Suspect Pleads Guilty to Spying for South Africa

Times Staff Writers

A former civilian operations analyst at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland pleaded guilty Tuesday to spying for South Africa in the first espionage case involving that country to be prosecuted in the United States.

In the plea in federal court in Baltimore, Thomas Joseph Dolce, 49, admitted providing a South African military attache with classified ballistic research information. The espionage case was the second uncovered at the Aberdeen facility this year.

Other Alleged Spying

U.S. intelligence sources said that there have been other alleged espionage attempts by South Africans in this country but that they have been handled without any public action.


Although the act of espionage Dolce admitted took place in 1979, his spying for three successive South African military attaches allegedly continued through 1983 and he considered renewing his illicit activity this year, the government said.

A spokesman at South Africa’s embassy here attempted to minimize the charges, saying that her government considers it “history” and noting that two of the three officers already have retired from the country’s military. Alayne Reesberg said that South Africa “does not consider itself an unfriendly nation toward the United States” and that “it seems a little ridiculous to talk about national security” being endangered by the espionage.

In the earlier Aberdeen case, an Army sergeant was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment last June after being convicted of passing military documents from the weapons testing facility to an FBI agent posing as a Soviet spy.

Dolce’s spying marks a departure from most recent espionage cases, because he claims to have been ideologically rather than financially motivated and in one instance rejected an offer of expense reimbursement. U.S. Atty. Breckinridge L. Willcox, in Baltimore, said that the government so far has found no evidence of any South African payments to Dolce.


Willcox said that Dolce described the South Africans as more interested in information on conventional rather than high technology weapons and noted that he provided them with anything he came across relating to Soviet equipment.

Dolce’s ‘Reasoning’

He “reasoned” that the South Africans faced Soviet equipment in Angola and that the United States should be providing the information to them, Willcox said.

In pleading to a one-count criminal charge of communicating classified information to an agent of a foreign government, Dolce can be sentenced to a maximum of 10 years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine--a penalty that the government recommended under an agreement with Dolce. Willcox cited the evidence, applicable law and the value of obtaining Dolce’s cooperation in assessing national security damage as reasons for not charging him with an espionage count that carries life imprisonment.

Dolce first denied any involvement with South African agents when FBI agents interviewed him for three successive days at his home in Havre de Grace, Md., in mid-April, but he then began to reveal details when the agents said that they did not believe him, the government said in a statement of facts filed with the court.

Employed since 1973 at the Aberdeen facility, earning between $27,000 and $36,000 annually, Dolce resigned for “personal reasons” Sept. 30.

Long-Term Interest

According to testimony and documentary evidence the government said it would have introduced at trial, Dolce had a long-term interest in South Africa and sought employment there in 1971. However, he was disappointed by employment opportunities and the one-year residency requirement for defense-related work.


Dolce came in contact with the South African embassy here in 1978, after sending them an unclassified paper he had written on clandestine warfare. He first submitted the paper to the State Department and CIA but received no reaction.

Col. Bernardus Redelinghuys, a defense and armed forces attache at the embassy, then met with Dolce, discussed his work at the Aberdeen Proving Ground and said that South Africa would be most appreciative of any information he could provide, the government said.

In the fall of 1979, Dolce provided Redelinghuys with part of a ballistics research report, classified “secret.”

For the next four years, Dolce supplied “a wide variety of defense-related information” to Redelinghuys and the two attaches who succeeded him, Brig. Phillipus Johannes Schalkwyk and Brig. Alexander Potgieter, according to the government’s statement.

Potgieter was declared persona non grata by the United States on May 23, 1986, but on grounds unrelated to espionage, U.S. and South African officials said. He was sent home as part of a U.S. protest of South Africa’s raid into Botswana, embassy spokesman Reesberg said.

Used Pay Phones

Dolce told investigators that he contacted South African officials by pay phones to avoid detection and relied on the mails and hand delivery to the embassy and to a suburban Washington home occupied by the attaches to turn over materials.

An FBI spokesman declined to discuss how agents learned of Dolce’s spying or why it took five years from the date of his last activity to confront him.


U.S. District Judge Herbert F. Murray ordered Dolce held without bail and delayed sentencing until the FBI’s debriefing of Dolce is completed.