Washington, Sep 18 (IANS/EFE) A US scientist ans his wife have been arrested for passing on secret information to a man posing as Venezuelan spy to help that country develop a nuclear weapon, the US justice department has said.
"The indictment does not allege that the government of Venezuela or anyone acting on its behalf sought or was passed any classified information, nor does it charge any Venezuelan government officials or anyone acting on their behalf with wrongdoing," the department said in a statement Friday.
Argentine-born physicist Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni, 75, and wife Marjorie Roxby Mascheroni, 67, are facing a total of 22 charges and, if convicted, could be sentenced to life in prison.
Both the defendants are US citizens who once worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where they had access to classified information.
According to the complaint, Mascheroni had a series of conversations in March 2008 with an FBI agent posing as a Venezuelan official, during which he spoke of his plan to develop nuclear arms for the Andean nation.
In the course of their talks, the scientist said that he could help Venezuela develop a nuclear bomb in a period of 10 years.
Mascheroni also handed over a disk with a coded 132-page document on it containing "restricted data" pertaining to nuclear weapons, and in exchange received an initial payment of $20,000, the justice department said.
After a number of contacts with the undercover agent over more than a year, the FBI questioned Mascheroni and his wife about the classified information they had handed over, and both answered with statements that were untrue.
The two were arrested Friday morning by FBI agents and had their first hearing at a US federal court in Albuquerque.
"The conduct alleged in this indictment is serious and should serve as a warning to anyone who would consider compromising our nation's nuclear secrets for profit," Assistant Attorney General for National Security David Kris said.