Former Los Alamos physicist pleads guilty to charges of attempting to sell nuclear secrets for profit

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This Oct. 22, 2009 photo shows former Los Alamos National Laboratory nuclear physicist P. Leonardo Mascheroni on his back deck in Los Alamos, N.M. Mascheroni, whose house was searched by FBI agents Oct. 19th 2009 (AP Photo/Heather Clark)
This Oct. 22, 2009 photo shows former Los Alamos National Laboratory nuclear physicist P. Leonardo Mascheroni on his back deck in Los Alamos, N.M. Mascheroni, whose house was searched by FBI agents Oct. 19th 2009 (AP Photo/Heather Clark)

A married couple who formerly worked as contractors at the Los Alamos National Laboratory pled guilty last week to espionage charges after having been indicted on multiple charges of communicating classified information, conspiring to communicate such information, and in connection with a conspiracy to participate in the development of a nuclear weapon.  The couple admitted that they provided classified nuclear information to an undercover FBI agent who was posing as a high-level intelligence officer for the Venezuelan government.  Dr. Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni, 77, faces as long as five-and-a-half years in prison and his wife, Marjorie Roxby Mascheroni, 69, as long as two years, in the terms of the plea agreement.

Scientist Nuke Venezuela
An older photo of Pedro Mascheroni and his wife Marjorie Mascheroni

This story seems at face value like a classic Bond-like story of how to catch a wannabe spy with a cold-war like scheme to sell nuclear secrets; the government becomes aware that someone is attempting to access or release information, they create a honeypot trap to cultivate a relationship with the individual and attempt to determine what secrets are attempting to be located, and how, or sold, the enemy agent inevitably falls for the trap and is deposed of.  However, as with all stories, the most intriguing part is not the way in which the story goes as much as the details as to how it happened.

Pedro Mascheroni was born in Argentina and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1972.  He became a highly-educated and a trained nuclear physicist, who worked for nearly 10 years in the X Division of the Los Alamos National Laboratory between 1979 and 1988; the division which researches, designs, and develops nuclear weapons, as well as the Weapons Working Group.  Marjorie Mascheroni, also worked for Los Alamos from 1981 as an editor and technical writer up until the FBI raided their house in October 2009.  Both defendants obtained “Q” security clearances, the highest clearance level, which granted them access to classified information.

Mascheroni studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley during the mid-1960s and married his wife Marjorie in 1967.  The defendant became interested in ways to create nuclear fusion using the concentrated power of lasers.  Hugh DeWitt, another physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laborator, who has known Mascheroni since his days at Cal-Berkeley, told reporters that over time Mascheroni first became more passionate about the hydrogen fluoride laser until it became an obsession.  While at Los Alamos, among several alleged security violations Mascheroni was accused of being a spy for Argentina, had his security clearance suspended, and was under the scrutiny of DOE security personnel.  Mascheroni was also investigated in 1991 for allegedly releasing secret data to unauthorized personnel after he lost his job at Los Alamos, but no charges were filed in that case.  “I think the people at Los Alamos wanted to get rid of him because he was a pain in the ass,” DeWitt told reporters in 2009.

In November of 2007, Mascheroni contacted the Embassy of Venezuela in Washington D.C., told personnel there he was a nuclear weapons expert and sought a job to help enhance Venezuela’s global security at the embassy.  Soon after that, the defendant was approached by an undercover FBI agent who introduced himself as “Luis Jimenez” and claimed to work in “intelligence” in Venezuela.  During his meetings with Jimenez, Mascheroni asked to be called “Luke,” and set up an email account exclusively for communication with the undercover agent.  Between March 2008 and October 2009, the defendant was in communication with Jimenez, and the two parties met three times during that time period.

In March of 2008, Mascheroni and Jimenez spoke and arranged to secretly meet for the first time the next day at a hotel in Sante Fe.  The defendant stated that he planned to travel to Venezuela in October of 2008 and hoped to give top level presentations to officials in energy and defense fields.   Defendant Mascheroni felt that that the United States would need to invade or control Venezuela in order to gain control of the nation’s oil and outlined a program for developing nuclear weapons for Venezuela, the first of which could be produced in 10 years, though 40 could be produced by 2020, as well as a laser which was described as capable of blinding satellites and was to be used as a shield to protect the secret nuclear program.

Mascheroni explained how nuclear weapons could become a useful tool for smaller countries to deter larger nations from engaging in conflict and that Venezuela could act as Latin America’s nuclear umbrella and retaliate if any nation outside Latin America attacked a Latin American country.  The defendant explained what he called a “university strategy” to cover up the nuclear weapons program, wherein legitimate research would unbeknownst to most of the researchers, act as a shield to protect the secret components of the nuclear weapons development program.

On March 24th, 2008, according to the indictment, Marjorie Mascheroni admitted her husband’s plans, telling an acquaintance, “No, he’s going to make bombs for Argentina if they don’t listen to him in Washington. Oh, not Argentina, I’m sorry, Venezuela.”

