BALTIMORE — Government prosecutors Tuesday began presenting their case in the spy trial of Ronald William Pelton, playing two tapes for jurors to support their assertion that the former National Security Agency employee sold secrets to the Soviet Union.
On one tape, which prosecutors said was recorded on Jan. 14, 1980, a voice allegedly belonging to Pelton says to an aide at the Soviet Embassy in Washington: "Ah, I have something I would like to discuss with you--I think that would be very interesting to you."
The next day, according to prosecutors, Pelton accepted an invitation from former Soviet defector Vitaly Yurchenko to visit the embassy.
Directions to Embassy
According to the tape and prosecutors, Pelton says in the wiretapped conversation: "OK, um, how . . . do I just ring the bell and someone lets me in--how do I get in?"
Yurchenko: "No, no, you'll enter through the gate directly."
"And, OK, they'll let me in?"
"Of course, no question."
"I'll be there in two minutes," Pelton allegedly said, concluding the conversation.
Edited transcripts and copies of the tapes were provided to reporters. They are central to the prosecution's effort to portray Pelton, 44, as aggressive, bright, desperate for cash and bankrupt--a veritable gold mine of top-secret information because of his sensitive post with the super-secret NSA.
Pelton, a $24,500-a-year communications specialist at NSA from 1965 to 1979, was arrested last Nov. 25 and charged with selling classified data for $35,000.
He faces one count of conspiring to hand over national defense data to the Soviets, four counts of passing on or attempting to pass on the data and one count of transmitting communications intelligence to an unauthorized person.
In his opening argument, John Douglass, assistant U.S. attorney general, asserted that Pelton sold intelligence data on the U.S. ability to monitor and decode foreign communications "with every reason to believe" it would be used to harm the United States.
Focus on His Memory
Douglass and the four witnesses he called repeatedly focused on how "assertive" Pelton was, how good his memory was and how broad his access to secret information was because of his top-secret clearance.
The prosecution contends that after Pelton left the agency he sold secrets, often working from memory in talks with the Soviets. On two occasions, prosecutors said, he made expense-paid trips to Vienna. He collected a $20,000 payment, they said, in an envelope taped underneath a telephone in a Washington suburb of Virginia.
The prosecution recounted two FBI interviews of Pelton last Nov. 24, the day before his arrest. The prosecution contended that, by then, the government--with its 1980 tapes and other recent surveillance--had a strong case against Pelton.
Agents 'Didn't Deal'
"He thought he could make a deal," said Douglass, adding that the two agents who interviewed Pelton "didn't deal."
But Pelton's lawyer, Fred Warren Bennett, argued that the two FBI agents who interviewed Pelton at the Hilton Hotel in Annapolis, Md., duped him into believing that the FBI wanted to recruit him in "counterintelligence or some other capacity."
Interviewed for Five Hours
Furthermore, Bennett asserted, the agents, who interviewed Pelton for about five hours on two separate occasions during the same day, failed to inform him that he had the right to refuse to incriminate himself.
Bennett argued also that the tapes should not be allowed as evidence, an argument that U.S. District Judge Murray F. Herbert had rejected in pretrial proceedings.
Appealing directly to the jury of six men and six women, Bennett implored them to ignore the tapes, saying that, if they did, "the government's case will crumble like a stack of cards."
Through most of the first day, Pelton, a sandy-haired man wearing a mustache and a lightweight tan suit, sat motionless, leaning to the left in his chair.
Gives Glimpse of NSA
The trial, expected to last five to eight days, is giving an unusual look at inner workings of the super-secret NSA, despite prosecutors' efforts to shield discussion of U.S. espionage efforts.
The top-secret monitoring operation at issue in the trial is reportedly code-named Ivy Bells and is said to be designed to help the United States detect Soviet movements of troops, planes and weapons. When referring to the operation, Douglass labeled it Project A. Similarly, he called other NSA operations Projects B, C, D and E.
Sensitive to criticism that discussing the projects is a moot point because the Soviets already know about them, Douglass said that other nations are not familiar with them. And, he added, such details are "not an element of the case that the government must prove."