Albuquerque, N.M. (AP) – A disgruntled, former Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist promised to build 40 nuclear weapons for Venezuela in 10 years and design a bomb targeted for New York City in exchange for "money and power," according to secret FBI recordings released Wednesday.
"I'm not an American anymore. This is it."
- Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni, former Los Alamos scientist
In the recordings, Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni tells an agent posing as a Venezuelan official that the bombs would prevent the United States from invading the oil-rich nation and brags to his wife that the passing of secrets would make him wealthy.
"I'm going to be the boss with money and power," the naturalized U.S. citizen from Argentina is heard saying. "I'm not an American anymore. This is it."
Mascheroni said his New York bomb wouldn't kill anyone but would disable the city's electrical system and help Venezuela become a nuclear superpower. It was not known how realistic his New York bombing idea was.
But he suggested that once Venezuela obtained a bomb, the country should explode it "to let the world know what we've got," according to the recordings.
The recordings were played Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque before a federal judge sentenced Mascheroni, 79, to five years in prison followed by three years of supervised release as part of a plea agreement.
Mascheroni and his wife, Marjorie Roxby Mascheroni, pleaded guilty in 2013 to offering to help develop a nuclear weapon for Venezuela through dealings with an undercover FBI agent posing as a representative of the South American country.
His wife received a year and a day in prison for conspiring with her husband to sell nuclear secrets.
The U.S. government did not allege Venezuela sought U.S. secrets.
Despite the evidence and the plea agreement, federal prosecutor Fred Federici said Pedro Mascheroni refused to admit he did anything wrong and has tried to argue that he was the victim of the federal government trying to trap him after being critical of U.S. nuclear policy.
"He was no true hero," Federici said. "He was simply a man who betrayed his country."
Speaking to a judge, Mascheroni was defiant and said that if his case had gone to trial, a federal jury would have acquitted him. He said the information he passed onto the agent was already available online or simply was made up.
"I was basically selling used cars," Mascheroni said during a long tirade in federal court that had to be interrupted by U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson. "What I was selling was completely science fiction."
Before his indictment, Mascheroni was under investigation for about a year. The FBI had seized computers, letters, photographs, books and cellphones from the couple's Los Alamos home.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Mascheroni said he believed the U.S. government was wrongly targeting him as a spy and denied the accusations.
The scientist said he approached Venezuela after the United States rejected his theories that a hydrogen-fluoride laser could produce nuclear energy.
Mascheroni worked in the nuclear weapons design division at the Los Alamos lab from 1979 until he was laid off in 1988. His wife, a technical writer, worked there between 1981 and 2010.
He told The AP that he was motivated by his belief in cleaner, less expensive and more reliable nuclear weapons and power. He began approaching other countries after his ideas were rejected by the lab and, later, congressional staffers.