Washington — The arrest of a former employee of the supersecret National Security Agency (NSA) brings to a clean sweep known penetration by foreign agents of the four major organizations making up US intelligence. It further underscores the breadth and intensity of the hostile intelligence threat to American security.
Ronald W. Pelton, a 44-year-old former communications specialist who left the NSA in 1979, became the latest American accused of spying when he was arrested early Monday in Annapolis, Md. He is said by federal officials to be one of two spies fingered by Soviet defector Vitaly Yurchenko, before Mr. Yurchenko's decision to return to Moscow early this month.
Mr. Pelton is one of 11 current or former United States government officials to face espionage charges within the past year.
With Pelton's arrest, the four branches of US intelligence -- NSA, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (which handles US counterintelligence), and military intelligence -- have all been touched by recent spy scandals.
NSA is the communications arm of the intelligence community. Its responsibilities include devising US codes, breaking foreign codes, and electronically intercepting foreign transmissions of information that has intelligence value.
``NSA officials have always felt that they are the most secure agency in the US in terms of secrecy,'' says James Bamford, an intelligence specialist and author of ``The Puzzle Palace,'' a book about NSA operations.
But he observes, ``I have never had a very high respect for security at the NSA. I've always thought it was fairly lax. If a person wants to get secrets out, he can get them out.''
An NSA spokesman said the agency had ``no comment'' on the Pelton arrest or security matters.
Mr. Bamford said it is difficult to assess what damage might have been done to US codes or electronic spy capabilities, not knowing Pelton's exact job at the NSA.
He noted that in order for the Soviets to be able to listen to secure US communications, they would need a detailed knowledge of the inner workings of US code machines, regular access to key lists that change the code daily, and information about which frequency the messages would be trasmitted on.
Some of this information is believed to have been provided to the Soviets by the Walker-family spy ring.
In addition to potential damage to national security, the Pelton case raises questions about internal security at NSA.
Bamford says security at the NSA falls short in three areas:
Counterintelligence polygraph exams are mandatory only for civilian employees at NSA. Military personnel, who comprise roughly half the NSA work force, may or may not face a random polygraph test during their tenure at NSA.
There are no controls aimed at physically preventing NSA documents from being photocopied by unauthorized persons.
Searches of briefcases and personal possessions of persons entering and leaving NSA facilities are cursory.
Bamford notes that military personnel at NSA sometimes decide to switch over and become civilian employees. The switch means they are suddenly subject to mandatory polygraph exams. ``Every year a small percentage of [the former military] people flunk the polygraph after they have already worked [at the NSA] for a number of years,'' Bamford notes.
He adds that NSA is also vulnerable because of the higher turnover among military personnel at NSA (as opposed to career civilian analysts at the NSA or CIA). He says there are now a fair number of persons working outside the intelligence community who have detailed knowledge of NSA secrets.
Despite this, NSA has remained relatively free from public spy scandals in recent years.
NSA was directly touched by spy scandals in the late 1950s and early '60s.
One case involved William Martin and Bernon Mitchell, who defected to the Soviet Union in 1960 after working three years at the NSA. They held a press conference in Moscow and revealed that NSA had broken the codes of more than half of those nations using encoded message traffic.
Between 1959 and 1963, Sgt. Jack E. Dunlap, an NSA messenger, was paid some $60,000 by the Soviets for copies of NSA documents. The plot was discovered only after his suicide. A Defense Intelligence Agency report notes: ``The extent of his espionage cannot be accurately determined.''