On June 21, 2013, the Department of Justice charged former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden for violating provisions of the 1917 Espionage Act, an alarmingly popular tactic used by the Obama administration in its attempts to silence whistleblowers. It may be hard to believe, but there was a time when theEspionage Act was actually used against spies and double-agents intent on compromising US national defense, rather than against those who leak information to journalists.*
Take, for example, the 1986 espionage conviction of former NSA intelligence analyst Ronald Pelton. Declassified documents posted on the Archive’sDigital National Security Archive show that Pelton provided details of five signals intelligence (SIGINT) operations to the Soviets in exchange for $35,000. For that relatively modest chunk of change –Pelton needed to pay growing homeowners’ taxes and repair bills– he debriefed KGB Officer Anatoly Slavnov multiple times between 1980 and 1985. Most notably, the information Pelton passed disrupted Operation Ivy Bells, a joint NSA, Navy, and CIA mission that tapped Soviet deep sea communications cables.
Pelton’s meetings with the Soviets took place during the years after his departure from the NSA in 1979. While working for the NSA from 1965 to 1979, Pelton held a Top Secret clearance as well as SIGINT clearances, giving him prime access to information on SIGINT operations like Ivy Bells. Operation Ivy Bells attached listening devices (see photo at right) to the underwater cables that carried data communications between Soviet military bases. If the Soviets attempted to repair or investigate the underwater cables for any reason, the listening devices were designed to fall off and sink undetected to the ocean floor. The Operation continued until 1981, when the Soviets, aided by Pelton, discovered the listening device and the Operation was abandoned.
It’s worth noting that during Operation Ivy Bells the NSA was spying on Soviet telecommunications cables. By 1988 the first fiber-optic cables, which transmit digital data, were beginning to be used, and Edward Snowden’s recent revelations show that the NSA is still spying on these kinds of cables. Though now it’s not Soviet communications the NSA collecting, its everyone’s.
Pelton’s arrest was just one of the events that marked 1985 as the “Year of the Spy” after a series of arrests and one defection revealed deep compromises of US secrets. Two days before Pelton’s November arrest, the FBI accused long-time CIA employee Larry Wu-Tai Chin of spying for the Chinese, just one day after Jonathan Pollard, an analyst for the Navy’s Anti-Terrorist Alert Center, was arrested for spying for Israel. Prior to the trio of November arrests, former Navy employee John A. Walker, Jr. was taken into custody for providing documents to the KGB, and former CIA employee Edward Lee Howard defected to the Soviets.
As the list of people charged with violating the 1917 Espionage Act by the Obama Administration grows, (more than all other administrations in history… combined), it might seem like another “Year of the Spy” is upon us. But this isn’t true. The charges levied in 1985 and throughout the 1980s were brought against people who actively sold US secrets “for” another country’s benefit, while Edward Snowden (NSA Surveillance), Pfc. Bradley Manning (WikiLeaks), Thomas Drake (former NSA employee who leaked classified information onsurveillance programs), Stephen Kim (former State Department contractor charged with revealing information onNorth Korea to a reporter), Jeffrey Sterling (former CIA officer who communicated information on Iran’s nuclear program to a reporter), James Hitselberger (a Navy linguist who provided classified information to the Hoover Institution), and John Kiriakou (former CIA employee who provided information on torture programs) all cooperated with journalists to expose what they believed was government wrongdoing. Hopefully the trend of accusing whistleblowers of being spies will be reversed and action will be taken to correct misuse of government power before our national security–including our liberty– is truly irrevocably harmed.
*There was one case from 1985, “Year of the Spy,” brought against a government employee for providing classified information to the media. Samuel Loring Morison, a former Navy analyst, was convicted of theft of government property for illegally providing satellite imagery to Jane’s Defense Weekly, a British military publication.