Friday, September 17, 2010

United States Couple Arrested in Alleged Venezuela Spy Sting

US couple accused of trying to sell nuclear secrets to Venezuela

Couple caught in an FBI sting by an agent posing as a representative of the Venezuelan government

Pedro Mascheroni and his wife Marjorie, who both once worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory, were arrested after an FBI sting operation over allegedly selling nuclear secrets to Venezuela

An American nuclear scientist and his wife were arrested yesterday, accused of conspiring to sell atomic secrets to Venezuela after allegedly being caught in an FBI sting by an agent posing as a representative of the Venezuelan government.

The pair worked at the Los Alamos nuclear research establishment and had security clearances. Venezuela, whose leader Hugo Chávez, has a strained relationship with the US, was not involved.

Pedro Mascheroni, 75, and his wife, Marjorie, 67, appeared in federal court in Albuquerque, New Mexico, yesterday. If convicted, they face life in jail.

According to the indictment, he offered in 2008 to provide information to help build within 10 years a secret underground plant for plutonium, needed for a bomb, and an above-ground facility that would look as if it was a civilian power plant.

The US justice department in a statement claimed Pedro Mascheroni delivered to a "dead drop" post box a disc with a coded 132-page document with "restricted data" relating to nuclear weapons. He allegedly asked for $793,000 (£503,000) and in June last year received $20,000 from an undercover agent.

Originally from Argentina but a naturalised US citizen, he allegedly adopted as his codename "Luke" and asked about Venezuelan citizenship.

The 132-page document was allegedly in response to questions from the agent, who claimed he was asking on behalf of Venezuelan scientists and military.

Supposedly written by Mascheroni and his wife, the document was called "A Deterrence Programme for Venezuela", which suggests they may have acted for political reasons, seeing the bomb as a counter to the US.

But, according to the FBI, he told his wife he was doing it for the money. Both were contract employees at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He is a physicist who worked at the laboratory from 1979 to 1988, while his wife worked there between 1981 and this year, writing technical reports. Both held security clearances that allowed access to classified information.

The justice department statement was at pains to spell out that Venezuela was not involved: "The indictment does not allege that the government of Venezuela or anyone acting on its behalf sought or was passed any classified information, nor does it charge any Venezuelan government officials or anyone acting on their behalf with wrongdoing."

The two are charged with communicating "restricted data" to an individual with the intent to injure the US 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.

The two are also accused of making false statements to the FBI. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

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