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US Couple Arrested For Transmitting Nuclear Secrets In Sting Operation 372

Posted by timothy
from the when-alabama-gets-the-bomb dept.
DesScorp writes "Recalling the famous Rosenberg nuclear spy case of the '50s, the US Justice Department has arrested a couple working at a 'leading nuclear research facility' for giving nuclear secrets to Venezuela. Pedro and Marjorie Mascheroni 'have been indicted on charges of communicating classified nuclear weapons data to a person they believed to be a Venezuelan government official and conspiring to participate in the development of an atomic weapon for Venezuela,' the department said in a statement. If convicted, the couple would receive life in prison."
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US Couple Arrested For Transmitting Nuclear Secrets In Sting Operation

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  • by Pojut (1027544)

    75 and 67 years old? Jeebus.

    • Re:FTFA (Score:4, Interesting)

      by StikyPad (445176) on Friday September 17, 2010 @07:37PM (#33616394) Homepage

      I don't understand why people (continue to) try to sell government secrets. The risk of getting caught far outweighs the potential reward; especially if you can't spend any of it without drawing attention.

      If you want to sell "secrets", join a bank.. nobody gives a shit about leaked customer information.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Thiez (1281866)

        At that age, 'life in prison' probably isn't much of a deterrent. The potential reward may well outweigh a decade of imprisonment.

        • Re:FTFA (Score:5, Insightful)

          by grantek (979387) on Friday September 17, 2010 @07:46PM (#33616450)

          At that age, 'life in prison' probably isn't much of a deterrent. The potential reward may well outweigh a decade of imprisonment.

          especially if the reward isn't for you, and is for family members/loved ones

          • Re:FTFA (Score:4, Insightful)

            by StikyPad (445176) on Friday September 17, 2010 @09:31PM (#33616970) Homepage

            Au contraire: the time life you have left, the more valuable it becomes. That's 0 more birthdays, holidays, or weekends spent with the grandkids, and they with you. You didn't just gamble with your own future, but everyone who cares about you as well.

            The thing that surprises me (though I guess it shouldn't, given the number of incidents) is that while I might expect someone working at McDonalds to be both stupid and desperate enough to try to do something like that, I would have hoped that someone working at a nuclear research facility with access to TS information would be neither stupid nor desperate.

            And the irony is that knowing *how* to make a nuclear weapon isn't even a well kept secret.. AT ALL. Someone offering to pay lots of money for that information should have been a huge red flag, even absent any other moral, ethical, or practical concerns.

            • Re:FTFA (Score:5, Insightful)

              by Defenestrar (1773808) on Friday September 17, 2010 @10:05PM (#33617094)

              And the irony is that knowing *how* to make a nuclear weapon isn't even a well kept secret.. AT ALL.

              True in some senses. Most junior high kids interested in the physical sciences could describe a gun type or spherical type fission bomb. One might even get the concept of the implosion lens (make the shockwaves match up & stuff).

              Knowing the general theory isn't exactly the same as: make a hemisphere of diameter X out of alloy Y, or: blend explosives A, B, C, D in the gradient {a, b, c, d}, or perhaps: the tritium concentration must be above n mass percent, or maybe: the neutron flux shall be Z or thou shalt surely fail in epic fashion.

              We went through a lot of atolls worth of data to get the specifics of our top secret data. Depending on what's leaked you've eliminated a lot of obvious R&D (especially to the IAEA) and given somebody a highly advanced warhead (Firefox 3 vs Lynx 1).

              Some people claim that the declassified or otherwise published data has not been altered and has pretty precise blueprints, but until someone verifies that through a DIY atol removal, I think there's a decent chance that at least some of the information has been cleverly and subtly altered before public release. Otherwise I'd have expected quite a few more nuclear powers given the easy information. [wikipedia.org]

              • Re:FTFA (Score:5, Interesting)

                by Teancum (67324) <robert_horning@n ... t ['etz' in gap]> on Saturday September 18, 2010 @12:01AM (#33617526) Homepage Journal

                This is so true. Anybody with a general understanding of radioactive isotopes is likely going to be able to make something akin to the "Little Boy" or the "Fat Man" bombs that were used on Japan. In the realm of nuclear bombs, those were puny little things that were unbelievably heavy and inaccurate as well. It is sort of hard to miss a target the size of a city, so that wasn't a problem when they were used.

                The trick, as you have pointed out, is to make the bombs small enough to be practical in terms of their delivery and to perhaps amplify the yield to give a genuinely powerful punch. Getting the size of a warhead to a manageable size is the key to much of the research, and to be able to know how to compress the fissionable metal sufficiently to initiate the chain reaction.

