FBI Sting Nabs 'Rogue' Nuclear Scientist

An FBI sting operation has led to the arrest of a "rogue" nuclear scientist who once worked in the weapons division at Los Alamos, the New Mexico lab that designs and develops America's atomic arsenal. The Justice Department announced that Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni, a 75-year-old Argentine-born nuclear-weapons expert and naturalized American citizen, and his American wife, Marjorie Mascheroni, 67, had been indicted on charges that they had supplied secret nuclear-weapons information to someone they believed was an official of the government of Venezuela.

The Feds allege that during a series of contacts with the purported Venezuelan official–who turned out to be an undercover FBI agent–beginning in 2008, Pedro Mascheroni essentially offered to set up an entire nuclear weapons program for the Venezuelans. In one conversation, the Feds allege, Mascheroni discussed a scenario in which Venezuela could possess 40 nuclear-armed missiles by the year 2020.

It is fair to describe Mascheroni as a "rogue" scientist who from 1979 to 1987 worked as a staff scientist in the Energy Department's Los Alamos National Lab, said a law enforcement official familiar with the investigation and who asked for anonymity when discussing details of the case. He was assigned to X-Division–the section principally involved in weapons research and development. The official said Mascheroni became alienated from his former colleagues at the lab after they refused to take up a scheme he had advocated for using advanced laser technology he believed could play a critical role in ensuring the reliability of America's nuclear arsenal.

According to a 1991 story from The New York Times, Mascheroni was fired from Los Alamos in the midst of the laser dispute, having been deemed a security risk.The Times quoted a top Los Alamos security official saying at the time that the lab may have treated Mascheroni unfairly, and that the security charges against him may have been "trumped up." The security officer also warned that following his troubles at Los Alamos, Mascheroni was thinking of returning to Argentina, which could have posed a national security threat to the U.S. because of Mascheroni's nuclear-weapons expertise. But The Times quoted Mascheroni himself saying he would never let U.S. weapons information fall into unfriendly hands.

The Feds now say, however, that during the course of their recent sting, Mascheroni discussed with the undercover agent how Venezuela could use a secret underground nuclear reactor to produce and enrich plutonium and an open, above-ground reactor to produce nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Federal officials say Mascheroni allegedly asked the undercover agent about obtaining Venezuelan citizenship; later, the two worked out various methods of exchanging secret messages–including a "dead drop" post office box and special e-mail account.

The FBI allege that Mascheroni's wife, who herself had worked at Los Alamos, helped her husband edit a 132-page document entitled "A Deterrence Program for Venezuela" that laid out Mascheroni's nuclear-development scheme for that country. The FBI says Mascheroni told his undercover contact that even though this plan was worth millions of dollars, he only wanted to charge Venezuela $793,000 for it.

At least part of the federal investigation into Mascheroni has been public for nearly a year: last October, federal agents raided his Los Alamos home and removed dozens of boxes of files and papers. At the time, Mascheroni discussed the raid with The Times. He also told the paper that in 2008, someone claiming to be a representative of Venezuela approached him and agreed to pay him $800,000 for a study on laser power, which Mascheroni told the paper he had produced and delivered to the person, but for which he was never paid.

Mascheroni told The Times the information in this paper was all unclassified. In their press release and indictment, however, the Feds claim the paper contained "restricted data," which is a special category of classified information related to the design and construction of nuclear bombs.

Although the undercover agent was posing as an official of the Venezuelan government and Mascheroni expressed interest in Venezuelan citizenship, the official familiar with the inquiry said the government of Hugo Chávez was not implicated in the investigation in any way.

The Associated Press reported that following their arrests on Friday, Mascheroni and his wife appeared in federal court in Albuquerque.