Syrian agent working in US admits to spying and gets 18 months

A Virginia man was sentenced Friday to 18 months in prison after admitting he spied on U.S.-based Syrian dissidents while working with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Mohamad Soueid, 48, of Leesburg pleaded guilty earlier this year to acting as an unregistered foreign agent of the Syrian government. But his guilty plea had been under seal until Friday, when he was sentenced in federal court in Alexandria.

Court papers show Soueid, a car dealer who also went by the name of Alex Soueid, admitted sending video and audio recordings of Syrian dissidents to members of the Syrian intelligence agency, the Mukhabarat. He also personally discussed dissident activity in the U.S. with Assad in a private meeting in Syria last year. An associate of Assad gave Soueid a $6,000 Hablut watch at that meeting.

When Soueid was first charged in October, officials at the Syrian embassy denied Soueid was an agent for them or that he personally met with Assad, despite a photo showing the two shaking hands. At the time it called the accusation "absolutely baseless and totally unacceptable." A call and emails Friday to the embassy seeking comment were not immediately returned.

Soueid's attorney, federal public defender Michael Nachmanoff, said the sentence was a fair one. The 18-month term was much shorter than the six-year term sought by the government. The defense had argued for a one-year sentence. Soueid was also given credit for the nine months he has already served since his arrest.

"Mr. Soueid was motivated by a fear of Islamic extremism, and that is a real threat" as various groups battle for control in what is increasingly viewed as a civil war against Assad's secular regime. "This is a guy who believed, and still believes, that having Islamic extremists taking over is bad for Syria and bad for the U.S."

In court papers arguing for a lighter sentence, Nachmanoff wrote: "Like many other Americans, he has hoped that political uprisings in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere would lead to stable democracies. Unlike other Americans, however, he knows from his own life experience that political unrest in the Middle East could open the door for Islamic fundamentalists."

U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Neil MacBride, whose office prosecuted the case, said that Soueid's actions bolstered a regime that is murdering its own people.

"Mr. Soueid betrayed this country to work on behalf of a state sponsor of terror," MacBride said. "While the autocratic Syrian regime killed, kidnapped, intimidated and silenced thousands of its own citizens, Mr. Soueid spearheaded efforts to identify and intimidate those protesting against the Syrian government in the United States."

Prosecutors said in court papers that Soueid began working for Syrian intelligence in March 2011, when the uprising in Syria began. They say he provided dozens of video and audio recordings of U.S.-based dissidents, including nine video recordings that were otherwise unavailable publicly.

In a handwritten letter to his contact in Syrian intelligence, Soueid wrote, "Every Syrian, loyal to his country and believes (sic) in its leadership, does not doubt for a second that disposing of dissension is a must and should be decisive and prompt."

He continued, "Sir, this is a war; a psychological, media and military war that seeks to destroy Syria and its political independence."

The Justice Department announced Soueid's arrest and charges last year in a press release, and public hearings were held on whether Soueid should be detained pending trial. A magistrate initially ruled that Soueid was at most a minor figure and ordered bond, though a district court judge later overruled him and ordered Soueid jailed.

Despite the public nature of those proceedings, the entire case was placed under seal retroactively for a number of months "in order to protect compelling national security interests," prosecutors said in a court motion.