The scientist is a naturalized American citizen born in Argentina. He had a Ph.D. in physics when he began working at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in 1979. Los Alamos is one of several nuclear weapons labs in the United States.
During most of his time at Los Alamos, the scientist held a Department of Energy security clearance that gave him access to certain classified information, including “restricted data,” a specific type of classified data dealing with nuclear weapons-related material.
His wife, who worked at the lab as a technical writer and editor, had similar access.
In 1988, the husband left Los Alamos during a downsizing initiative, but his wife continued to work there.
Building a nuclear program
Jump forward to the fall of 2007. The scientist, by his own admission, contacted a Venezuelan official in the United States and offered his help in building a nuclear weapons program for that South American nation. That contact gave U.S. law enforcement an opportunity to engage the scientist through an undercover agent posing as a Venezuelan government official in 2008.
U.S. government officials are quick to point out: neither the government of Venezuela nor anyone acting on its behalf sought or was passed any classified information. No Venezuelan government officials or anyone acting on their behalf has been charged with any wrongdoing.
In March 2008, the rogue scientist had a series of meetings with the undercover agent about his plan to develop nuclear weapons for Venezuela. Among other things, he told the agent that he could help Venezuela develop a nuclear bomb within 10 years and that Venezuela could use a secret, underground nuclear reactor to produce and enrich plutonium and an open, above-ground reactor to produce nuclear energy. He also asked about obtaining Venezuelan citizenship and explained that he expected to be paid.
First cash payment
In the following months — through e-mail, dead drops and face-to-face meetings – the scientist passed along documents he had written using classified and sometimes restricted data. He also received his first cash payment of $20,000. The wife conspired with her husband by editing his written documents and occasionally accompanying him on dead drops and face-to-face meetings.
In October 2009, the U.S. government searched the couple’s home. Agents found several boxes of classified documents, sketches, plans, and notes, plus classified information on his computer, all from Los Alamos. The information was still relevant, still classified, and still harmful to U.S. national security if it fell into the wrong hands.
Why did he do it? Maybe he carried a grudge against his employer, he was frustrated with the U.S. government, he needed money, or he desired power and respect.
Regardless of the motivations, Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni broke the law when he sold nuclear secrets to an individual he thought was a foreign government official. He also involved his wife, Marjorie Roxby Mascheroni, in his illegal activities.
Both were charged and eventually pleaded guilty in connection with the plot. They have both been sentenced to prison.