On the third floor of the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria, where espionage prosecutors sit, a series of photos depicts some of the famous felons who have passed through the courthouse's heavy steel doors over the past decade.
Former FBI agent Earl Edwin Pitts, who pleaded guilty to spying for Moscow, is pictured in an orange prison jumpsuit, staring forlornly. There are mug shots of Aldrich H. Ames and his wife, Rosario, convicted in connection with his years of spying for the Soviets. FBI agents are shown hauling away former CIA case officer Harold James Nicholson, while Jean-Philippe Wispelaere, an Australian intelligence official-turned wannabe James Bond, smirks at the camera.
They are all convicted spies, and the makeshift rogues' gallery that pays tribute to their pursuers lacks the romance of blind drops in the dead of night, Russian handlers and martinis shaken but not stirred. This is cold, hard federal justice, lining the halls of an office that is the nation's foremost place to put spies behind bars.
Another photo will soon find its place on the wall: that of Brian P. Regan, convicted Feb. 20 of trying to sell secrets to Iraq and China and of illegally gathering national defense information. The former Air Force intelligence analyst faces up to life in prison when he is sentenced May 9; a federal jury declined to make him eligible to become the first person executed for espionage in the United States since the Cold War.
The Regan trial lacked some of the drama of the last espionage trial at the Alexandria courthouse, in 1998, when former Pentagon attorney Theresa Squillacote and Kurt Alan Stand, a labor union official, were convicted of conspiring to spy for East Germany. Then, supporters of the leftist couple packed the courtroom. A few family members attended Regan's trial, but otherwise it was federal officials and reporters.
As a news event, the Regan case also didn't stack up to that of perhaps the most famous spy to be prosecuted in Alexandria: the FBI's Robert P. Hanssen. After pleading guilty, he was sentenced to life in prison last year for spying for Moscow for two decades, causing nearly unparalleled damage to U.S. security. At his sentencing, a gaunt Hanssen twisted his hands behind his back and scanned the packed courtroom before stepping to a microphone and apologizing. Spectators included actor Ron Silver, researching a role playing Hanssen's boss.
Still, a familiar murmur of excitement ran through the courthouse for opening statements in Regan's trial. Espionage trials are rare; most defendants plead guilty. And it was the latest indication that the Alexandria courthouse, where more than 20 espionage cases have been prosecuted over the past two decades, is the place to be for spy aficionados.
The reasons for Alexandria's prominence include what is perceived as a pro-government jury pool in Northern Virginia and the location of the Pentagon, the CIA and two major airports (where spies such as Regan often are arrested). "It's where the action is," said John L. Martin, who oversaw espionage prosecutions for the Justice Department for 26 years before he retired in 1997.
The roster of famous cases extends back to the mid-1960s, when Robert Lee Johnson was convicted of spying for East Germany. His son, ashamed of his father's actions, later visited him in prison and killed him, said veteran espionage attorney Plato Cacheris, who prosecuted that case. Two decades later, retired CIA analyst Larry Wu-Tai Chin committed suicide in the Prince William County jail after being convicted of spying for China in Alexandria federal court.
The wall of photos in the U.S. attorney's office was started by Rob Chestnut, a former supervisor who said he was trying to instill "pride in the work we did."
Regan's photo will go up after his sentencing. Still missing, though, is Hanssen's. Prosecutors promise it's "on order."