INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
Questions about Venezuela's links with radical Muslims
, October 16, 2010
A two-year FBI sting has led to a scientist and his wife being charged with conspiring to sell American nuclear secrets to Venezuela. The operation is the second such sting to be disclosed by the FBI in the last three months.
The first, in June, gained worldwide media attention when the FBI arrested 10 Russian sleeper agents who had been posing as Americans since 2000. Their mission was to identify for their Moscow controllers American citizens who may be vulnerable for later recruitment.
Unbeknown to the 10 imposters was that their moves were being closely monitored, beginning in 2003, by several FBI counter-intelligence squads on a 24/7 basis.
However, rather than proceeding with drawn-out court actions, the US Department of Justice, with White House concurrence, instead exchanged the 10 for just four jailed Russians that Moscow claimed were Western spies.
The FBI's latest sting led to the charging on September 16, in New Mexico, of Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni, 75, and Marjorie Roxby Mascheroni, 67.
Both worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL), America's premier nuclear research centre, established during the early years of World War II, to develop the atomic bombs (codenamed, the Manhattan Project), which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Pedro Mascheroni, a native of Argentina, worked as a LANL scientist from 1979 to 1988 while his wife Marjorie was a technical writer and editor from 1981 to 2010.
The couple had access to secrets, including material on the design and manufacture of nuclear weapons, which they sought to sell for US$793,000.
But their 22-charge indictment, announced by Assistant Attorney-General David Kris, stopped short of naming the Venezuelan Government or anyone acting for it as seeking or receiving classified information. Nor does the indictment charge anyone else presently working at the LANL.
It said that Mascheroni had several conversations during March 2008 with an undercover FBI agent posing as a Venezuelan official. That agent and Mascheroni discussed how Venezuela could launch a nuclear weapons program that would eventually threaten the US in the way Moscow sought to do in the 1962 Cuba missile crisis. (Venezuela's capital, Caracas, is only, 2200- kilometres from Miami).
Mascheroni allegedly told the agent that Venezuela could become nuclear-armed before 2020 by constructing a secret underground nuclear reactor to produce and enrich plutonium, and an open above-ground reactor to produce nuclear energy.
Mascheroni arranged to be called "Luke" and created an e-mail account to communicate by "dead letter" drops with the undercover agent.
Pedro and Marjorie Mascheeroni appeared in federal court in Albuquerque, where Mr Mascheroni was ordered to be detained pending another hearing while his wife was released under strict conditions.The Washington Times
reported: "In July 2008, according to the indictment, the undercover agent provided Mr Mascheroni with a list of 12 questions purportedly from Venezuelan military and scientific personnel. In response, it said, Mr Mascheroni delivered to the dead drop location in November 2008 a disk with a coded 132-page document on it that allegedly contained 'restricted data' related to nuclear weapons. ...
"The indictment said that in June 2009, Mr Mascheroni received from the dead drop location another list of questions, purportedly from Venezuelan officials, and $20,000 in cash from the undercover agent as a first payment. On his way to pick up these materials, it said he allegedly told his wife he was doing this work for the money and was not an American anymore.
"In July 2009, according to the indictment, Mr Mascheroni delivered to the dead drop location a disk that contained a 39-page document with answers to the questions. The indictment said the document was written by Mr Mascheroni, edited by his wife and again contained 'restricted data' related to nuclear weapons.
"In the document, the indictment said, Mascheroni allegedly reiterated that the information he had provided was classified and was based on his knowledge of US nuclear tests that he had learned while working at LANL, but that he would state the document was based on open information found on the Internet if 'our relationship/alliance does not work...'
"In August 2009, the indictment said, Mr Mascheroni and his wife met with the undercover agent at a hotel, where Mr Mascheroni further discussed his nuclear weapons development program for Venezuela. Several months later, the indictment said, FBI agents questioned Mr Mascheroni and his wife about the classified information Mr Mascheroni had provided to the undercover agent, among other things.
"Both made a series of false statements in response, the indictment said." (Washington Times
, September 17, 2010).
Although considerable mystery surrounds the Los Alamos sting it again shows the FBI working patiently to expose actual and potential agents while at the same time monitoring their modus operandi
The FBI acquired an invaluable treasure trove of detail on how Russian sleepers were trained to operate during its seven-year monitoring of the 10 now expelled Russians.
Hopefully the Mascheroni court proceedings will clarify the origins of the Venezuelan factor.