During a meeting in July of 2008, Jimenez gave Mascheroni 12 questions purportedly from military and scientific experts in Venezuela.  Mascheroni says that he received a formal request via e-mail in July of 2008 to write the study which he completed by November of 2008.  After Mascheroni completed the study, he delivered a package to the post office box at the Albuquerque airport which was used for the secret dead-drops with Jimenez, which contained a disk holding a 132-page document titled “A Deterrence Program for Venezuela”.

It would not be enough merely to possess nuclear weapons, Venezuela would also have to prove themselves capable of using them in a controlled test or world demonstration.  Venezuela would need to create a nuclear attack plan which targeted international enemy centers which would need to be destroyed if Venezuela or any other Latin American nation were invaded.  Mascheroni told the undercover agent that Venezuela would be able to cause an explosion over New York that would create an electromagnetic pulse that would destroy all the electric power in New York.  The team of scientists who would work on the above-ground unclassified energy portion of the program would not know about the bomb-building plans, as it would provide an unnecessary security weakness.

In June of 2009, Mascheroni received yet another list of questions, $20,000 cash as an initial payment, and promised more payments would come in the future.  The next month, Mascheroni left a 39-page response including more information that was classified, and even assured that in case the relationship didn’t work, the defendant would simply argue that his paper was based on open information found on the internet.

Throughout September of 2009, Mascheroni contacted banks in St. Croix, Switzerland, Uruguay, and Argentina attempting to open a bank account to deposit the money into which would not be found by the IRS.  By the end of the month, the defendant reportedly told his wife that he had a “great conversation” with a banker in Argentina.  In an email a few days later to a financial consultant in Argentina, Mascheroni said that he would legally change his name if it would help protect from the IRS discovering the new bank account.

In October of 2009, the US Government executed a search warrant and seized over 200 boxes of documents containing more than 276,000 pages of documents, letters, photographs, books, cellphones, as well as more than 5.8 terabytes of electronic data from the defendants, but additionally issued a protective order which treated the materials seized from the defendants as “potentially classified information”, thereby blocking the defendants from using the information in pleadings or publicly releasing it in any other way.  Moreover, the P.O. applied to all factual information the defendants may wish to submit to the Court or otherwise disseminate publicly, including public-domain information, essentially requiring the defendants to file all pleadings under seal.

At the time of the seizure, Mascheroni told The Associated Press that he believed the United States government was wrongly targeting him as a spy.  When questioned by the FBI in October of 2009, Mascheroni denied recognizing or having met “Jimenez”, denied writing documents for Venezuela, denied receiving $20,000 in exchange for his work, denied having a key to the Post Office Box used for the dead drops, denied having copies of any documentation provided to Jimenez, and denied that his wife had been involved.  Questioned at the same time, his wife denied editing his work, denied knowing that the program had anything to do with building bombs, denied knowledge of having received $20,000, denied speaking with her husband about secret meetings, denied speaking about offshore accounts, and denied riding with her husband to make the dead drops.

In an AP interview, Mascheroni admitted that he approached Venezuela after the United States and scientific community at large rejected his theories that a hydrogen-fluoride laser could generate nuclear energy.  He told the AP that he thought the Venezuelan government only wanted a study on how to create a nuclear weapons program, which he was willing to produce for $800,000, enough he felt to continue his research on nuclear fusion.  During the course of the investigation, prosecutors found that defendant Marjorie Mascheroni had edited documents delivered in the dead drops using a laptop that had been assigned to her by Los Alamos.

In September of 2010, after the investigation had dragged on publicly nearly a year, the Justice Department indicted the couple on 22 counts of espionage, placed the physicist in a halfway house and confined his wife to house arrest.  If convicted of all 22 charges, the Mascheronis would have faced up to life in prison.  Initially the defendants had pled not guilty to charges of violating the Atomic Energy Act.

Now that a plea agreement has been reached, more interesting details can be analyzed.

First, it is really hard to sell secrets about nuclear weapons when they can be found online or even recreated by a truck driver or three young physics students with no specific education on nuclear weapons.  As has repeatedly been shown over the course of the last 70 years, the only secret is how easy it is to build a nuclear device.

Over the course of the investigation it has been demonstrated that none of the information shared were real “nuclear secrets”, a crime which carries with it a 25 year, $2 million dollar penalty.  At the start of the investigation, other scientists familiar with Mascheroni’s work had argued there was nothing classified or secret about the information that Mascheroni shared at all, and that it was more likely that the defendant was boasting about the data in order to get more money for fusion research.

Instead, according to the indictments, it seems like the majority of the information which was being exchanged was more focused on how to cover up a nuclear weapons program with a research reactor and combined efforts by a Venezuelan university and an American university.  The plans argued the feasibility of constructing a nuclear weapons program literally under the noses of the United States and the world and provide plausible deniability to the host nation.  Then, they detailed how Venezuela could conduct underground controlled tests of micro-nukes before unveiling the program to the world with a live-test over New York.

Maybe the more critical question to be asking is – Has the FBI uncovered the next great security threat in the war against proliferation, are there more unhappy unemployed scientists who are willing to sell their secrets to carry on their own research?  Or has the FBI entrapped an unemployed scientist who really told them no secrets but rather what was available on the internet in an effort to make sure that other unemployed scientist are kept silenced?   Edward Snowden could have taken a lesson from this.

Source: SFGate

Source: Department of Justice

Source: NPR

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