Orange County soldier Michael A. Peri pleaded guilty Wednesday to espionage charges for giving East German officials U.S. defense secrets and assessments of Soviet troop strengths, saying he was "frustrated" with his military job.
Peri, 21, a 1985 graduate of La Quinta High School in Westminster, faces a maximum punishment of life in prison, said Sgt. Maj. Dale McInnis, spokeswoman for the 5th Army Corps in West Germany.
Appearing nervous at times during the four-hour hearing at the U.S. Army Community Center in Fulda, West Germany, Peri told a military judge that he crossed into East Germany on Feb. 20 because he felt overworked and unappreciated in his job as an intelligence specialist (Spec. 4). In that job, Peri, a member of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment based in Fulda, analyzed Communist troop movements and electronic signals.
"I really didn't have a plan," Peri said, according to a report by Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper. "My primary reason was to leave behind all the frustrations and problems at work. Everything had been wrong. I wasn't enjoying myself. I wanted to start over somewhere else."
Peri also testified that he was curious about Soviet military operations.
"I was looking at Soviet forces on paper, and I wanted to see it first-hand," he said. "That played a part in my decision."
Peri said he took a lap-top computer containing secret information with him because: "It was a bargaining chip to keep them from doing something to me. It would show them I wasn't an American plant."
Asked whether he realized that the information he passed to East German officials was likely to be harmful to the United States and advantageous to hostile nations, Peri responded, "Yes, sir." But he said he did not realize the extent of potential damage until he was questioned by intelligence experts upon his return to Fulda.
According to testimony Wednesday, secrets passed to the East Germans included information about U.S. tank and helicopter movements along the border between East and West Germany defense plans for West Germany, and American estimates of Soviet military forces in East Germany.
Army prosecutors plan to call three intelligence experts to testify about the potential damage to the United States and European allies during sentencing proceedings expected to continue through Friday in Fulda.
The courtroom was cleared of spectators several times during Wednesday's hearing when classified information was discussed. Among those in attendance were Peri's parents, Fred and Winnie Peri, and his sister, Desiree, all of Laguna Niguel. Family members were permitted to meet with Peri the night before the hearing and again Wednesday morning.
The soldier was handcuffed as he was led in and out of the hearing at a military courtroom about a quarter-mile from the Army post. All entrances to the building were guarded during the proceedings.
Peri, who had been considered a model soldier, said he was angry that he had not been permitted to accompany the rest of his unit on a survival training mission and feared that he would not be allowed to go on a planned trip to Spain because of his heavy workload. He told Col. Craig G. Jacobsen, the military judge, that he had not been recruited by East German agents.
His testimony revealed only sketchy information about his activities and movements during the 12 days he was missing. One of the unexplained elements remains a train ticket from Austria, found in Peri's possession when he surrendered.
Peri was reported missing Feb. 21. Fears that he had crossed into East Germany arose two days later, when a Jeep-like vehicle he had signed out was found a mile from the Communist border near the village of Obersuhl. He returned on March 4, walking through the gates of the base at Fulda.
Peri testified that he dressed in civilian clothes and entered East Germany by climbing a border fence. He said he walked south along a patrol route until he was spotted by East German soldiers and taken to a nearby military post. East German officials who did not identify themselves interrogated him in Berlin and in several "safehouses" throughout his stay, Peri said. He said he asked to return to the West on March 3, when the East Germans asked him if he wanted to stay or leave.
In addition to the espionage charge, Peri pleaded guilty to being absent without leave, violating an Army regulation prohibiting unauthorized travel by soldiers within one kilometer of the border and theft of a military vehicle and computer.
The guilty plea reversed Peri's previous innocent plea and followed a pretrial agreement, the terms of which military authorities declined to disclose.
Peri was described by relatives in March as "a very together young man" who followed his older brother into the Army.
A SOLDIER'S STORY
Michael A. Peri . . . 21 . . . specialist fourth class . . . expert on Warsaw Pact radar equipment . . . worked in intelligence for 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Fulda, West Germany . . . stationed in West Germany since March, 1988 . . . promoted and twice nominated for best soldier in his unit . . . reportedly expressed interest in continuing work in the intelligence field after leaving the Army . . . completed an 18-week intelligence course at Ft. Devens, Mass . . . described by army officials as "good, clean-cut soldier" . . . relatives say Peri planned to return to college after leaving the service . . . attended La Quinta High School in Westminster . . . family lives in Laguna Niguel . . . moved repeatedly as a youngster with parents, Fred and Winnie, as family followed father's career to South Africa, Austria, and then back to the U.S.
SOURCE: Times Staff and Wire Reports