A Navy petty officer entrusted with highly classified data has been charged with passing secrets to a foreign government in 1994, Navy Cmdr. Greg Smith said yesterday.

Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel King, a 40-year-old code expert, was in military custody in Quantico awaiting a military hearing, Smith said. Other U.S. military officials said King had admitted passing some classified information to Russia, but they believed it was "a very narrowly defined specific event."

Smith said King, an 18-year Navy veteran, could face the death penalty if convicted. In previous espionage cases, military prosecutors have opted to push for a life sentence instead.

Officials said he is also charged with disclosing classified information.

At the time of the alleged espionage, King was assigned to the Navy's espionage decoding unit, based at the Fort Meade headquarters of the National Security Agency, which is charged with surveillance of communications around the globe.

Smith said he had no details on King's alleged espionage and the matter is still under investigation.

But military officials said the alleged disclosure was not as serious as the breach of security in previous Navy espionage cases, such as that of Jonathan Jay Pollard, who began serving a life sentence in 1986 for handing sensitive information to Israel.

Nor did it rival the security breach when Navy Warrant Officer John A. Walker Jr. sold Russia critical Navy secrets and codes, officials said.

Military officials said charges were brought after King failed a lie detector test administered during a routine security clearance investigation.

Confronted with the results of the lie detector test, King admitted passing secret information to Russia, but he later retracted some details about how he did it, military officials said.

The officials said they were not aware of payments King might have received for the information and described him as "a very confused individual."

Apparently King, who is in the middle of a divorce, became disgruntled at not being promoted as rapidly as he expected, they said.

King was charged on Nov. 5 and was awaiting a Navy Article 32 hearing, the equivalent of a grand jury hearing.