ESPIONAGE: To Avoid Embarrassment

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In the U.S. District Court at Alexandria, Va. last week, Joseph Sydney Petersen Jr., 40, a gangling, cross-eyed former research analyst in the National Security Agency, the Government's topmost secret hive of codebreakers and message-interceptors, pleaded guilty to espionage.

Two months ago, Petersen's lawyer leaked the information that his client, no Communist, was accused of spying for The Netherlands. The Dutch Embassy in Washington promptly admitted receiving secret intelligence from Petersen, but the Dutch said that they assumed Petersen's superiors knew he was passing on the information. This was an odd assumption since one of the secrets the Dutch learned from Petersen was the fact that the U.S. had cracked Dutch codes.

U.S. agents also said that the tip-off on Petersen had come via the Baranes spy case (TIME, Oct. 11) in France. The French government, infiltrated by Communists, got some of Petersen's secrets from the Dutch.

Petersen's guilty plea last week was to the charge that he had "used" secret documents "in a manner prejudicial to the safety and interest of the U.S." (i.e., he had stored the papers in his apartment). By admitting guilt on one count of his indictment, he would avoid a trial that might, according to a top official, probe embarrassingly into details of an "emotional involvement" with a person to whom he fed information. In return, the U.S. agreed to drop two other counts, thus saving itself and The Netherlands the further embarrassment of having to prove that Petersen acted "to the advantage of a foreign nation."