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First death penalty spy case in 50 years begins in Virginia

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- The first spy trial in 50 years that could result in the death penalty opened Monday with prosecutors portraying a retired Air Force master sergeant as willing to sell out his country for a price and his lawyers saying he had nothing of value to offer.

Brian Patrick Regan is charged with offering classified information to Iraq, Libya and China. After a jury of seven women and five men was seated, opening statements were held in U.S. District Court.

"Brian Regan took an oath of loyalty to the United States. It is an oath he did not keep," Assistant U.S. Attorney Patricia Haynes told jurors.

She read a letter that Regan allegedly wrote to Saddam Hussein offering information to help Iraq hide anti-aircraft missiles in exchange for $13 million in Swiss francs.

"For that he would betray his colleagues, his community and his country," Haynes said.

Defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro said Regan never intended to betray the United States and had nothing valuable to sell even if he had intended to. Shapiro said all the information Regan allegedly offered could be obtained commercially.

"If Brian Regan had really wanted to sell out the United States, where's the evidence that he took something of value?" he asked.

"Countries around the world know that we are imaging them constantly. Because they know about it, they take precautions to hide what they want to hide."

Regan retired from the Air Force in August 2000 to work for a defense contractor in the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates spy satellites. A year later, FBI agents pulled Regan off a flight about to leave Washington for Zurich, Switzerland. They said he had a spiral notebook with codes describing images of missile launchers in the flight-interdiction zone of northern Iraq and in China.

The FBI said Regan's home computer contained the letter to Saddam seeking the money. Court records indicate that Regan, a father of four, was $53,000 in debt.

Under surveillance

Testifying for the government, FBI Special Agent Steven Carr said the agency had Regan under surveillance for weeks before he was arrested. He said the FBI tapped Regan's phone, videotaped him at work and tracked all of his computer keystrokes.

Carr, who led the FBI's investigation, said Regan copied information about missile facilities in Iraq and China and took it with him to the airport.

As Carr testified, Regan took notes on a legal pad and occasionally conferred with his lawyers.

If convicted, Regan could become the first American executed for spying since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953. The Rosenbergs were convicted of conspiring to steal U.S. atomic secrets for the former Soviet Union.

It's rare for a spy case to go to trial. The government usually would rather cut a deal than risk revealing in open court the ways it tracks spies.

Even when information provided by the CIA's Aldrich Ames or the FBI's Robert Hanssen led to the execution of U.S. agents overseas, the government avoided a trial and agreed to plea bargains through which both men were sentenced to life in prison without parole.

John Parry, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a specialist on the death penalty, said because of the Sept. 11 attacks, federal authorities may see it as important to seek capital punishment in a case involving alleged spying for two countries the State Department has labeled sponsors of terrorism, Libya and Iraq.

"There is a belief that this is worse espionage because of who is getting the material, and the risk and danger those people pose to our country," Parry said. "Giving things to the Russians is bad, but not threatening in the same way as giving things to irrational terrorists or those who support them."

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On the Net: Court: http://www.vaed.uscourts.gov/


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