ALEXANDRIA, Va. – It's the first U.S. espionage trial in nearly 50 years that could end in a death sentence: A retired Air Force master sergeant, deeply in debt, is accused of offering satellite secrets to Saddam Hussein and others for more than $13 million in Swiss currency.
Barring a last-minute plea agreement, jury selection was to begin Monday in the case against Brian Patrick Regan in U.S. District Court.
His lawyers waged a late, unsuccessful fight to delay the trial because of a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq, one of the countries to whom Regan was accused of offering to sell secrets.
Legal experts said a plea avoiding trial this late was unlikely.
"I think you can assume any offers that were put on the table have been long-since rejected," said Lawrence S. Robbins. He was the losing defense lawyer in the last espionage trial, in 1997, when a federal jury convicted a married couple of spying for East Germany.
Full-blown spy trials in civilian courtrooms are rare. The Justice Department nearly always negotiates a plea agreement, even in cases where espionage has resulted in the deaths of America's foreign agents.
That is because the government could suffer embarrassing disclosures of sensitive information in a public courtroom, including hints that could help other spies learn to evade detection and capture. The government also often needs the defendant's help to describe which secrets might have been handed over to foreign governments.
Leverage to negotiate a plea is so powerful that prosecutors complain about threats from defense lawyers that a public trial could expose their secrets.
"The government has to choose between dropping the charge or revealing the information," said Michael Woods, a former chief in the FBI spy-hunting unit that investigated Regan.
Citing national security, U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee barred the public and reporters from attending some earlier hearings in Regan's case.
Defense lawyers have pored over classified documents for weeks at the federal courthouse inside a secure room where cellular telephones and pagers are not allowed.
Two other lawyers in the 1997 espionage case with Robbins, James Clyde Clark and Joseph John McCarthy, are among four court-appointed attorneys for Regan.
In that case, Therese Marie Squillacote, a former Defense Department lawyer, was sentenced to nearly 22 years in prison; her husband, Kurt Alan Stand, got more than 17 years.
Regan retired from the Air Force in August 2000 to work for a defense contractor in the National Reconnaissance Office. He was pulled off a flight to Zurich, Switzerland, at Dulles International Airport one year later by FBI spy-hunters, who had been secretly following him and videotaping him inside his office for months.
The FBI said it found on Regan a spiral notebook with codes describing images of a missile launcher in the northern no-fly zone over Iraq and of another launcher in China.
Agents said Regan also carried, tucked inside his right shoe, addresses he found on the Internet showing locations for embassies in Switzerland and Austria for the governments of Iraq, China and Libya.
On Regan's home computer, the FBI said it found a dramatic letter drafted to Saddam Hussein offering details about American satellites that could help Iraq hide its anti-aircraft missiles. The letter demanded $13 million in Swiss francs and complained that movie stars and athletes make more money.
"If I am going to risk my life and the future of my family, I am going to get a fair price," the letter said.
Court records indicate that Regan, a father of four, carried debts of at least $53,000 at the time. Prosecutors have said they would introduce Regan's credit-card and banking records during the trial.
Regan has pleaded innocent to three counts of attempted espionage and one additional count of illegally gathering national security information.
The Bush administration has taken an unusually aggressive posture against Regan, pledging to seek the death penalty if he is convicted. That is despite government indications it has little evidence Regan actually turned over any information and no evidence anyone died as a result of any alleged disclosures.
In espionage cases against the CIA's Aldrich Ames or the FBI's Robert Hanssen, the spying was tied directly to the executions of U.S. agents overseas. Following plea agreements, both were sentenced to life without parole.
"It does seem rather a perverse reality," said Paul Stevens, the legal adviser to the White House National Security Council in 1987. "But the paramount interest here is in preserving and protecting national security."
No U.S. citizen has been executed in an espionage case since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in June 1953, for revealing nuclear bomb secrets to the Soviet Union. The death penalty was re-enacted in 1994 as a punishment for peacetime espionage, although none of 11 people indicted for espionage since then has faced it.
"This may reflect a calculation on the part of the government that they need to show they are willing to try these cases," said Stewart Baker, former general counsel for the National Security Agency. "We're in a climate when the importance of maintaining secrets is likely to get a favorable response from a jury."
Regan's lawyers have spent much of their time focused on the threat of the death penalty, which they criticize as "arbitrary and irrational."
In one court filing, defense lawyers called his letter to Saddam "the alleged rantings of a retired Air Force master sergeant prepared in what appears to be an effort to scam a foreign government out of $13 million."
Defense lawyers also have indicated they would introduce evidence about Regan's mental health during any penalty phase, to help him escape a death sentence.