Ronald Pelton, spy convicted of selling secrets to Soviets, dies at 80
The Washington Post September 17, 2022
Ronald W. Pelton, a National Security Agency analyst who was convicted in 1986 of selling secrets to the Soviets in one of the most damaging intelligence breaches of the Cold War, died Sept. 6 at a nursing home in Frederick, Md. He was 80.
The cause was cancer, his daughter Paula Strand said.
Pelton was an Air Force veteran with training in the Russian language when he joined the NSA in 1965. With over 14 years at the intelligence agency, he developed an expertise in Soviet communications and was granted top-secret clearance.
In 1979, under mounting financial strain in his personal life, Pelton declared bankruptcy. He resigned soon after fearing professional repercussions at the agency, where employees who are financially insecure might be seen as targets for recruitment by foreign intelligence services.
Pelton had only a few hundred dollars in his bank account when, in January 1980, he approached officials at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, offering them his knowledge of NSA operations in exchange for payments that would ultimately total $35,000.
Under subsequent questioning by the FBI, Pelton described his overture to the Soviets as an impulse, one that he had contemplated for no more than a week or two. He grew a beard so that he could enter the embassy without attracting notice. Before exiting the complex, he shaved the beard and changed into clothes resembling those worn by embassy staff, then boarded an embassy shuttle bus before returning downtown to collect his car.
Over the next five years, Pelton maintained clandestine contact with Soviet agents, using a public telephone at a Northern Virginia pizza joint for prearranged phone calls and traveling overseas to Vienna for debriefings. His “betrayal,” reporters Bob Woodward and Patrick E. Tyler wrote in The Washington Post during Pelton’s trial, “represented one of the gravest American intelligence losses to the Soviet Union.”
“They got more out of me than I wanted to give up,” Pelton was said to have told FBI agents when he was discovered.
Pelton’s most significant revelation involved an operation code-named Ivy Bells, in which the United States wiretapped underwater Soviet communication cables in the Sea of Okhotsk. In his book “Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987,” Woodward described the technology as among “the most advanced, sophisticated miniaturized waterproof eavesdropping devices in existence.”
The underwater system produced “one of the greatest intelligence hauls of the Cold War,” historian Timothy Naftali wrote in the New York Times in 1998, until Pelton “sold the secret to the Russians in 1980.”
Pelton’s communications with the Soviets were discovered with assistance of a Soviet defector, former KGB officer Vitaly Yurchenko. Pelton was arrested in November 1985 and charged with three counts of espionage, one count of conspiracy and one count of the unauthorized disclosure of classified communications information.
At his trial the next year, he admitted that he revealed a clandestine U.S. effort to intercept Soviet communications, but he disputed the degree of harm he had caused. His lawyer argued that the FBI had improperly obtained incriminating statements from him.
Pelton was convicted on all charges except one count of espionage and was sentenced to three life sentences, plus an additional 10 years. He remained in prison for nearly three decades and was released to a halfway house and then home confinement before his sentence expired in 2015, when he was 74.
“Walking into the Soviet Embassy on Jan. 15, 1980, was the biggest mistake of his life,” he had told agents before his arrest. “When you’re broke and desperate and your family is barely surviving, you do crazy things.”
Ronald William Pelton was born in Benton Harbor, Mich., on Nov. 18, 1941. He was raised by his father, a manager in a Whirlpool electronics department and a TV repairman, and his stepmother, who was a homemaker. Pelton’s daughter said he knew little about his biological mother.
Pelton served in the Air Force in the early 1960s as a cryptologic technician, with postings including one in Pakistan. He also studied Russian at Indiana University before joining the NSA, which sent him for a period of years to England.
Pelton attributed his financial problems in part to the theft of building materials for a home he was building in Howard County, Md. When he filed for bankruptcy, The Post reported, he “said he had only $6.80 in cash and $8 in a checking account” and “listed his other assets as four old cars, a motorcycle, a $10 watch, a bowling ball, five pairs of shoes and a razor.”
After leaving NSA, Pelton worked in various jobs, selling cars and boats, offering computer consulting and attempting investment ventures that failed to relieve his financial strain. Even during that time, he found time to volunteer at a soup kitchen in Washington.
Pelton and his wife, Judith, had separated before he was arrested for espionage. Their marriage ended in divorce.
Survivors include three daughters, Paula Strand of Brunswick, Md., Pamela Wright of Warrior, Ala., and Linda Anastasi of Edgewater, Md.; several siblings and half-siblings; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Pelton’s son, Ronald M. Pelton, died in 2021.
In a tribute to her father after his death, Pamela Wright recalled that he had disappeared from her life when she was 19 and returned after serving his sentence when she was nearly 50. “He was quieter,” she wrote. “More mellow. With many regrets.”
He had been raised Protestant but converted to Catholicism in prison and used his talents as a musician to play the piano during Mass. He had been drawn to the faith, his daughter Paula relayed in a eulogy, when a priest assured him that he could unburden him in the total privacy of confession.
After he was released, he developed difficulties walking as he aged.
“I went down to the local Walgreens and bought him the perfect cane, for the perfect height, for an imperfect father who was struggling to walk even before he fell,” Paula Strand recalled. “For a dad who was desperately holding on to his independence to live in his apartment as long as he could. For a dad who was ashamed to tell anyone who he really was. We kept that secret. I told him, ‘You use this when you walk. It will help you.’ “