An Army intelligence specialist from Orange County who disappeared from his unit in West Germany for almost 2 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.
‘Draw Your Own Conclusions’
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,” the 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, who went to high school in Westminster and whose family lives in Laguna Niguel, is being held in the Army Confinement Facility in Mannheim, West Germany, after being formally charged Wednesday with espionage and illegally entering a Communist country, the German Democratic Republic, Dye said.
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 2 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 laptop 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, 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 such non-communication signals as radar. Army officials said he had access to classified information “at a certain level.”
The regiment provides early warning of Warsaw Pact troop movements to U.S. military units in West Germany, which survey the East-West German frontier round the clock. The Fulda Gap, a traditional invasion route to Western Europe, is considered to be a likely area of major tank concentration in a conventional war.
Dye declined to say whether 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 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 at 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 is quiet, does not drink and is “not wild at all.”
A former high school English teacher said Peri’s work was “superior” and described Peri as “creative, industrious, hard-working and independent.”
Peri’s parents could not be reached for comment.
Peri attended La Quinta High School in Westminster and moved repeatedly as a youngster with his family, following his father’s career, to South Africa, Austria, then back to the United States. The family moved to Laguna Niguel late last year.
Times staff writer Melissa Healy, in Washington, contributed to this article.