                I've seen some magazines, notably an old issue of Analog, that even had a special supplement labeled "give this to your local terrorist" that went into depth about how to make nuclear weapons... at least some crude enough to get the job done. It also gave a rather detailed description of centrifuges necessary to get the material to a concentrated form from material found in a nuclear power plant... with a rather gruesome description of the medical problems nuclear materials workers need to be concerned about unless you have gobs of money necessary to build the proper facilities to get everything put together.

                That is ultimately the largest problem with nuclear weapons: It needs the resources of a major nation-state in order to get one put together. You can trade real estate for cost.... which isn't too bad if you are a 3rd world dictator. Something like that sticks out like a sore thumb if it is done by a group trying to stay covert. Certainly no country is going to be unaware that nuclear bombs are being developed within that country, and it will never happen in a place like Somalia or Tuvalu.

                Even once the bomb is built, unless that country is prepared to use the bomb immediately (with the massive consequences for doing that), the bombs become even more expensive in terms of basic security (making sure somebody other than the leaders of that country are not going to use those weapons) and maintaining the infrastructure necessary for simply hanging onto those weapons. Basically, there isn't a strong compelling reason to even have these weapons unless you are in a life or death struggle for national survival or are one of the top major economic and military powers in the world.

              • Re:FTFA (Score:4, Informative)

                by georgewilliamherbert (211790) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @03:29AM (#33618224)

                The Wikipedia article is intentionally not useful for designing anything.

                However, we do have an online textbook (at roughly upper-division engineering/physics college student difficulty level) on the subject:
                    http://www.nuclearweaponarchive.org/Nwfaq/Nfaq0.html [nuclearweaponarchive.org]

                In terms of what's been published online -

                * There's a book with precise dimensional drawings and measurements on the Little Boy type Uranium gun type bomb. Not online, but purchasable at Amazon. It's not "a blueprint" but any competent draftsman / mechanical engineer could produce blueprints to build from, given the book.

                * The dimensions and materials of all the layers of the Fat Man / Mark 1 type nuclear weapons are published in numerous sources. The precise shape of the lens in the outer layer has not been, though a rough back-of-the-envelope version of the equation for the lens shape is published. A precise and buildable lens shape would require someone with a fair talent in explosives engineering and shockwave engineering, especially someone aware of what the published equation left out, but the Fat Man design is fundamentally so brick-solid-simple that one could get the lens fairly imprecise and still have a functional weapon.

                Some effort has gone into not actively publishing newer weapon design details in public. But that's not nearly the same as "they're not out". A number of more modern weapons are understood to at least close to the level Fat Man and Little Boy are. There are accurate internal component photos declassified for some weapons and parts. There are detailed hands-on descriptions of some parts, by people who worked on them. Check out the Wikipedia article on the B61 bomb, for example; the fission and fusion components were shown in a declassified film (but not the explosives to compress the fission parts).

            • by caerwyn (38056)

              The problem is not that these people are *stupid*; rather, it's that they think they're smarter than they are. They convince themselves that they're smart enough not to get caught.

              Also: knowing how to make a modern nuclear weapon is a lot harder, and a lot more of a secret, than you'd think. A dirty bomb of the sort we dropped on Hiroshima? No, not necessarily. A hydrogen bomb? That's an order of magnitude more difficult, and requires a huge amount of engineering effort to shape everything properly. There a

            • by sznupi (719324)

              Unless they see it on just slightly(*) grander scales - most generally, securing their valued group / etc. And close to the end of their own life anyway.

              (*)Without checking, tell me in which year and city your great-grandmother from the side of your father & grandmother was born...
              And that was just a blink of an eye ago, all things considered. We often don't think that much about our recent ancestors; likewise about future descendants.

          • Or if you're not doing it for the money, but for ideological reasons.

        • by McGiraf (196030)

          Money is not the only reward. They could be doing it for moral, political, nationalist, patriotic reasons, watever.

           

      • Re:FTFA (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Starteck81 (917280) on Friday September 17, 2010 @07:50PM (#33616470)
        People risk their life for less of a potential reward every day. Think of the average solider or firefighter.
      • by mangu (126918) on Friday September 17, 2010 @08:51PM (#33616786)

        "If convicted, the couple would receive life in prison."

        The Rosenberg couple received *death* in prison.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Rogerborg (306625)
        They'll be better looked after in prison than on Social Security. No joke.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by an00bis (667089)

          They'll be better looked after in prison than on Social Security. No joke.

          This is the truth, why was this marked as Troll?

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by ultranova (717540)

            This is the truth, why was this marked as Troll?

