An Army intelligence specialist from Orange County who disappeared from his unit in West Germany for almost two weeks has been charged with espionage for allegedly giving East German authorities sensitive information on the defensive deployment of U.S. tanks and helicopters along the border between the two Germanys, an Army spokesman said Thursday.
The charges came after the East German government confirmed to the State Department that Spec. 4 Michael A. Peri, 21, an expert on Warsaw Pact radar equipment, had been in East Germany and had made contact with officials there.
“There was information that was obtained from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the German Democratic Republic that Peri was in their country and that Peri had contact with officials there,” said Lt. Col. Jake Dye, a spokesman for the 5th Army Corps in West Germany.
Dye declined to elaborate on this apparent act of cooperation by the East Germans, saying only that “you can draw your own conclusions.”
A State Department spokesman in Washington said the United States had asked the East Germans several weeks ago whether they knew of Peri’s whereabouts.
“Given the location of the unit on the border, we went to them,” a spokesman said. “But when the East Germans got back to us, they responded that he had been on their territory and was no longer on their territory, had gone to a country of his choosing. Then Peri turned himself in.”
Peri, whose family lives in Laguna Niguel, was being held in the Army Confinement Facility in Mannheim, West Germany, Dye said. He said Peri was formally charged Wednesday with espionage and illegally entering a Communist country, the German Democratic Republic.
The espionage charges stem from Peri’s 12-day disappearance from his 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment office in Fulda, West Germany. Peri was reported missing Feb. 21, and his jeep was found two days later about a mile from the East German border, prompting speculation that he may have defected while carrying sensitive information, possibly stored in a lap-top personal computer that he took with him.
Peri, wearing civilian clothes, returned to the base March 4, surrendered to military police and turned in the computer.
After a detailed investigation, Dye said the charges were brought when officials concluded that Peri had removed classified documents from a storage area, took them to East Germany and gave them to officials there.
Dye said the documents “related to the 11th Armored Cavalry’s general defense plans, basically how the unit envisions defending its own sector of responsibility” from attack with the use of tanks, helicopters and infantry.
Peri’s duties at Fulda were to intercept non-communication signals such as radar, and Army officials said that he had access to classified information “at a certain level.”
The regiment provides early warning of Warsaw Pact troop movements to American military units in Germany, surveying the East-West German frontier around the clock. The Fulda Gap, a traditional invasion route to Western Europe, would likely be an area of major tank concentration in a conventional war.
Dye declined to say if the information Peri allegedly gave to the East Germans was stored in the computer or was in document form. The Army also would not say exactly where Peri allegedly crossed the heavily guarded and patrolled German frontier.
Maj. William G. Stokes, senior defense counsel for the Trial Defense Service in Frankfurt, West Germany, has been appointed to represent Peri in his upcoming military trial. Stokes referred all questions to Dye’s office.
Before his arrest, Peri, who has been stationed in West Germany since March 1988, was described by Army officials as “a good clean-cut soldier” who had a “perfect record.”
“He had been promoted and nominated for ‘soldier of the month’ twice in the year he has been here,” Dye said earlier this month. “That’s what makes it so baffling.”
After his disappearance, Peri’s relatives dismissed speculation that he could have defected but recalled that during a visit home last Christmas, he seemed interested in intelligence work.
“He told me he was going to put his time in military intelligence and after he came out, he was going to go back to college,” said Peri’s uncle, Bob Andre of La Habra. “Then, with his college degree and a background in intelligence, he was going to apply for a job with the CIA.”
Jackie Andre, Peri’s aunt, said her nephew was quiet, did not drink and was “not wild at all.”
Times staff writer Melissa Healy, in Washington, contributed to this article.