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Pelton Guilty of Selling U.S. Secrets to Soviets : Former Codes Specialist for Security Agency Could Receive Three Life Sentences for Spying

Times Staff Writer

Ronald W. Pelton, a former communications specialist for the National Security Agency, Thursday was found guilty of selling U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union.

The jury of seven men and five women deliberated almost 13 hours over two days. Pelton was convicted on four of five conspiracy and espionage counts and will be sentenced July 28.

Three of the counts carry maximum life sentences and the other calls for a 10-year sentence and $10,000 fine. Fred Warren Bennett, Pelton’s attorney, said he will appeal.

Remained Motionless

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When the verdict was read, Pelton, who showed little emotion throughout the seven-day trial, remained motionless, leaning slightly to the left in his chair. One of the women on the jury sobbed.

Later, Bennett, looking weary and disappointed, said that Pelton had thanked him for his help but that he had said little else. “He was trying to maintain his composure,” Bennett said.

The verdict closes a five-year episode that began Jan. 14, 1980, when Pelton telephoned the Soviet Embassy in Washington and offered to discuss something “that would be very interesting to you.” He had left his job at the National Security Agency six months earlier.

The next day, Pelton visited the embassy and subsequently made three trips to Vienna, twice staying at the Soviet ambassador’s home, where he recounted from memory sensitive information about how the United States collects and decodes Soviet military communications.

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For his efforts, Pelton, who was earning $24,500 when he quit the agency after 14 years, was paid $35,000, plus expenses. The government introduced as evidence records showing that Pelton made cash deposits of about $12,000 in 1983, after traveling to Vienna.

He was arrested last November in Annapolis, Md., after five hours of interrogation, during which he told two FBI agents about his spying.

Pelton’s disclosures severely damaged U.S. national security, a top National Security Agency official testified at the trial. But Pelton suggested that the greatest harm was the expense caused the United States when it had to track down Soviet communications that were changed because of the disclosures.

The proceedings provided looks at the inner workings of the super-secret agency, the interrogation methods of the FBI and at a man whose defense included an assertion that he was in the throes of a “severe mid-life crisis.”

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FBI Interrogation

How the two FBI agents--David E. Faulkner and Dudley F. Hodgson--conducted their two-part interview of Pelton last Nov. 24 became the focus of much of the testimony, as Bennett--Pelton’s court-appointed attorney--contended that his client’s constitutional rights were violated and asked the jury to disregard any statements Pelton made during the questioning.

Pelton insisted that he thought he was being recruited for a counterespionage mission. He said the agents discouraged him from contacting a lawyer and waited until just before his arrest before informing him that he did not have to talk to them.

His appeal will be based on these assertions, Bennett said.

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But the agents said that Pelton was trying to make a deal because he knew he was in trouble. They said they were not required to read him his rights because he was not under arrest, an assertion with which the judge agreed.

And the verdict “clearly vindicated the FBI’s handling of the case,” according to U.S. Atty. Breckinridge L. Willcox. He called it “one of the most professionally investigated” cases of his career.

Admissions Questioned

For the 12 jurors, the determination of Pelton’s innocence or guilt hinged on the question of whether he had voluntarily told the agents about his spying. The judge’s instructions on that issue allowed the jurors to disregard the admissions if they believed the agents had used direct or implied threats, “deceit or trickery,” causing Pelton’s will to be “overborne.”

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The suggestion that Pelton could be duped into making damaging admissions was part of a series of ironies that surrounded the balding, sandy-haired man.

According to testimony, he was a man of contrasts. Pelton was portrayed as brilliant, a good negotiator with a photographic memory, a skillful bureaucrat who protected his department’s budget at the agency and compiled a “compendium” of Soviet communications signals.

But the same man also was said to have let his personal finances fall into a shambles and was a heavy drinker and drug user who apparently was a bumbler as a spy. Testimony showed that his car ran out of gas when he was on his way to receive an important telephone call from a Soviet contact.

Pelton testified that he went deeply into debt to buy land and materials to build a house for his family and was forced into bankruptcy after the supplies were stolen. He said he quit the agency to avoid embarrassment over his financial problems.

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And on his third trip to Vienna, Pelton spent several days wandering around the Austrian capital, failing to make contact because the Soviets did not recognize him after his huge weight loss.

The jury acquitted Pelton of one count, which charged that about 1980 he had transferred “information relating to the national defense of the United States” to the Soviet KGB intelligence service. It did not explain its decision on that charge.

‘Happy Compromise’

From the beginning of the trial, the government faced the difficult task of deciding how much sensitive information to divulge at trial. Willcox acknowledged that there was “some tension involved” between the Defense Department, which wanted to protect secrets, and the Justice Department, which prosecuted Pelton. “A happy compromise was reached,” Willcox said.

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The trial served as a backdrop for a battle between the media and government over reporting matters dealing with national security.

In the middle of the trial, CIA Director William J. Casey and Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, director of the National Security Agency, in a joint statement “cautioned against speculation and reporting details beyond the information actually released at trial.” Moreover, the sensitive issues of national security the trial raised must be faced again when Pelton’s appeal process gets under way.

Before dismissing the jurors, U.S. District Judge Herbert F. Murray warned them not to discuss classified documents shown them during the trial. He told them that they were “under no compulsion” to discuss the case with anyone.

Pelton’s estranged wife, Judith, and one of his four children, Pam Wright, sat through the entire trial. Wright, 19, said that “support” was her reason for being in the courtroom. “He’s still my dad,” she said.

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