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Internet-Savvy Australian Charged in Espionage Case

Security: FBI sting nets ex-analyst who is accused of negotiating demands by e-mail and downloading U.S. documents from his computer.

May 18, 1999|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — He used three aliases, three countries' passports and--in a new twist to an old story--three Internet e-mail accounts to negotiate his demands.

But on Monday, a former Australian intelligence analyst was charged with attempted espionage against the United States for allegedly selling more than 900 classified U.S. defense documents to an undercover FBI agent posing as a foreign spy.

The FBI said that Jean-Philippe Wispelaere, 28, had received $120,000 in exchange for two batches of secret and top secret U.S. defense documents, maps and photos. He was arrested Saturday afternoon at Dulles International Airport after the FBI lured him to U.S. soil from London, ending a carefully coordinated FBI sting involving hidden cameras, secret recordings and agents in half a dozen countries.

The case marked a much-needed success for the FBI and U.S. counterintelligence community, which have been reeling from allegations that Chinese spies have penetrated America's nuclear weapons laboratories for the last two decades.

The Australian case also shows how spying has changed in the cyber-age. Wispelaere communicated extensively via e-mail accounts on Hotmail.com, Altavista.com and Yahoo.com, using programs that concealed his identity. He also sold more than 100 classified U.S. documents that he had downloaded from a computer, according to court documents.

Wispelaere, a native of Canada, is an Australian citizen and worked for the Australian Defence Intelligence Organization in Canberra, the capital, from July 1998 to January 1999. That gave him access to top-secret U.S. information that is provided to Australia under joint defense treaties.

According to an FBI affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia, Wispelaere walked into the embassy of a third country on Jan. 18 in Bangkok, Thailand, and offered to sell classified U.S. documents. U.S. officials refused to identify the foreign country Monday.

The court papers say that Wispelaere identified himself as "Jeff Baker," the first of several false names he would assume, and said falsely that he worked for the U.S. National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which prepares classified maps for the U.S. military.

Most important, according to the affidavit, Wispelaere gave the embassy a brown envelope with a U.S. document inside marked "Secret." Also inside was a typed list of other classified documents that Wispelaere offered to provide for $500,000. Before leaving, he scribbled an e-mail address where he could be reached.

But the embassy apparently notified U.S. authorities and, on Feb. 18, an undercover FBI agent posing as an intelligence agent for the government Wispelaere had contacted wrote a return e-mail. The next few weeks saw e-mail messages flying back and forth until the FBI suggested that Wispelaere meet its phony spy at the Le Meridien President Hotel in Bangkok.

According to the affidavit, Wispelaere showed up on April 3. During a three-hour meeting, recorded on hidden video and audio tape, Wispelaere said that he had "a very dire, dire financial need" that included both a knee operation and "a [sigh] couple of other concerns, involving the females, unfortunately."

Wispelaere handed over a backpack filled with 713 classified documents, including 127 that he said he had downloaded from his computer. He was given $20,000 as a down payment and $50,000 more at a follow-up meeting the next day.

Then, on May 12, Wispelaere sent to a front address the FBI had created in Ashburn, Va., two packages containing "over 200 U.S. documents classified at the Secret and Top Secret levels," the affidavit states. The FBI wired $50,000 to an offshore account at a French bank, as Wispelaere had instructed.

At that point, the FBI sent an e-mail to Wispelaere inviting him to a meeting with their phony spy to review technical equipment in Washington. Instead, he found the FBI waiting for him.

He could face life in prison or even the death penalty.

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