But the fact that the Los Alamos sting involved Venezuela, without actually identifying agents from Caracas, is highly significant since Venezuela's hard-line leftist and vociferously anti-American President Hugo Chavez has allied himself with Iran, which is involved in clandestine acquisition of nuclear and related technologies.
On June 9, this year the United Nations Security Council voted to impose a fourth set of UN sanctions on Iran, demanding it suspend its enrichment activities and peacefully resolve outstanding concerns over the nature of its nuclear program.
The text, which was backed by 12 council members - Brazil and Turkey voted against, while Lebanon abstained - cited the proliferation risks posed by Iran's nuclear program and its continued failure to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Iran is believed to be in the latter stages of becoming the world's 10th nuclear power and the second, after Israel, in the oil-rich Middle East.
Last year, Turkish customs officers seized 22 containers imported from Iran and en route to Venezuela labelled "tractor parts". Inspection showed the containers contained laboratory equipment and chemicals for the manufacture of explosives.
Turkish officials never established whether the containers were destined for Venezuela, or for trans-shipment to another country.
Iran has set up a vast network of phoney companies across Europe and other centres to circumvent the latest UN embargo of its financial, banking and procurement sectors.
Chavez recently expelled Israel's ambassador to Venezuela, Shlomo Cohen, in retaliation for Israel's attacks on Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip.
According to an official statement issued by the Venezuelan foreign ministry: "The people of Venezuela manifest their unrestricted solidarity with the heroic Palestinian people."
Following Chavez's example, Venezuela's national assembly observed a minute of silence in support of Hamas, and Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro visited the Sheik Ibrahim Mosque (whose construction was funded by the Saudi Arabia and Iranian governments) in downtown Caracas to reaffirm Venezuela's backing for Hamas and Palestinians.
National assembly deputy Iris Valera (aka
Fosforito) declared Israel to be an engendro
(i.e., a deformed foetus).
Although over 90 per cent of Venezuelans are Catholics, the Chavez era has seen a disproportionately large number of Muslims - mainly of Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese ancestry - engineering Venezuela's transition to hardline socialism. And a large number of high-level posts, including Cabinet appointments and state governorships, have gone to trusted Muslims.
Probably the most significant is Tarek el-Aissami, a Venezuelan national of Syrian descent who, before becoming Interior and Justice Minister, was Deputy Interior Minister for Public Security. His father, Carlos Aissami, heads the Venezuelan branch of the Iraqi Ba'ath party.
Before Iraq was invaded in 2003, he held a media conference during which he described himself as a Taliban and called Osama bin Laden "the great Mujahedeen, Sheik Osama bin Laden".
Tarek's great-uncle, Shibli el-Aissami, was a prominent ideologist and assistant to the Iraq Ba'ath party's secretary general in Baghdad during Saddam Hussein's years in power.
South American affairs expert and editor of The American Report
, Nicole M. Ferrand, said that since Chavez assumed the presidency, Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaeda have used Venezuela as their bridge into other Latin American countries.
"There is information that a group of Iraqi activists belonging to Al-Qaeda are currently in Caracas," Ferrand reported after their arrival in October 2008.
She continued: "Their names are: Mohammed Adnan Yasin, Falah Amin Taha and Muhi Alwan Mohammed Al Qaisi.
"They all arrived in Caracas with temporary visas granted and approved by the heads of [the passport-issuing] Onidex
(Finance Minister Rodrigo Cabezas and Interior and Justice Minister Tarek el-Aissami) and are believed to be very dangerous.
"They oversee the activities of these terrorist organisations in the tri-border region, and in Nicaragua and Argentina.
"Other Hezbollah members in Venezuela with these same visas are: explosives expert Lebanese Abdul Ghani Suleiman Wanked, Hassan Nasrallah's right-hand man; Rada Ramel Assad, born in Barranquilla, Colombia; and Abouchanab Daichoum Dani who is the organiser of the group." (Nicole M. Ferrand, "Venezuela's Tarek El-Aissami", The Menges' Americas Report
, October 1, 2010).
US Assistant Attorney-General David Kris said that Pedro and Marjorie Mascheroni's conduct alleged in the indictment was serious, and that the FBI's sting served as a warning to anyone intending to compromise America's nuclear secrets for profit.Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based historian and freelance writer. References
Jerry Seper, "Couple indicted in nuclear weapons case", The Washington Times
, September 17, 2010.
Nicole M. Ferrand, "Venezuela's Tarek El-Aissami", The Menges' Americas Report
, October 1, 2010.