These days it seems like everyone is stealing secrets from the National Security Agency and running to the Russians, but there was a time when the NSA kept a pretty tight lid. Before there was Edward Snowden (literally, before he was even born), there was Ronald Pelton, one of the most notorious spies in NSA history.
Pelton joined the NSA by way of Air Force intelligence, where he first learned Russian and monitored Soviet communications. After briefly working alongside the NSA at the end of his Air Force contract, he joined the agency as a full-time civilian employee in 1965. For the next fourteen years, he worked as an intelligence analyst with A Group, the NSA department that listened in on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. He had access to all the agency’s best secrets.
Financial Troubles and the Spy Trap
As sometimes happens with spies, Pelton ran into financial troubles, and in 1979 he left the NSA after filing for bankruptcy. Six months later, he was desperate enough for cash that he picked up the phone and called the Soviet embassy in Washington. He asked for the typical walk-in special: money for secrets. The Soviets were happy to comply.
Here’s where things turn into a spy thriller. The call was intercepted by FBI agents, though they were unable to confirm his identity. The bureau also had surveillance outside of the embassy building where Pelton met with his new Soviet handler, though when he entered, agents again failed to confirm his identity. To escape the embassy without being identified, KGB officers had Pelton shave off his beard and slip out the back with embassy employees. He climbed onto a bus set to bring the workers home, and was dropped off at a bus stop a safe distance away.
For $35,000, he revealed from memory and in catastrophic detail the “holiest of holy” NSA programs.
The Thumb Drive. vs. the Steel Trap Brain
Unlike the spies and leakers of today, Pelton didn’t need a thumb drive, TOR, or military-grade encryption at his disposal. What he had was a giant brain. Over the next three years, he met with KGB officers several times and twice flew to Vienna, where he was debriefed. For $35,000, he revealed from memory and in catastrophic detail the “holiest of holy” NSA programs.
One of the most damaging of his revelations was Operation Ivy Bells, a joint CIA-NSA-Navy program in which the USS Halibut, a specially fitted submarine, was able to slip in to USSR territorial waters and tap a communications cable linking Soviet naval bases. (This project was especially valuable as the Soviets, believing the cable to be impossible to access, didn’t bother using its highest levels of encryption on transmissions across the line.) Pelton also revealed the capabilities of the listening post at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, and the signal interception reach of an NSA satellite program. According to The Secret Sentry, Pelton also disclosed “a joint CIA-NSA operation wherein CIA operatives placed fake tree stumps containing sophisticated electronic eavesdropping devices near Soviet military installations around Moscow.”
The eventual capture of Pelton proves just how small the world of espionage can be. In 1985, a high-ranking member of the KGB named Vitaly Yurchenko defected to the United States. It was a great victory for the CIA, as Yurchenko proved willing to talk, and went so far as to help identify KGB agents in U.S. intelligence. One of the men identified by Yurchenko was codenamed “Mr. Long,” and was described as having made contact with the Soviets in 1980; having worked as an NSA analyst; as having provided information on Operation Ivy Bells; and as having red hair. Three months after defecting, Yurchenko re-defected to the Soviet Union. He slipped away from his CIA handler at Au Pied du Cochon, a French bistro in Georgetown. (He excused himself to the restroom and proceeded to slip out the window.)
Codename: Mr. Long
The clues he left behind, however, narrowed the possibilities considerably, and the FBI, working with that very first phone call it recorded between Pelton and the Soviet embassy, matched the voice with a name and put Pelton under surveillance. Because Pelton didn’t quit the NSA with a big box of files, however, there was no physical evidence tying Pelton to the Soviets. Eventually, the FBI just gambled on it and confronted Pelton directly. The G-men played the recording of the embassy call, and Pelton confessed to the crime. He is presently moldering in a Pennsylvania prison.
Coincidentally, while the FBI was surveilling Pelton a week before his arrest, they were noticed by a woman carrying a heavy suitcase. The woman was Anne Pollard, wife of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, and the suitcase was filled with classified material her husband had stolen. She was planning to discard the suitcase in a dumpster when she spotted what were certainly federal agents in unmarked cars. She thought they were surveilling her, and she abandoned her plans to toss the documents. Obviously, she was wrong—the agents had no idea who she was—but the files she failed to dispose of that night would eventually be used as evidence to convict her husband, who USA Today notes is “the only person in U.S. history to get a life sentence for spying for an ally.”
Meanwhile, the story of Ronald Pelton has an especially glorious spy twist—it’s possible Yurchenko offered up Pelton as a limited hangout. According to David Sullivan, a former CIA analyst, at the time of Yurchenko “defection,” CIA mole Aldrich Ames was an asset of inestimable value to the Soviet Union. In order to deflect possible company attention away from Ames, Yurchenko faked a defection and burned Pelton and eventual-defector Edward Lee Howard, neither of whom could be of any further use to the KGB. Spy games are nothing if not a dirty business.