The government may recommend a reduced prison term for Ronald W. Pelton, convicted Thursday of espionage, if Pelton agrees to a full debriefing on the U.S. intelligence-gathering projects he disclosed to Soviet KGB agents, an official said yesterday.
Breckinridge L. Willcox, U.S. attorney for Maryland, said yesterday that his office has had several discussions with Fred Warren Bennett, Pelton's lawyer, on the subject of a "damage assessment."
"There is a distinct possibility that Mr. Bennett and this office will come to a meeting of the minds on that subject," said Willcox. While he would not say how long a prison sentence his office might recommend, he said that if Pelton cooperates, "he might get out of jail while he's still alive."
Bennett could not be reached yesterday for comment on discussions about a damage assessment.
Pelton, 44, a former communications specialist at the National Security Agency, was convicted of two counts of espionage, one count of conspiracy and one count of disclosing classified U.S. communications intelligence to an unauthorized person. He could receive life terms on each of the espionage counts and 10 years in jail and a $10,000 fine for disclosing communications intelligence. Sentencing is scheduled for July 28.
"We'd like to know what he gave up," Willcox said. "He may have caused the intelligence community more damage than any other turncoat in recent memory."
During an interrogation session with FBI agents shortly before his arrest last November, Pelton admitted receiving $35,000 from the Soviets in exchange for top secret information about five NSA projects related to Soviet signals intelligence.
When asked how U.S. intelligence officials could rely on information provided by a convicted spy, Willcox said that while Pelton's espionage activities "were absolutely beyond the pale and absolutely unconscionable," he believes Pelton feels "an element of contrition and genuine remorse for what he's done.
"I think there's a basic level of integrity and concern for this country," Willcox said. "I don't think he's a guy with no morals."
Yesterday, several jurors said the 13 hours of deliberations that led up to Pelton's conviction were emotionally charged, but that there was never any disagreement that Pelton was guilty on at least some of the espionage counts. One juror, who asked not to be named, said the single divisive issue concerned Pelton's alleged trip to the Soviet Embassy compound in Vienna, Austria, in 1980, the one espionage count on which Pelton was acquitted.
Several jurors said the panel concluded that Pelton's rights had not been violated during his interrogation by FBI agents, an issue that was at the heart of Pelton's defense. "We did not think the FBI violated his rights," said juror Maynard Norris. "There was no real division on that."
Bennett has said Pelton's conviction will be appealed on the basis that the FBI agents failed to read Pelton his rights and ignored what the defense contends was a request by Pelton for a lawyer. Bennett also argues that the agents made threats and false promises to Pelton to elicit his confession.