An unlikely setting for global intrigue

Espionage: The Bowie man accused of offering to sell U.S. military secrets is the latest to bring notoriety to Crofton.

February 11, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Sandwiched between a Metro supermarket and a Chinese restaurant along Route 3, the old Crofton public library sits vacant, its windows broken and its glass doors locked. Only a ratty yellow chair inside and a silver book depository in the brick remind the few passers-by that the place was once a thriving learning center.

All of which makes it one of the most unlikely spy destinations since Whittaker Chambers' pumpkin patch led to the downfall of Alger Hiss during the Cold War.

It was in the old Crofton library two summers ago -- between children's storytelling hours and evening community meetings -- that FBI agents say they watched retired Air Force Master Sgt. Brian Patrick Regan search the Internet for Iraqi embassies in Switzerland, Germany and France.

Two months later, agents arrested the 40-year-old Bowie resident as he boarded a flight bound for Zurich at Dulles International Airport. Authorities said they found addresses for the Chinese and Iraqi embassies in Switzerland tucked into his wallet and his right shoe.

Regan, whose case went to a Virginia jury yesterday, is accused of offering to sell classified information, including satellite photos of missile sites, to Iraq, Libya and China, for $13 million.

As Regan's lawyers prepared for trial last fall, the Anne Arundel County Library's Crofton branch left its dark, crowded space in the strip mall and moved into a new, $7.5 million facility less than a mile away. Yesterday, as the jury contemplated Regan's fate, many library patrons were wondering about the spy who may have been among them.

"I might have seen him. It's crazy. But I'm not looking for that type of thing," said Ward Hostetler, a 68-year-old electrical contractor who does investment research in the library once a week.

A lifelong student of espionage history, Hostetler said his company did some electrical work at the International Spy Museum in Washington. Still, he said, "I probably couldn't pick him out of all the people using the computer right now."

Just a 10-minute ride from Fort Meade and the National Security Agency, Crofton is home to military intelligence workers and retirees, as well as federal and state law-enforcement officials.

The Regan affair is not the first taste of publicity for the town -- once so famous for its quiet lifestyle that Spiro T. Agnew decided to open an office there after resigning the vice presidency in disgrace.

The bedroom community of about 20,000, midway between Washington and Baltimore, gained worldwide attention last summer when anglers discovered the sharp-toothed, land-slithering northern snakehead fish lurking in a local pond -- which the state later poisoned.

The summer before that, Crofton drew national headlines when a young soccer referee reported that parents from an under-14 team followed her to her car and harassed her for making unfavorable calls.

As he checked his e-mail at the new library yesterday, Crofton resident and Baltimore police Officer Michael Thomas wondered whether he could have been sitting next to Regan during the summer of 2001.

Shown a courtroom sketch of Regan online, Thomas said the man didn't look familiar. But he's not sure he would have noticed Regan or what he was downloading -- computer users there have a strong keep-it-to-yourself etiquette and don't peek into one another's space. Though a couple of computers at the old library had privacy screens, the staff doesn't know whether Regan used them.

Regan may have felt so inconspicuous that he didn't bother to cover his tracks; FBI agents say they found the Iraqi addresses by hitting the "back" button on the computer when he left the library.

"You would have thought he would have used a grander scheme," Thomas said. "Maybe he didn't think he'd get caught because it was so simple."

If convicted, Regan could be the first American executed for spying since 1953, when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death after being convicted of leaking atomic secrets to the Russians.

It's not the first spy case to unfold in a tucked-away Maryland location.

More than 50 years ago, former Time magazine editor and acknowledged former Communist Whittaker Chambers told the House Committee on Un-American Activities that former State Department official Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy.

Asked to prove it, Chambers led investigators to a hollowed-out pumpkin on his Carroll County farm and produced microfilm of government documents he said Hiss had given him to pass on to Soviet agents. The Pumpkin Papers were born, Richard M. Nixon earned national attention and Hiss served 44 months of a five-year perjury sentence. Until his death in 1996, Hiss fought to clear his name.

At the Crofton library, patrons and staff find the story of the new facility much more interesting than the possibility that Regan may have used the old one for illicit activities.

Branch librarian Ruby Jaby points out the light maple furniture that complements the darker wood on the bookshelves. Through the floor-to-ceiling window, patrons can watch snowflakes blanket the trees and nearby subdivisions. Library users love the light, airy space and high-tech equipment. Not even the old terminals remain; the library replaced them with fast, sleek, black computers.

The library still has no restrictions on what patrons view online. But Jaby, who has managed the branch for 10 years, says she can't worry that any one of the hundreds of daily visitors could be the next Aldrich Ames.

"I don't think about that," she said. "I just think they're coming in and taking care of whatever their needs are -- and hope that those needs are not illegal."

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