The 20-paragraph plea agreement, reached between Groat and his attorneys and federal prosecutors, marks a major step back for the Justice Department and the CIA from initial charges that could have carried the death penalty.
Instead, pending a sentencing hearing in September, the agreement could result in Groat serving fewer than five years in a medium-security prison. Groat agreed to cooperate with the government in helping investigators sort out whether his activities during or after his tenure at CIA breached national security.
Groat, who worked at the CIA from 1980 to 1996, was involved in clandestine field operations involving breaking into foreign embassies and planting listening devices. He later worked at the CIA's directorate involved in eavesdropping on foreign governments and developing code-breaking technology.
Groat was initially accused of telling two unspecified foreign governments that U.S. intelligence had broken their secret codes after the United States refused to pay him.
The 51-year-old Groat, a bearded, burly man dressed in a dark blue shirt, olive pants, white socks and prison slippers, signed the plea agreement moments before Monday's hearing before U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan. He smiled and talked quietly with his attorneys and then answered a series of questions from Hogan about whether he understood the implications of his plea agreement.
"So you agree you are guilty of count five, that's extortion," Hogan asked.
"Yes sir," Groat replied.
The hearing was held in the U.S. District Court's secure courtroom, equipped with a barrier of two-inch thick bulletproof glass between spectators and the area occupied by lawyers, clerks and the judge.
Groat and his attorneys portrayed the case as a job performance dispute that got out of control. The defendant maintained that he was merely pursuing a career as a consultant after being dismissed from CIA amid a dispute over his work there. Prosecutors initially presented the case as an espionage matter that may have compromised some of the government's most closely held secrets.
Prosecutors made clear that the plea agreement stemmed in part from their concern that a trial on all the charges might have forced them to disclose sensitive information in open court.
U.S. Attorney Wilma Lewis said in a statement following the hearing that the plea agreement "gives law enforcement the ability to assess the extent of the defendant's activity in a quick and effective manner while protecting the national security of the United States by limiting public disclosure of highly classified information that would be required in a trial."
By JOHN DIAMOND