RICHMOND, DEC. 21 -- A federal appeals court today upheld the espionage conviction of Ronald W. Pelton, a former National Security Agency employe found guilty of spying for the Soviets.
Pelton, who was paid more than $35,000 for classified information on NSA operations he provided the Soviets between 1980 and 1983, argued that statements he made to the FBI concerning the spying operation should have been excluded from his trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
Pelton contended that he made statements detailing the operation because the agents led him to believe he would not be prosecuted, but would be employed in a counterintelligence operation.
He also argued that there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction of attempted espionage, a conviction based on an aborted attempt to meet with the Russians again in 1985 in Austria.
Pelton, who was sentenced to three life terms plus 10 years, also contended the District Court could not have admitted evidence obtained under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, writing for the three-judge panel, turned aside all three arguments.
"We cannot credit Pelton's claim that he believed the agents promised leniency and assignment as a double agent," Wilkinson wrote. "Far from promising him assignment as a double agent, the FBI told him not to recontact the Soviets. The record is clear -- and Pelton acknowledges -- that the agents consistently refused to give any guarantees."
On the attempted espionage conviction, Pelton had maintained it should be thrown out because he did not know exactly what information the Soviets were seeking when he made the trip to Vienna, a claim Wilkinson also rejected.
"This ignores Pelton's entire mode of operation," the judge wrote. "Pelton's past acts of espionage had not involved the simple transmission of documents. Rather, Pelton contacted the Soviets and allowed them to ask him questions on matters that were of interest to them."
In reviewing the constitutionality of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the appeals panel found it was used properly in garnering information about Pelton's activities.
Pelton, 46, worked for the NSA for 14 years as a technician. Shortly after he quit, he made contacts with Soviet agents to sell classified information about the agency's electronic eavesdropping programs.