It was no accident that suspected Soviet spy Ronald Pelton ``spilled the beans'' during a meeting with two FBI agents last November in an Annapolis hotel room. Two days earlier, in a similar meeting with FBI agents, suspected Chinese spy Larry Wu Tai Chin disclosed incriminating details of his involvement with Chinese intelligence agents. That, too, was no accident. The details subsequently led to Mr. Chin's Feb. 7 conviction on espionage charges.
Likewise, Mr. Pelton's comments to the agents comprise the bulk of the government's evidence against him in the spy trial expected to go to the jury later this week in a US District Court here.
What compels men suspected of trading in US national-security secrets to confide in agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation?
Testimony in the Pelton trial, as well as court documents, described how FBI counterintelligence agents use a range of subtle techniques and tricks to draw suspected spies into making incriminating statements.
The placement of chairs during the interrogation, the personality of the interviewing agents, the timing of a supposed chance telephone call, are all carefully orchestrated by senior FBI officials to maximize the government's chances of tripping up a crafty suspect. It is part of an elaborate mental chess game of threats and vague promises made with only one purpose: to catch a spy.
The low-key approach has its risks, as demonstrated in the case of former CIA employee Edward L. Howard. Mr. Howard sold out to the Soviets, then turned the tables on the FBI by promising to cooperate but fleeing the country instead.
In the cases of Pelton and Chin, US counterintelligence agents planted the suggestion that the suspected spies might become double agents for the US. They also suggested that cooperation might win them lenient treatment by federal prosecutors. At the same time, the FBI agents threatened that a lack of cooperation would bring embarrassing investigations with detailed questioning of family members and business associates.
Both Pelton and Chin took the bait. They were interested in making deals. Both were quickly arrested after revealing enough information to support indictments.
Pelton's defense at his trial has been that he was unfairly tricked into making damaging statements.
US Distict Judge Herbert F. Murray ruled May 15 that Pelton's statements were made voluntarily and thus were not obtained improperly by the FBI.
Pelton's attorney, federal defender Fred Warren Bennett, disagrees. He is presenting the question to the federal jury hearing Pelton's case.
Mr. Bennett says his client's constitutional rights were violated by the FBI agents because they did not inform Pelton that he had a right to remain silent and a right to have an attorney present during all questioning.
Government prosecutors say that Pelton was free to leave the interview at any time. They say that since he was not actually in custody or under arrest, there was no legal requirement for the agents to inform Pelton of his rights.
Bennett argues that because of implied threats of adverse consequences if Pelton refused to cooperate or left the interview, the FBI interrogation constituted a form of legal custody.
FBI agent David Faulkner testified that the agents were specifically instructed by their superiors not to advise Pelton of his rights until told to do so by senior FBI officials. Mr. Faulkner said the agents were concerned that if Pelton sensed that he was about to be arrested he would refuse to talk to the agents.
The agents had a ready answer for everything.
At one point Pelton noted that convicted spy John Walker had cooperated with federal officials and yet had still received a life prison sentence. The agents explained to Pelton that Walker had not cooperated from the start.
According to court documents, ``The agents told Pelton that he currently had an opportunity to have some input on how history would view his activities'' and that ``if Pelton cooperated, his cooperation would be made known to FBI officials.''
But last week in court, Faulkner stressed that he gave Pelton no guarantees and made no promises. He noted that FBI agents are not authorized to make decisions about which suspects might receive immunity and which might be prosecuted.
Faulkner testified that the FBI had no interest in arranging a deal with Pelton, only in building a solid case that would lead to his conviction on spy charges.
When asked why the FBI had not secretly tape-recorded Pelton's conversation with the FBI agents, Faulkner said the agents were concerned that Pelton might ask them if they had planted a ``bug'' in the room. ``We did not want to be in a position to have to lie to him,'' Faulkner said.
He stressed that the agents were working to build a sense of ``trust and confidence'' with Pelton.