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Veteran's Spy Trial to Begin

Brian Regan is accused of trying to sell secrets to Iraq and others. He faces the death penalty.

January 27, 2003|Rick Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A retired Air Force sergeant -- who in a letter to Saddam Hussein expressed frustration at the size of his government pension -- goes on trial today in federal court, accused of attempting to sell secrets about U.S. spy satellites to Iraq, Libya and China.

Although the indictment against him does not say whether he turned over any secrets or received any money, Brian Patrick Regan, 40, faces the death penalty in a case that shows how gravely the Justice Department views security breaches after the Sept. 11 attacks. The government has not executed anyone in an espionage case since June 19, 1953, when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death in the electric chair for passing secrets to the Soviet Union.

The FBI apprehended Regan on Aug. 23, 2001, as he was attempting to board a flight to Zurich, Switzerland, at Dulles International Airport in suburban Washington. He has pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted espionage and one count of illegally gathering national defense information. The case is being tried in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va.

The government's indictment alleges that Regan schemed to trade on his access to the Intelink -- the U.S. intelligence community's classified version of the Internet -- in return for $13 million.

Regan's court-appointed attorneys have attempted to portray him as a hapless spy who never endangered the lives of U.S. agents. One of his lawyers, Nina J. Ginsberg, of Alexandria, who has represented defendants in several other espionage cases, said in court papers that the decision to seek the death penalty against Regan is "disproportionate to the alleged crime" and "arbitrary and irrational."

Of 11 espionage cases brought by federal prosecutors since 1994, none other than Regan's have involved the death penalty; only one defendant, FBI turncoat Robert P. Hanssen, whom the government considers responsible for the deaths of three U.S. informants and the unmasking of up to 50 agents in Russia, received even a life sentence, defense papers assert.

But prosecutors contend that Regan created a "grave risk of death" to U.S. military pilots patrolling the "no-fly" zones over Iraq, court papers show. U.S. Atty. Paul J. McNulty has accused Regan of "exceptional planning and premeditation" in plotting his espionage, asserting that he put his greed ahead of the safety of his former uniformed colleagues.

In court papers, the government's lawyers have indicated their belief that Regan "actually committed espionage" but acknowledge that the evidence may not be admissible during the trial.

According to the government, Regan began hatching his plot in January 1999, while he was an intelligence support analyst at the National Reconnaissance Office, an arm of the Defense Department that is responsible for building and operating the nation's vast array of spy satellites. He worked there initially for the Air Force and then as a contractor for TRW Inc. from October 2000 until his arrest 10 months later.

Prosecutors said that sometime between 1999 and 2001, Regan wrote to Hussein, the Iraqi president, asking for $13 million in exchange for information about U.S. satellites and other military secrets.

"I am willing to commit espionage against the United States by providing your country with highly classified information," he wrote, according to the indictment. "Thirteen million is a small price to pay to have someone within the heart of the U.S. intelligence agency providing you with vital secrets."

In his letter, Regan also reportedly carped about "the small pension I will receive" for his years in government. Movie stars and athletes receive "tens of millions of dollars a year for their trivial contributions," Regan allegedly wrote. "If I am going to risk my life and the future of my family, I am going to get paid a fair price." Regan is married and has four children.

He proposed to communicate through coded ads in the Washington Post and the Iraqi home page on the United Nations Web site, according to the indictment, which also alleges that in August 2000, he took steps to set up an offshore bank account in the Canary Islands.

Meanwhile, the government alleges, Regan was mining the Intelink for classified data and combing the public library near his home in Bowie, Md., a Washington suburb, for information about foreign embassies.

Besides offering intelligence about U.S. satellites, he peddled "as a bonus" confidential reports about "your adversary Iran," the government alleges.

When he was arrested, Regan was carrying a notebook that included the coded coordinates of a mobile surface-to-air missile launch facility in the northern no-fly zone of Iraq, according to the indictment.

According to the government, Regan had told his boss that he was taking that week off to visit Orlando, Fla., with his family.

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