WASHINGTON — The FBI and Army intelligence officers arrested a tank expert at an Army base outside Washington on suspicion of espionage Thursday, saying that he tried to pass classified military data to a "Soviet representative" who was actually an FBI undercover agent.
Sgt. Daniel Walter Richardson, a tank turret instructor at the Army's Aberdeen, Md., Proving Grounds, is confined at that post and could be held up to a week before being formally charged under the military justice code, an FBI spokesman said.
Under the code, he could face two espionage-related charges of attempting to deliver national defense information to a Soviet official, two charges of failing to report contact with a foreign government and single charges of theft of government property and unauthorized disposition of government property, the FBI said.
If charged and convicted on the espionage counts, Richardson could draw a life prison term.
A Pentagon spokesman said that Richardson is a 20-year veteran from Oakland assigned to the 601st Ordnance Battalion. He specializes in tank turret repair. The 42-year-old sergeant was arrested at noon Thursday at the Chesapeake House Holiday Inn near the Aberdeen base, a center for testing and development of Army weaponry.
FBI spokesman Gregory Jones and an Army spokesman refused to discuss details of the counterintelligence operation that led to his arrest.
A written statement issued by the FBI and the Army Intelligence and Security Command, or INSCOM, said that Richardson had "obtained information related to the national defense by virtue of his assignment." U.S. officials said he is accused of seeking to pass the Soviets classified data on tank turrets.
Jones said that no federal documents or property appear to have fallen into Soviet hands, though the charges indicate that Richardson did contact Soviet representatives at some point.
The sergeant appears to have been apprehended as part of a long-running FBI program in which undercover agents monitor the most common points of secret contact between foreign intelligence agents and U.S. citizens. The program, dubbed "Spider Web," was conceived by the bureau's intelligence division and promoted by former FBI Director William H. Webster, now director of central intelligence.
One operation under the program led to the December, 1985, arrest of Randy Miles Jeffries, a Washington courier who worked for a stenographic service that produced transcripts of classified congressional hearings. Jeffries admitted trying to sell stolen transcripts to an FBI agent posing as a Soviet official and was sentenced to three to nine years in prison.
In that case, the FBI testified, Jeffries was "overheard" telephoning the Soviet Military Office in Washington and offering to sell secret documents.
In a prepared statement, FBI Director William S. Sessions praised the "excellent cooperation" between his agency and INSCOM in the Richardson investigation.
"Ultimately, it is the mission of the intelligence community to identify and neutralize the threat posed by hostile intelligence services and their agents in the U.S.," Sessions said.
"This includes unauthorized contacts by American citizens who may desire to sell national defense information which would benefit our adversaries. These activities are taken seriously and vigorously investigated."