A former scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, who left following a dispute over funding, and his wife — who also worked at the facility — face federal charges in a sting operation built on the scientist's alleged offer to help build Venezuela a nuclear bomb.
Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni, 75, and Marjorie Roxby Mascheroni, 67, were charged in a 22-count indictment returned Thursday in a federal court in Albuquerque, N.M.
NPR's Carrie Johnson tells All Things Considered co-host Melissa Block that Pedro Mascheroni worked in a secret unit called the X Division. The scientist held a Q-level security clearance that allowed him access to certain classified information, including "restricted data."
"He got into a big fight with the Department of Energy after speaking out over its failure to fund a project that he highly supported," Johnson says. "The government wound up investigating him and yanked his security clearance in 1987. He ultimately left and filed a lawsuit.
"Sources tell me he kept on being disgruntled all these years," she says.
Although he had his security clearance pulled more than 20 years ago, Mascheroni was still believed to have posed a danger, Johnson says.
"Sources are telling me that everything he needed to know he kept in his head," she says. "He was able to reconstruct most of what he wanted to know and tell the Venezuelan government allegedly by just thinking back to his experience in the business."
FBI agents arrested the pair on Friday morning; they made an initial court appearance in Albuquerque later in the day.
"The conduct alleged in this indictment is serious and should serve as a warning to anyone who would consider compromising our nation's nuclear secrets for profit," said Assistant U.S. Attorney General David Kris in a statement.
According to a Justice Department statement, Pedro Mascheroni first spoke in March 2008 with an undercover FBI agent posing as a Venezuelan government official. During a series of conversations, Mascheroni allegedly laid out a program that he said could help Venezuela develop a nuclear bomb within a decade, using a secret, underground reactor to enrich plutonium.
In July 2008, Mascheroni allegedly delivered a coded, 132-page document detailing the operation to a post office box prearranged as a "dead drop."
He later received an initial payment of $20,000 and discussed payments with an eventual price tag of at least $800,000 for subsequent information, the Justice Department statement said.
An August 2009 meeting with an undercover agent was followed several months later by direct questioning of the Mascheronis by FBI agents, the Justice Department said. Both made a series of false statements in response, according to the indictment.
Mascheroni was described as a naturalized U.S. citizen from Argentina; his wife, simply as a U.S. citizen. Pedro Mascheroni became a citizen in 1972.
The charges against the Mascheronis could return a potential sentence of life in prison.
The Justice Department takes care to note that neither the government of Venezuela nor anyone acting on its behalf "sought or was passed any classified information." No Venezuelan officials are charged with wrongdoing, nor are any persons now employed at the Los Alamos lab.
According to the Justice Department release, Mascheroni, a physicist, worked as a scientist at the lab from 1979 to 1988.
His wife worked there between 1981 and 2010, where her duties included technical writing and editing. She also held a security clearance at the lab that allowed her access to certain classified information, including "restricted data."
Prosecutors say she went along with her husband's plan, accompanied him to drop off documents and even edited some of his materials.
The Atomic Energy Act defines "restricted data" as classified information concerning the design, manufacture or use of atomic weapons; the production of special nuclear material; or the use of special nuclear material in the production of energy.
The indictment charges the defendants with conspiring to communicate and communicating "restricted data" to an individual with the intent to injure the United States and secure an advantage to a foreign nation.
They are also charged with conspiring to and attempting to participate in the development of an atomic weapon, as well as conspiring to convey and conveying classified "restricted data."
The indictment further charges Pedro Mascheroni with concealing and retaining U.S. records with the intent to convert them to his own use and gain, as well as six counts of making false statements. Marjorie Mascheroni is also charged with seven counts of making false statements.
In an interview last year with The Associated Press, Mascheroni said that the U.S. government was wrongly targeting him. His home was searched last October and the FBI seized computers, letters, photographs, books and cell phones.
At the time, Mascheroni said he had approached Venezuela after the United States rejected his theories that a hydrogen-fluoride laser could produce nuclear energy.
Mascheroni has said he thought the Venezuelan government wanted him to produce a study on how to build a nuclear weapons program. In return, he asked for $800,000, which he said he planned to use for his scientific research on nuclear fusion in hopes of persuading Congress to take a look at his theories.
Mascheroni has said that in 2008 he gave a computer disk with unclassified information to a man claiming to represent Venezuela. He was paid $20,000, but never spent the money and it was recovered by FBI agents during their search.
The $20,000 in cash was left in a drop box at the Albuquerque airport, Mascheroni told AP.
In July 2008, Mascheroni said he received a formal request via e-mail from his Venezuelan contact to write a study for how to build a nuclear weapons program.
Mascheroni told AP that he finished the study in November 2008 and, following directions, placed a CD containing only unclassified information available on the Internet, which he already had provided to congressional staffers, inside a post office box at the Albuquerque airport.
Later, he told AP, he received an e-mail telling him to return to the same post office box where he found a note that said there was $20,000 in $100 bills inside an envelope.