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"On This Date in History" Calendar

1986: Ronald Pelton, former NSA analyst, arrested for spying.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

25 November 1986: Ronald Pelton, former NSA analyst, was arrested for spying for the Soviets.

Born 1942, attended Indiana University. Joined the U.S. Air Force and was assigned to the Signal Intelligence division in Pakistan. After leaving the Air Force, joined the NSA in 1965. Worked in a minor capacity for the NSA until he resigned his position as an intelligence analyst in 1979.

Contacted the Soviet Embassy in Washington, DC on January 14, 1980. Explained to the diplomat that he was a member of the U.S. Government and arranged for a meeting at the embassy. The FBI had surveillance on the embassy and had tapped the phone. Although they anticipated the arrival of the caller, the FBI was unable to observe him in time to determine his identity. The investigation seemingly died out there.

Pelton met with KGB officer Vitaly Yurchenko and provided him with detailed reports of U.S. activity, to include the details of five SIGINT operations, from his photographic memory. Most notably, the information Pelton passed disrupted Operation Ivy Bells, a joint NSA, Navy, and CIA mission that tapped Soviet deep sea communications cables. Yurchenko accepted Pelton as a legitimate walk-in.

In 1985, Yurchenko defected to the United States. Among other things, he recalled he had met with a former NSA analyst in 1980 and described him as red-haired (Yurchenko subsequently defected back to the Soviet Union). The FBI scoured through NSA personnel files until it had a pool of red-haired male analysts.They were thus able to identify Pelton’s voice and began surveillance on him in October 1985. Despite bugging his car and his home, they were unable to turn up any incriminating evidence against Pelton.

Seemingly at a dead-end, the FBI decided to gamble and confront Pelton directly, playing the tape of his conversation with the Soviet embassy. Eventually Pelton revealed that he had provided answers to questions from the Soviets in return for $35,000.00. Pelton was tried and convicted of espionage in 1986 and sentenced to three concurrent life sentences, plus 10 years, and a $100 fine.

On 23 November 2015, Pelton was released from federal custody after serving nearly 30 years for espionage. He had been transferred to a halfway house in 2014 and then served the last few months of his sentence on home confinement.


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