Los Alamos Spy Case Factual Error

US Energy Department photo.

The exciting world of nuclear policy and nuclear-weapons science blogs are positively abuzz — and Lord knows those cats can party! — about the New York Times article reporting that an indictment against a Los Alamos physicist and his wife contains a major factual error that weakens the case.

Filed last week, the indictment alleges that P. Leonardo Mascheroni and his wife Marjorie tried to sell nuclear weapons technology to Venezuela. The part of Venezuela was played by an undercover FBI agent.

Page 8 of the indictment specifies that Dr. Mascheroni told the undercover agent that it would be possible to secretly construct an underground reactor to “enrich plutonium.” Now, any nuclear-powered schoolkid whose frontal lobe hasn’t been irradiated in a criticality accident or who hasn’t recently stuck their head in a particle accelerator knows that in order to enrich plutonium, you’d have to read it Keats or buy it a Jaguar. In fact, plutonium isn’t enriched, it’s created. While Plutonium is technically a primordial element, which means it exists in nature, its most stable isotope does so in such tiny quantities that it is basically undetectable. Plutonium is manufactured from uranium.

The fact is probably irrelevant in the wider scheme of things. But it could prove as much a defense-lawyer’s bounty as the factual errors in the case of University of California employee Wen Ho Lee. The Taiwanese-American Los Alamos scientist won a $1.6 million settlement from the feds and news organizations — and an apology from Bill Clinton — after the federal case against him for nuclear espionage fell apart.

A helpful nuke wonk (is there any other kind?) comments on research fellow Steven Aftergood’s post at the Federation of American Scientists website that this could easily be a misinterpretation by the undercover — FBI agents are generally trained attorneys, not physicists. An even helpful-er nuke wonk on the same post mentions a curiously improbable part of the indictment where Mascheroni seems to be offering to build Venezuela a nuclear-powered antisatellite laser.

It seems just as likely to me that Mascheroni’s words themselves didn’t always add up. People who know a lot about topics can and often do speak carelessly about them. Parents call their kids by the wrong names; US History professors refer to meetings between Lenin, Churchill and FDR — annoyed student’s translation, “Stalin,” and everyone knows it. Gangsters say things like “I killed Jimmy Hoffa!” Conversation is an inexact science, even when you’re talking about nukes.

That’s why the history of undercover sting operations is the history of grim-faced supervising case agents telling very unhappy cops that they have to duct-tape a tape recorder to their nutsacs and go back and goad Jimmy the Hacksaw into telling them that great story about how he beat an undercover cop to death, the exact same way he told them last week except this time hoping against hope that he remembers to say “Cleveland,” not “Cincinnati” and “1988” instead of “1986.”

And, to be fair, FBI agents also occasionally misinterpret stingees’ statements to indicate an intent to conspire when they are merely speaking theoretically. If Mascheroni proves to be another Wen Ho Lee, it’s going to get ugly for the FBI and for Los Alamos.

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2 comments on “Los Alamos Spy Case Factual Error
  1. Pingback: Factual Error in Los Alamos Spy Indictment « Skid Roche

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