Ronald W. Pelton, convicted last month of espionage, has agreed to give the government an account of what he disclosed to Soviet agents about U.S. intelligence-gathering projects targeted at the Soviet Union, officials said yesterday.
A one-sentence statement jointly released by defense and prosecution lawyers said that Pelton's sentencing, which was scheduled for Monday, has been indefinitely postponed "in order to permit the debriefing of Mr. Pelton by representatives of the government."
Pelton, 44, was convicted of three espionage counts in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. He faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for each of those convictions and a $10,000 fine and 10 years in jail for disclosing classified information to an unauthorized person.
After the verdict last month, U.S. Attorney Breckinridge L. Willcox said the government remained very interested in getting a complete damage assessment from Pelton on the intelligence projects he disclosed to the Soviets. He said the government would consider recommending a sentence that was lighter than the maximum in exchange for a full discussion of what U.S. intelligence projects have been compromised.
Pelton was found guilty of taking $35,000 from the Soviets in exchange for a wealth of top-secret information about U.S. eavesdropping projects and capabilities. Government intelligence experts testified that such information would have allowed the Soviets to take countermeasures to thwart U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts.
Pelton, described during the trial as a man with an extraordinary memory for technical information, spent 14 years as a communications specialist at the super-secret National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Md. He left the agency in 1979 and made contact with Soviet KGB agents six months later. His contacts with Soviet agents continued until shortly before his arrest last November in Annapolis.
During the trial, the government accused Pelton of giving the Soviets detailed information about five NSA operations aimed at intercepting and analyzing Soviet communications signals. He also provided what prosecutors termed "an encyclopedia" on Soviet signals intelligence that told the Soviets which of their signals were being analyzed.
During two interviews with FBI agents the day he was arrested, Pelton testified, he tried to avoid discussing classified information, although he admitted that he told the agents some specifics about projects he sold to the Soviets. Government officials have said they are eager to get a full debriefing on what he gave up so they can determine the extent of the damage.
"We'd like to know what he gave up," said Willcox last month. "He may have caused the intelligence community more damage than any other turncoat in recent memory." The U.S. attorney said then that if Pelton cooperates, "he might get out of jail while he's still alive."
Willcox could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Pelton, who is being held at the Anne Arundel County Detention Center, did not deny selling U.S. secrets to the Soviets, but he argued that FBI agents violated his constitutional rights in obtaining a confession from him in the hours leading up to his arrest. Fred Warren Bennett, Pelton's court-appointed lawyer, has said he plans to appeal the verdict.
Meanwhile, the Washington Legal Foundation, a conservative public interest group, has filed a friend of the court brief asking that the judge sentence Pelton to at least three 120-year prison terms.
The foundation filed briefs urging the imposition of the death penalty in spy cases involving John Anthony Walker Jr. and Jerry Alfred Whitworth.
Walker pleaded guilty to espionage last year for selling Navy secrets to the Soviet Union and Whitworth, accused of being part of the same spy ring, is awaiting a jury's verdict.