World and Nation

Zeal for dream drove scientist in secrets case

Many people who know P. Leonardo Mascheroni describe him as a maverick and a technology zealot. Now, the Justice Department will try to prove that he is dangerous, too — a man willing to sell atomic secrets in exchange for a chance to realize his dream.

Mascheroni, 75, is a nuclear scientist who has spent the 22 years since he left the Los Alamos National Laboratory trying to sell Congress, the scientific community, journalists — anyone who would listen, really — on his plan to build a giant laser for the achievement of nuclear fusion.

His plan earned respect and high-level endorsements, but the government chose a different path. Rather than give up, Mascheroni redoubled his campaign, sending out lengthy technical documents from his home in New Mexico to try to coax Washington to finance his laser.

“You’d get these fat FedEx packages,” said Steven Aftergood, a security expert at the Federation of American Scientists.

As he was snubbed by Congress and federal experts, Mascheroni, a naturalized citizen who was born in Argentina, grew increasingly frustrated and bitter. He became known in Washington for veiled threats to take his atomic expertise abroad unless the government backed his laser plan. He seemed to think that he could bully the federal establishment into big spending, according to people on the receiving end of his missives.

“He came at you like a force of nature,” recalled Matthew G. McKinzie, a former Los Alamos researcher who is now at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private group in Washington. “He and his coterie of followers at Los Alamos believed his approach could provide a source of limitless, clean energy for humanity.”

A 22-count indictment against Mascheroni, made public Sept. 17, quotes his wife, Marjorie, as saying that he would “make bombs” overseas “if they don’t listen to him in Washington.” She has been charged as a co-conspirator, and both of them have pleaded not guilty.

Mascheroni’s world began to crumble in October, when federal agents raided his home in Los Alamos, hauling away his computers and hundreds of paper files. When reached by phone, he said at the time that he was suspected of treason.

Clearly rattled, Mascheroni declared his innocence. He defended his actions, including his interactions with the man who had represented himself as a Venezuelan contact but who Mascheroni by then suspected — correctly — was an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“It was a way of getting attention in Congress” and trying to prompt hearings on Capitol Hill about the nation’s fusion program, he said of his decision to talk with the would-be foreigner.

“I told them, ‘If you don’t have hearings, I’m going to leave,”’ he said. “And they didn’t have hearings.”

Mascheroni conceded that the man had promised him a lot of money but insisted that he wanted it simply “to make a big case. It was political leverage. That’s the bottom line.”