BALTIMORE — Acting on a tip from double defector Vitaly Yurchenko, the FBI arrested a former National Security Agency communications specialist Monday and accused him of selling "extremely sensitive" intelligence data to the Soviet Union.
It was the fourth espionage arrest by the FBI in five days in the Washington area, which is already reeling from an unparalleled series of spy scandals in recent months. Administration officials said the recent wave of arrests stems from increased counterintelligence measures and improved cooperation between federal agencies.
Ronald W. Pelton, 44, confessed to selling secrets to the Soviets beginning in 1980, the year after he left his job at NSA, the huge but super-secret agency assigned to intercept and analyze communications of foreign governments, the FBI said in an affidavit filed here.
According to the affidavit, Pelton first went to the Soviet Embassy in Washington in January, 1980--when he was having "serious financial troubles"--and sold "specific information relating to a U.S. intelligence collection project targeted at the Soviet Union."
Later in 1980 and again in 1983 and last spring, the affidavit said, he traveled to Vienna, Austria, to deliver more secrets--staying twice at the Soviet ambassador's apartment while undergoing extensive debriefing.
The affidavit said the FBI identified Pelton after receiving information from "a confidential source in a position to have access to extremely sensitive information about Soviet intelligence activities directed against the United States."
Although the document did not elaborate, Assistant FBI Director William Baker said the tip came from Yurchenko, the Soviet KGB official who defected to the West last summer but slipped away from his CIA handlers and returned to Moscow early this month, contending that he had been drugged and kidnaped.
Pelton, mustachioed with thinning sandy-colored hair and horn-rimmed glasses, was arrested early Monday at a hotel in Annapolis, Md., where he had worked for the last month as a yacht salesman.
When brought before U.S. Magistrate Daniel Klein, Pelton answered with a quiet "yes" when asked if he understood the charges, which carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The magistrate ordered him held without bail and appointed as his attorney Fred Bennett, the public defender who represented John A. Walker Jr. in the most sensational of this year's spy cases.
The newest espionage investigation centers on what analysts rank as perhaps the most critical aspect of modern-day intelligence: the ability to use high technology--everything from spy satellites to super-computers--to intercept and decode the secret communications of hostile governments.
The NSA, where Pelton worked from November, 1965, to July, 1979, is the heart of America's technical intelligence-gathering operations. Headquartered at Ft. Meade, Md., halfway between Washington and Baltimore, it maintains perhaps the lowest profile of all U.S. intelligence agencies, but its budget is reportedly larger than either the CIA's or the FBI's. Two of its buildings are sheathed in copper to prevent electronic eavesdropping, one of the agency's own specialties.
The FBI did not divulge Pelton's precise duties at the NSA or say why he left the agency. But the affidavit said he had "top-secret clearance for special compartmented information relating to signals intelligence" and that he authored a 1978 classified document described as containing "technical information . . . relating to the national defense."
Pelton, who filed for bankruptcy in April, 1979, went to the Soviet Embassy the following January and, "in exchange for payments," agreed to provide secrets to Anatoly Slavnov, a Soviet intelligence officer, the document said. Although law enforcement sources said the payments totaled more than $30,000, the affidavit cites only a $15,000 payment it said Pelton acknowledged receiving in Vienna in January, 1983.
On that trip, as well as one in October, 1980, Pelton spent three to four days "housed at the apartment of the Soviet ambassador to Austria within the Soviet Embassy compound," it said, and "spent approximately eight hours a day in debriefing sessions . . . providing written answers to written questions . . . about every area of sensitive information to which he had access" at the NSA.
Last April, the affidavit said, Pelton traveled to Vienna again but "was unable to meet with a Soviet representative." He acknowledged receiving a telephone call in July citing his failure to make contact with the Soviets and requesting that he make another trip in October, the document said.