because of tight security practices at Northrop, so as not to alert Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh claimed he could not make copies of classified documents as the copiers at his work were regulated by counters, which meant the "Russians" needed to bring a portable photocopier to their meeting point. When asked to smuggle papers away from work, Cavanaugh expressed concern about that as security guards would check workers, but he felt more confident in that as those checks were overt and infrequent. Cavanaugh may have said that, but employees were checked every time they left the building. Briefcases, backpacks, purses, etc. were searched. Another security practice undertaken was inspection of the safes of workers to ensure that all classified material was safeguarded and that they were in possession of only what they were authorized to work on. Cavanaugh was subject to one of these random checks on the same day he was scheduled to meet with his supposed Soviet handlers. The inspector later recalled that Cavanaugh seemed visibly nervous, but could not recall why as he had had an A-1 inspection and all was in proper order. The underlying lesson was that although Northrop's security was above average, it was not absolute. The FBI was able to stop Cavanaugh before he got to the Soviets, but a general sense of overconfidence in the Northrop administration and "no way it can happen here" attitude was a vulnerability of which Cavanaugh took advantage.

Cavanaugh's motivation to commit espionage fit into the common causes. Greed and job dissatisfaction were the main factors. In a largely snap decision, Cavanaugh chose to sell secrets in an effort to retire his debts and to make a great deal of money at the same time. In a profile of the case, Cavanaugh "was no model citizen, but his behavior was also not so outlandish that it raised red flags with security."


  1. ^ Long, Tony (2007-05-23). "May 23, 1985: Selling Stealth Secrets to the Reds Comes at a High Price". Wired. Retrieved 8 July 2012.