September 18, 2010 in Nation/World

Couple accused of selling nuke secrets

Physicist, wife once worked at Los Alamos
Richard A. Serrano Tribune Washington bureau
 
Associated Press photo

In this 1998 photo, Pedro Mascheroni and his wife, Marjorie, pose in their Los Alamos, N.M., home.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – An elderly physicist and his wife who once worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico were arrested Friday on charges of attempting to sell “restricted data” to an undercover FBI agent posing as a top Venezuelan official trying to build an atomic bomb.

Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni, 75, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Argentina, and his 67-year-old wife, Marjorie Roxby Mascheroni, appeared in federal court in Albuquerque on charges of trying “to injure the United States” by passing classified nuclear weapons material in return for millions of dollars.

The couple worked at the laboratory over several decades, Pedro through much of the 1980s and Marjorie from 1981 until earlier this year. He was a scientist and her duties included technical writing and editing. Both of them had security clearances and access to material concerning the design, manufacture and use of atomic weapons.

But federal law enforcement officials stressed that the government of Venezuela was not involved in any way.

Nevertheless, said U.S. Attorney Kenneth J. Gonzales of New Mexico, laboratory employees must safeguard anything they learn there, even after leaving the lab. “This is absolutely necessary for our national security, and it is what the public expects,” Gonzales said.

Stephen McCue, the federal public defender in Albuquerque, said the couple’s future attorneys likely would need special clearances for classified information in order to handle the case.

They were charged in a 22-count grand jury indictment unsealed Friday. The Mascheronis were charged with conspiring to communicate restricted data to a foreign agent. Pedro also was charged with “concealing and retaining U.S. records with the intent to convert them to his own use and gain,” and Marjorie was charged with seven counts of making false statements to investigators. If convicted, each could face life in prison.

According to authorities, the investigation was launched in March 2008 when Pedro Mascheroni began speaking with an undercover FBI agent “posing as a Venezuelan government official.” Mascheroni said he could help that country “develop a nuclear bomb within 10 years.” Using information supplied by him, he said, Venezuela could use a secret, underground nuclear reactor to harvest and enrich plutonium, and then an above-ground reactor to produce nuclear energy.

Mascheroni said he wanted to obtain Venezuelan citizenship, and he expected to be paid for his work. He also instructed the undercover agent to refer to him as “Luke.”


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