York County engineer pleads guilty to attempted espionage

Peter Dujardin
Contact Reporterpdujardin@dailypress.com
Navy engineer pleads guilty to attempted espionage

A York County man accused of turning over design drawings of the nation's newest aircraft carrier to a man he thought was a fellow spy from Egypt pleaded guilty in federal court Monday to one count of attempted espionage.

Under a plea agreement, Mostafa Ahmed Awwad, 36 — who lived in York's Coventry subdivision and worked as an engineer at Norfolk Naval Shipyard — faces between eight and 11 years in prison when he's sentenced Sept. 21 by U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson.

"The government agrees that a sentence in the range of eight to 11 years … is an appropriate disposition of the case," according to a statement of facts agreed to by both sides on Monday.

The death penalty — also a potential punishment for attempted espionage — is off the table under the deal accepted by Awwad, his attorney James Broccoletti, and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Benjamin L. Hatch and Joseph E. DePadilla.

The charge of attempted espionage was added to the case just this month.

The original charges against Awwad — two counts of attempted exportation of defense articles and technical data — were dropped as part of the plea agreement. Those charges carried a maximum prison term of 40 years behind bars.

The plea agreement also calls for Awwad to forfeit property derived from the crime, including $4,500 in a Wells Fargo bank account. That's equivalent to what court documents say an undercover FBI agent paid Awwad in return for the warship's designs.

Though the aircraft carrier in question, the Gerald R. Ford, is being built at Newport News Shipbuilding, the Norfolk Naval Shipyard had the designs as the Navy yard plans to provide repair and maintenance to the ship once it's in the fleet.

"Today, Mr. Awwad is being held responsible for attempting to steal the valuable plans for the USS Ford and to provide them to a foreign government," U.S. Attorney Dana J. Boente said in a statement. "This office is committed to safeguarding our nation's sensitive defense information, and we will bring to justice those who seek to steal it.

"This case underscores the persistent national security threat posed by insiders stealing critical national defense information in order to benefit foreign governments," added Randall C. Coleman, the FBI's assistant director for counterintelligence.

Broccoletti said it made sense for his client to plead guilty.

"The sentence (called for in the plea agreement) is below what the recommended guidelines would be for the nature of the offense," he said. "There were a number of reasons that he didn't want to go forward to trial, and he entered the plea to resolve the case to everyone's best interests."

Awwad "had no access to secret or top secret material," nor was the material that he turned over classified, Broccoletti said. Instead, he said, the schematics were in a broader category of "national defense" material.

Awwad was born in Saudi Arabia and came to the United States in 2007, becoming a U.S. citizen in 2012. He graduated from Old Dominion University in December 2013, and landed the job at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in early 2014.

He was arrested in early December 2014.

At a bond hearing late last year, prosecutors detailed several chilling conversations — recorded by both audio and video — that they said Awwad had with an undercover FBI agent whom he incorrectly believed to be an Egyptian intelligence officer.

During the conversations, prosecutors said Awwad called it his life's "mission" to provide Egypt with U.S. Navy technology, saying at one point that "Allah" has "made this possible."

Prosecutors said Awwad spoke of the critical parts of an aircraft carrier that could cause the warship to sink if they were struck.

"Even if we are not able to (construct) the carrier, you will be able to see how it can be hit and drowned," Awwad told the FBI agent, according to prosecutors. "The bomb bay. The bomb storage area. That's it. Bye-bye."

Awwad also spoke of a part of the carrier that he called "the floater."

"You break the floater like this, it's over," Awwad told the agent on the recording, a prosecutor said.

Prosecutors also said Awwad boasted of how he could install "bugs" on nuclear submarines when they come through Norfolk Naval Shipyard for routine maintenance. Since they come in so often, he told the agent, after a few years "you can have a bug in every submarine."

The Gerald R. Ford, set to be delivered to the Navy next March, will carry more than 4,000 service members while underway. A prosecutor said that the Ford's commanding officer told the FBI the design schematics that Awwad gave to the undercover agent "contain vulnerable areas" of the warship.

Prosecutors said at the bond hearing that Awwad's wife — the mother of his two toddler sons — knew nothing of his schemes. He even admitted that he maintained a secret bank account and a rented storage unit to keep his schemes from her, according to prosecutors.

One of Awwad's former lawyers, Keith K. Kimball, a federal public defender, said Awwad didn't have the level of access he boasted of and was simply "embellishing" his level of access for the undercover agent he thought was an Egyptian spy.

Dujardin can be reached by phone at 757-247-4749.

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