            Because it contradicts the "welfare queens and retirees suck up our tax money" meme, and might even imply that the amount paid by Social Security is insufficient.

      • and many think they will hit it big alleviating them from having to save for their retirement.

      • Re:FTFA (Score:5, Insightful)

        by JWSmythe (446288) <jwsmytheNO@SPAMjwsmythe.com> on Saturday September 18, 2010 @12:33AM (#33617670) Homepage Journal

        The risk of getting caught far outweighs the potential reward;

            There's a problem with your understanding of the crime. Us normal folks (those without DoD clearances, who'd never be offered millions for anything we know) only hear about the people who are caught.

            Think of it as smaller crimes. Have you ever known someone who was a drug dealer or user? You don't have to answer that. :) Sure, we see the news where drug dealers and users are arrested, killed, etc, etc, etc. What you don't necessarily know about is that for every name or face that shows up in the news, there are thousands of people involved with that industry. The reason for the publicity of such events isn't to slow down those who are actively doing it, it's to persuade people who may get into that line of work that it's horribly dangerous.

            By the sound of the story, they were framed. A retired couple, one who was laid off years ago. The other probably wasn't making great money. Between the two of them, they had sensitive information and knowledge. The FBI sting involved pretending to be a foreign national offering up almost 1 million dollars.

            If you were an old retired couple, barely making ends meet with your pension, doesn't a million dollars in cash sound like a nice way to live the rest of your life? As it appears, they didn't actively pursue such a sale. The FBI staged the whole international secrets crime.

            So, what comes of all of this? The couple may end up in prison for the rest of their lives. Other government workers will think twice about giving up any sort of information for any amount of cash. The smart ones (the ones who don't get caught) will still commit crimes such as this. The stupid ones (the ones who do get caught) will make headlines again when they work out a deal with the FBI to commit such a crime.

            All the FBI managed to do was bust a couple who probably wouldn't have committed the crime in the first place. We all have our price, it just matters how gullible you are, and how much it would cost to buy you off. Would I accept $1 million? Probably not. $1 billion and guaranteed protection in another country? I'd have to think about it.

            Sadly enough, we're arresting people now for actions that were encouraged of skilled people years before. The United States accumulated many great scientists and military experts. Surely many of them were bribed in one way or another. Much of that will never make it to the history books.

    • Re:FTFA (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 17, 2010 @08:22PM (#33616652)

      75 and 67 years old?

      Yeah, that's about the right age. 10 and 2 the day the Bomb was dropped on Japan in 1945. 17 and 9 the day the H-Bomb was tested in 1952. 24 and 16 the day the Russkies launched Sputnik in 1959. Perfect timing for a young adult or child to get inspired by the prospects of a career in science and engineering, and to subsequently find themselves in their 30s (or 20s) at a weapons lab building the World's Biggest Fireworks during the heyday of Cold War bomb design.

      (What, you think NASA built all those rockets just to beat the Russians to the moon? Manned spaceflight, satellite phones, GPS, and Google Maps are all spinoffs from things that were fundamentally cold war-era military projects: a fleet of reliable ICBMs, communications systems, navigation and targeting systems, and spy satellites.)

      The present-day stockpile stewardship has led to lots of interesting advances (with civilian applications) in supercomputing, solid state physics, and helped out with the monitoring/cleanup of old nuclear sites, but when it comes to practical applications, most of the folks are going to be old. (Any young adult growing up today - in the post-test-ban treaty era - that considers a career in this direction is aware they'll still be dealing with very interesting problems... but that the closest they'll ever get to knowing if it really works is in the form of analyzing the results from subcritical tests or from computer simulations.)

      I don't have a need to know if there are many (or any) young nuclear weapons designers today, but I suspect that since we haven't fielded a new design in decades, that much of weapons design is rapidly approaching the "lost knowledge" stage, and the demographic is akin to that grizzled (but brilliant!) old guy who still knows how to fix a mechanical typewriter or tune a carburetor.

      Much like the WW2 vets, the people of the Manhattan Project aren't going to be around much longer - and the second generation of weaponeers (who worked on the bombs that brought us the Cold War) is also getting pretty damn long in the tooth. Here's hoping the young'uns at the labs - even if they can never talk about the lost knowledge they've preserved - are at least taking steps to preserve the stories of the people who came before them. Because there are (and shouldn't be!) publicly-accessible papers on much of this research, it's even more vital that the labs who did the engineering (and who are entrusted with the responsibility of keeping it under wraps) to take steps to record, preserve, and secure the history for the next generation of engineers.

