Secrecy News

Soviet Spy Ronald W. Pelton to be Released from Prison

Tomorrow Ronald W. Pelton, a National Security Agency communications specialist who was convicted in 1986 of spying for the Soviet Union, will be released from prison.

Like Jonathan J. Pollard, who was convicted of spying for Israel and released last week, Pelton was apprehended in 1985, which became known as the Year of the Spy because so many espionage arrests and prosecutions took place during or around that time.

A search of the Bureau of Prisons Inmate Locator indicates that Pelton’s release, which has not been widely noted, is set for Tuesday, November 24. It further identifies Pelton as a 74 year old white male (Register Number 22914-037).

The Pelton case had several distinctive features.

Unlike most spies of the time, he did not steal U.S. government documents and turn them over to a foreign government. Instead, he was able to sell the Soviets information based on his “excellent memory and […] encyclopedic knowledge of intelligence activities.” Among the U.S. intelligence projects he compromised was IVY BELLS, an effort to secretly tap Soviet undersea communications cables.

The Pelton case was also a test of the government’s ability to successfully carry out an espionage prosecution involving highly classified information. “The trial included an extraordinary amount of public testimony by an agency known for its reticence,” the New York Times reported at the time, referring to the NSA.

In 1986, Pelton was sentenced to three life terms plus 10 years in prison (and a $100 fine), with sentences to run concurrently (not consecutively, as has been mistakenly reported). In theory he could have been eligible for early release after ten years, but he has served nearly 30 years in prison instead.

In 1995, Pelton was interviewed by representatives of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy (the Moynihan Commission), who sought his insights into the problems of official secrecy. His contributions to the study, if any, were not identified in the Commission’s final report.