In 2008, a gray-haired nuclear scientist in his 70s took a seat at a small table and laid out an elaborate plan to help Venezuela become a nuclear-armed power.
“You’re a member of the Venezuelan government, right?” scientist Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni of Los Alamos National Lab asked the man beside him, sliding something across the table. “This is a nuclear warhead,” Mascheroni said, according to video released on Wednesday. “I know how to design this.”
“Now picture the following scenario: Picture that Venezuela could have 40 nuclear weapons,” Mascheroni continued, according to a sentencing memorandum presented by the government. “Just 40 — with missiles, and it’s 2020. The United States would not invade Venezuela.”
“You build let’s say 40 or 30 ok? You have your stockpile,” he added. “Now one day there are problems. The United States or this or that. … and Venezuela says, very clearly, ‘We are going to have one test just to let the world know what we got.’ One psssssst there in the middle of the Pacific or wherever.”
Mascheroni said one could be used to knock out New York City’s electricity: “We blow this on top of New York. Nobody dies from the explosion, but we destroy all the electric power in New York with an electromagnetic pulse. The bottom line in all of this is there are some things that I can deliver for sure in 10 years. For instance, I can deliver a bomb.”
He would build the country a bomb, he said, and advised exploding it “to let the world know what we’ve got.”
But Mascheroni didn’t know everything about this conversation. The man he was sitting across from wasn’t an agent of Venezuela’s government, which claimed it had no idea of Mascheroni’s plans. He was an FBI agent. And those comments, played Wednesday in an Albuquerque courtroom, sparked an international scandal that ultimately got him arrested for communicating America’s nuclear secrets. In U.S. District Court in Albuquerque on Wednesday, he was sentenced to 60 months in federal prison after pleading guilty.
His wife, Marjorie Roxby Mascheroni, who worked at Los Alamos until 2010, pleaded guilty as well in connection with the conspiracy, and was sentenced in 2014 to a year in prison.
“This case demonstrates the consequences that result when those charged with protecting our nation’s secrets violate the trust placed in them by the American people,” Randall Coleman, assistant director of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, said.
But Mascheroni, who was born in Argentina and became a naturalized U.S. citizen, no longer considered himself American. “I’m not an American anymore,” he said. “That is it.”
After his arrival in the early 1960s to get a doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley, he signed up with Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1979. He was dismissed in the late 1980s amid allegations he was spying for Argentina, which he vehemently denied.
He launched a years-long campaign to clear his name, wrote the Scripps Howard News Service in 2000, during which said he had been called everything from a crackpot to a prophet. “I didn’t choose this life, but I am not planning on losing,” Mascheroni told the outlet. “I am doing everything I can, now, to win.”
The story read like a prophecy of things to come for Mascheroni. He had a grandiose view of his work, saying his ideas about fusion would revolutionize nuclear reactors and would facilitate blasts that were both small and controlled. He was desperate for someone to listen, and according to the government, even badgered members of Congress. He threatened to go “to work for a foreign power if he did not get the congressional hearing for which he was fighting,” the memorandum said. He even e-mailed the Venezuelan embassy in Washington just to let them know he was available, traveling to it at one point.
At trial, his lawyer portrayed him as a little crazy. He is a “difficult and obnoxious individual who has only a tentative relationship with reality,” his defense attorney said on Wednesday, according to the Albuquerque Journal. “He is narcissistic, dishonest, insufferable, obsessive and a foreigner. Thankfully, none of those traits are proper basis for imposing sentence.”
Prosecutors did not agree, noting that they discovered “stolen secret documents at his home.” The information he “sought to give away belongs to the American people.” Despite his efforts to “portray himself as such, defendant is not a feeble, ill man.”
Dressed in a green prison uniform at his sentencing, Mascheroni shouted that District Judge William P. Johnson was biased against him.
The judge disagreed, telling the protesting Mascheroni, “I’ve heard enough.”