OSI at 75: An Espionage Investigation During the Cold War in 1971

  • Published
  • By Robert Vanderpool
  • OSI Command Historian

On July 2, 1971, Master Sgt. Richard G. DeChamplain was observed by OSI Special Agents removing at least one Top Secret document and several other classified and unclassified documents from his duty station in Bangkok, Thailand.  

Special Agents later followed DeChamplain as he traveled by taxi from his residence toward the downtown area of the city.  He was arrested as he was about to deliver a package of what was believed to be classified material to a known operative of the Soviet Union. 

DeChamplain was born in Connecticut on August 6, 1931.  A descendant of the famed French explorer Samuel DeChamplain who founded the Canadian province of Quebec, he was one of six children raised in a middle-class neighborhood. After graduating from high school, DeChamplain attended the University of Maryland for a short time before dropping out.  He enlisted in the Air Force in 1951, at the age of 19 years old, training as an administrative specialist.  

Over the first 16 years of his career, he served at duty locations in the United States, France, Germany and Italy.  DeChamplain was first granted a Top Secret clearance in 1966.  The following year, he was assigned to the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group in Bangkok, Thailand.  By 1971, he had become the Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge of the personnel division there. 

Despite his position of responsibility and accompanying rise in rank, he was described by his supervisors in Thailand as being “inattentive, incompetent, and frequently absent from his duty station.”  He was unliked by his peers who considered him as being “weak, vulnerable to persuasion, and moody.”  

He was known to frequent many Thai drinking establishments and he rapidly picked up enough casual knowledge of the Thai language to allow him to develop several friendships in the local community.  DeChamplain eventually married a Thai woman, however, that relationship lasted only a few weeks before she abandoned the relationship due allegedly to his infidelities. 

OSI began its formal investigation of DeChamplain on June 5, 1971, after learning that he had been in contact with a known Soviet spy that was assigned to the Soviet Embassy in Bangkok.  Special Agents received a report that the spy was observed meeting with what appeared to be a U.S. serviceman.  That serviceman was subsequently determined to be DeChamplain.   He was immediately put under surveillance by OSI after he failed to report this meeting with a foreign agent as required by Air Force regulations.

Over the next month, Special Agents observed DeChamplain make several additional contacts with several different Soviet operatives.  His July 2, 1971, arrest came on the first observed attempt in which DeChamplain tried deliver classified documents to the Soviets.  When he was apprehended, he was found in possession of 24 official Air Force documents, ranging in classification from 'Confidential' to 'Top Secret.'

DeChamplain originally claimed he had been blackmailed into committing espionage against the United States under threat from the Soviets.  The OSI investigation determined this claim to be false, learning that it was DeChamplain himself who had approached the Soviets and volunteered his services to obtain money to repay his ever-increasing debts.  

He met his first Soviet contact through local Thai acquaintances at a party he attended in 1967, shortly after arriving in country.  He waited just over four years before reapproaching the Soviets with an offer to commit espionage.  He had only been active for a few months before he was discovered and apprehended by OSI.  At the time of his arrest, DeChamplain was 40 years old, and he had served more than 20 years as an active-duty member of the Air Force. 

During his interrogation, DeChamplain confessed to Special Agents that he had always been bad at managing his personal finances and that he often found himself with considerable debts.  He would frequently take out loans, which he would then use to pay off other loans, resulting in an endless circle of debt that exceeded more than $13,000.  Special Agents quickly determined that his political convictions were relatively neutral and that his primary motivation was financial.    

Special Agents learned that in the previous few months, DeChamplain had at least ten meetings with Soviet officers in Thailand and that he had already delivered a large volume of documents to his handlers.  The Soviets had gone as far in his development as providing him with a codename, verbal recognition codes, and safety signals.  They also had further plans to equip him with a spy camera so that in the future he could take pictures of documents instead of physically removing or copying them, thus lessening his chances of being discovered.

DeChamplain had obtained access to the sought after information by volunteering for extra duties which included taking control of the processing and distribution of classified documents.  Despite noted concerns from supervisors regarding his past work performance, after he had begun his espionage activities he was recognized by these same supervisors as having improved his work habits tremendously.  

In addition to the extra duties, he would often arrive to work early and he would also stay late.  
Unbeknownst to his bosses, he was falsifying signatures on security access forms which required a witness to be present when handling classified material.  This allowed him unfettered and unobserved access to copy or remove documents.  

During his interrogation, when Special Agents inquired as to just how many documents he had provided to the Soviets, DeChamplain pointed indifferently at all the filing cabinets and document safes in the interrogation area and casually told them everything that he had access to.  

Though he had been promised payments of $10,000 to $25,000 for his espionage activities, by the time he was apprehended the Soviets had only provided DeChamplain with $3,800 in payments. That equates to roughly $28,600 today.  

DeChamplain was tried by court-martial in November 1971, charged for unauthorized use of classified documents and information.  He was convicted, earning a sentence of 15 years confinement, reduction in rank to the lowest grade and forfeiture of all pay and allowances. His sentence was later overturned on appeal; however, he was retried several years later, this time earning 7 years hard labor along with accompanying reduction in rank and forfeitures.

Editor’s Note: OSI at 75 is an installment of OSI’s year-long commemoration of its 75th Anniversary Year based on the theme: “Inspired By Our Past – OSI’s Future Starts Today.”