      Fuck these two asshats for leaking secrets. But here's a pseudonymous note of civilian thanks to the vast majority of you old fogies who did keep true to your oaths. You did some damn fine engineering while keeping secret the things that needed to remain secret. We random civilian nerds will never (and given the state of the world, probably should never!) have a chance to fully appreciate just how good the engineering was, but from what you have been permitted to declassify so far... yeah, pretty damn good. You gave us a world in which Fallout 3 was a fun video game, not a reality TV show. Thanks!)

      • Well that was non sequitur.

  • by guanxi (216397) on Friday September 17, 2010 @07:49PM (#33616464)

    If you read the TFA, you will learn that the government of Venezuela was not involved at all. The accused didn't sell secrets to anyone but an undercover FBI agent. While trying to sell nuclear secrets to a foreign government is definitely a problem, it's not true that they were "giving nuclear secrets to Venezuela".

    • by Eternal Vigilance (573501) on Friday September 17, 2010 @08:41PM (#33616750)
      Yeah, I found that little bit of propaganda to be exceptionally vile when I first read of this a few hours ago.

      But for the U.S. it's demonize two birds with one stone: The Feds get to play up the fear of nuclear terrorists, and plant the next-after-Iran seed in the public's mind as well.

      Even though Venezuela wasn't involved at all, just watch how many "news" outlets echo the "Venezuela's stealing U.S. secrets and building nukes" part of the headline.

      So it's win-win for the U.S. government. Who among them cares whether it's true?

      "US Couple Arrested For Transmitting Child Pornography To President Obama."
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by DNS-and-BIND (461968)
      If you read TFA, you will discover that they THOUGHT they were selling secrets to Venezuela. Very disingenuous there. Would they have sold the secrets to Zambia, or Bulgaria? Spies often act from idealogical reasons, not financial ones.
  • What the hell would Venezuela want nuclear weapons for anyway??

  • what about the time homer simpson let that kid in the foreign exchange in to the plant and give him all kind of plans as well?

  • by sokoban (142301) on Friday September 17, 2010 @08:15PM (#33616602) Homepage

    As frightening as a nuclear Venezuela is, I'd be more scared by a nuclear Vuvuzela.

    • As frightening as a nuclear Venezuela is, I'd be more scared by a nuclear Vuvuzela.

      I'd be willing to pay you 500$ if you can provide me with the actual plans for such a device. Consider it as a deterrent against my early-bird neighbour's lawnmower.

  • by Kaenneth (82978) on Friday September 17, 2010 @08:18PM (#33616630) Homepage Journal

    They wanted me to build them a bomb, so I took their plutonium and in turn, gave them a shiny bomb-casing filled with used pinball machine parts.

  • by mspohr (589790) on Friday September 17, 2010 @08:21PM (#33616648)
    It sounds like these people had "brilliant ideas" for improving nuclear FUSION but were rebuffed by the people at the lab and later by congressional staffers. They could have been brilliant or just a little disconnected from reality.

    It appears that in a desperate attempt to fund their FUSION research, they tried to contact foreign governments with information on building a FISSION bomb (plans downloaded from the Internet) so the FBI obliged by providing a fake Venezuelan contact to trap them.

    This is just sad.

  • Venezuela (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Doc Ruby (173196) on Friday September 17, 2010 @11:38PM (#33617434) Homepage Journal

    Note that this story says absolutely nothing about whether or not Venezuela actually has any nuclear programme or ambitions. The only "Venezuela" in this story is a fake one, made up to sting these traitors.

    But this story does tell us something about how Americans have been led to believe that Venezuela does aspire to get a nuke. It's not clear exactly what it tells us about that, but it tells us something about it.

  • by Animats (122034) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @12:40AM (#33617680) Homepage

    The big secrets are out. Everybody understands generally how an atomic bomb works. There remain smaller secrets, along the lines of construction tips. Machining plutonium is very difficult; in addition to being radioactive and poisonous, it has weird physical properties - it expands when heated, but doesn't contract fully when cooled, because the crystalline structure changes. The detailed techniques for doing that and compensating for the changes aren't public knowledge. Exactly how plutonium behaves when compressed by a shock wave is still being studied. [llnl.gov] The tricks by which atomic bombs are made smaller and more efficient are not well known. There are neutron reflectors, tampers, and such. The data from the experimental work to develop those items is still classified.

    Developing that data independently requires a sizable research operation. All the big nuclear powers had to build big R&D operations to struggle with those problems. (Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea probably used leaked data from one of the big powers.)

    The interesting question with this guy is whether this guy fed the FBI real classified data, or just faked up some plausible design numbers.

What the scientists have in their briefcases is terrifying. -- Nikita Khruschev

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