An engineer who worked for decades as a federal defense contractor has been arrested on charges of trying to pass classified information to someone he thought was a Russian agent but who was actually an undercover FBI employee, the Justice Department said Thursday.
The FBI conducted an undercover operation against John Murray Rowe Jr., 63, of South Dakota, after he was fired from his job for security violations and because he had been identified as a potential insider threat, federal officials said.
As part of the investigation, over an eight-month period beginning in March 2020, Rowe traded more than 300 emails with an undercover FBI employee who posed as a Russian agent, the government said. Rowe shared operational details about U.S. military fighter jets in one email, and in another, said: “If I can’t get a job here then I’ll go work for the other team,” according to court documents.
Court records do not list a lawyer for Rowe. Prosecutors say Rowe had worked for nearly 40 years as a test engineer for defense contractors and held security clearances.
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He was fired in March 2018 from an unnamed company involved in aerospace matters after prosecutors say he tried to bring a thumb drive into a classified space and asked whether he could simultaneously possess a U.S. government security clearance and a Russian government clearance.
After that, authorities say, he was approached by an undercover FBI agent who posed as an agent of the Russian government. They met at a hotel in South Dakota, where Rowe said he'd be interested in moving to Russia and giving information to its government, according to an FBI agent's affidavit.
“I’ve been saying this to people. I said, ‘I’m gonna go work for the Russians. I’ve been saying that for the last two years,’” Rowe is quoted in the affidavit as saying. “We heard you. That’s why I’m here," the undercover agent said in response.
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Prosecutors say he then began communicating with another FBI employee based in Philadelphia who was posing as the same Russian agent. During a lengthy email exchange that spanned months, he shared information about electronic countermeasure systems used by U.S. fighter jets and again conveyed his interest in moving to Russia.
In other emails, according to the affidavit, Rowe discussed plans to travel to Pennsylvania to meet the undercover agent in person as well as other people he thought were Russian government agents.
Rowe was due in federal court in South Dakota on Friday. He was arrested Wednesday night in Lead, South Dakota, on a charge of attempting to communicate national defense information to aid a foreign government — which carries a potential life sentence.
The charge comes two months after a Maryland couple was arrested in a separate espionage case. In that case, prosecutors said, Jonathan Toebbe offered government secrets to someone he thought was a representative of a foreign government but who was actually an undercover FBI employee. Toebbe's wife, Diana, is charged with acting as a lookout at several dead-drop locations at which sensitive information was left behind.
The couple has pleaded not guilty.
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