Friday, November 25, 2011

Yacht Salesman, Gambler, Spy

On this date back in 1986, a former employee of the National Security Agency (or "NSA") named Ron Pelton was arrested for spying for the Soviet Union. Ron Pelton was perhaps the most damaging spy of the Cold War whose name you've never heard.

Prior to joining the NSA, Pelton served in the Air Force, where he was a noted card player and gambler. This was to portend ongoing financial problems in his adult life. In 1979, he was forced to declare personal bankruptcy. Thinking he could make more money as a yacht salesman, in 1980 the then 38-year old Pelton resigned from his $24,500/year job at the NSA after 14 years there. But Pelton quickly realized that he would actually make less  as a yacht salesman (not more). So, with his financial problems mounting yet again, he offered to sell the Soviets secrets he'd learned while at the NSA.

The crown jewel he revealed was Operation Ivy Bells, an ultra-secret operation to tap an undersea Soviet military cable that ran along the floor of the Sea of Okhutsk between the Russian mainland and the Kamchatka Peninsula. The Soviets complacently assumed that the cable could not be compromised.  So this was an intelligence gold mine.  The state-of-the-art taps were nuclear powered and could store up to a year's worth of data.  Information from these taps was collected monthly for years by extremely dangerous submarine missions conducted right under the Soviets' noses.  This highly successful covert operation cost the United States over $1 billion.

Ron Pelton gave it all up for $37,000.

In 1985, a notorious KGB defector named Vitaly Yurchenko gave the CIA information that led to Ron Pelton's arrest on this date 25 years ago.  Because much of what Pelton revealed to the Soviets was so highly classified, much of it has never been revealed to the public. As a result, his case was not as sensationalized by the press as were those of other celebrated spies, like Aldrich Ames.  But Pelton was sentenced to three life terms in prison.  Ames was sentenced to only one life term in 1994, as was Robert Hanssen in 2001.

You can watch an excellent 5 minute segment about this under-publicized case on You Tube HERE.

Ron Pelton is still languishing in federal prison and will be 70 years old next year.

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