Spy trial opens, could result in death penalty

Regan accused of offering secrets to Iraq and others

January 28, 2003|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ALEXANDRIA, Va. - Federal prosecutors began laying out their case yesterday in the espionage trial of Brian P. Regan of Bowie, who, if convicted, could become the first person in the United States to be executed for spying in a half-century.

In their opening remarks, the prosecutors depicted Regan as a calculating would-be spy who was willing to put his country at grave risk to pay off personal credit card debt. They charged that he had offered secret information to Iraq - to help it hide anti-aircraft missiles - and to Libya and China.

Regan's attorneys argued that he was a hapless would-be James Bond who sought only to rip off Saddam Hussein and that he never intended to give Iraq or any other country any information of value.

Whatever Regan's intentions were, no intelligence information that was in his possession appears to have made it out of the United States, which makes this a highly unusual death penalty case.

He has been charged only with attempted espionage and one related count.

If convicted and sentenced to death, Regan could become the first accused spy to be put to death in this country since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union and sent to the electric chair in 1953.

In almost every spy case since then, the government has sought a plea agreement, largely to avoid revealing secrets at a trial in open court. Prosecutors often use the threat of the death penalty to ferret out information from a defendant about how much damage the espionage caused.

Plea agreements

Robert P. Hanssen and Aldrich Ames, two of the most damaging spies in U.S. history, whose activities led to the deaths of numerous U.S. intelligence agents, were offered plea agreements and received sentences of life in prison.

Regan, a 40-year-old Air Force retiree, is accused of trying to sell information he obtained after he went to work for the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates U.S. spy satellites.

He was arrested in August 2001 at Washington Dulles International Airport as he boarded a flight to Switzerland. Authorities said Regan was carrying the addresses of other nations' embassies in his shoes, along with note paper depicting the locations of some targets of U.S. spy satellites.

At his home, prosecutors said, investigators found copies of letters written on a computer, replete with spelling errors and grammatical mistakes, addressed to Hussein and to Muammar el Kadafi, the Libyan leader.

Letter to Hussein

In the letter to Hussein, Regan asked for a payment of $13 million in exchange for "highly classified" information regarding U.S. satellites and other matters, prosecutors said.

The trial began after a year of legal wrangling and a week of jury selection in which prospective jurors were asked about their willingness to sentence someone to death even if no secrets made it into the hands of foreign adversaries. Those who said they would not do so were dismissed.

Yesterday, speaking to the jurors, Assistant U.S. Attorney Patricia Haynes argued that Regan had every intention of delivering as part of an intricate scheme that would have severely compromised U.S. security.

"Brian Regan's cost was $13 million," she said, pointing at him from behind a lectern. "For that price, he would betray his colleagues, his community and his country."

Regan, wearing a gray suit and white shirt, sat motionless throughout most of Haynes' hourlong remarks, focusing on a yellow notepad and writing an occasional note.

He did not appear to make eye contact with five of his relatives sitting behind him in the courtroom, even as he turned around to watch a video of himself at work that the prosecution presented.

His relatives leaned forward when he turned, trying in vain to catch his eye.

`Bad judgment'

Jonathan Shapiro, one of Regan's attorneys, disputed the government's arguments, portraying Regan as an accidental spy, calling his client's actions "bad judgment bordering on stupidity."

He said the evidence would show that Regan lived in a world of fantasy and thought he could play spy and extort money from other countries without giving them anything of value. If Regan had really wanted to sell out his country, Shapiro argued, he would have chosen from far more valuable information that he had access to.

Information `worthless'

"The evidence will show he never had any intent to harm the country," Shapiro said. "What Mr. Regan had with him was worthless. It wasn't even classified. And if it was passed on, no harm would have come to the United States, and that is something Brian Regan knew."

The prosecution appears to be gearing up for an effort to undercut that defense assertion, according to its witness list in court documents, which includes several intelligence agents from the National Reconnaissance Office.

Regan worked at the office, the secret operator of the nation's spy satellites, as a contractor at its headquarters in Chantilly, Va., until he was arrested.

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