Customs agents in Long Beach were shocked after opening boxes labeled "House Hold Goods" bound for Iran and finding thousands of documents outlining secret information on the military's $392-billion fighter jet program.
The treasure trove of technical manuals, specification sheets and other proprietary material was being sent by Mozaffar Khazaee, a former engineer with military jet engine maker Pratt & Whitney, to the city of Hamadan in northwest Iran, authorities said.
A federal grand jury indicted Khazaee, 59, Tuesday on two counts of interstate transportation of stolen property. He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on each count.
The criminal case casts a pall over foreign-born workers handling sensitive government information, experts said. But they noted that some of the more notorious cases have involved U.S. citizens such as Edward Snowden, the analyst who leaked National Security Agency secrets.
In an affidavit summarizing the evidence against Khazaee, a special agent from the Department of Homeland Security said the government uncovered 44 boxes of material that contained technical data on military engines and the largest weapons program in history: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
"The documents contained language regarding the technical specifications of the JSF engine program, as well as diagrams, blueprints and other documentation relating to the inner workings of the jet's engine," the affidavit by special agent Breanne Chavez said.
"Several of the documents also bore markings indicating that they were the property of at least three defense contractors," it said. The companies are only identified as A, B and C.
Matthew C. Bates, spokesman at Pratt & Whitney, confirmed his company is part of the investigation, prompted by the seizure Nov. 26.
Khazaee worked at Pratt & Whitney for about two years, he said, and was let go last August "as a part of a company-wide reduction in force."
According to the affidavit, Khazaee became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1991 and held on to his Iranian citizenship as well. The government alleged that he sent the documents from his former home in Connecticut by truck to Long Beach to be shipped to his brother-in-law in Iran.
Khazaee was arrested Jan. 10 in New Jersey at Newark Liberty International Airport before he was able to board a connecting flight to Frankfurt, Germany. His final destination was Tehran.
Travel records and databases show that Khazaee traveled to Iran five times in the last seven years, the affidavit said.
The government did not speculate on what Khazaee intended to do with the technical information on the F-35 or any other program, including the after-burning F119 turbofan engine, developed by Pratt & Whitney. That engine powers the F-22 stealth fighter.
But John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a website for military policy, said the information was unlikely to be of much use to the Iranian Air Force, which has a fleet of F-14 Tomcats and F-5 Tigers. Those planes were acquired by the country before its revolution against the Shah in 1979.
"I don't think they would be able to do very much with supersonic cruise engines," Pike said. "At this point, we're talking about technology that's 40 years ahead."
The F-35 program is centered around one basic fighter plane design for joint use by the Air Force, Navy and Marines. The Pentagon's long-term vision is to replace today's aging fighter fleets with 2,457 F-35s starting in 2015 at a cost of $392 billion.
The plane is being built by Lockheed Martin Corp. in Fort Worth, Texas, but there are hundreds of companies such as Pratt & Whitney supplying the program. The unit of United Technologies Co. makes the jet engines for the F-35 in Middletown, Conn.
As an engineer, Khazaee had access to documents that included data restricted for distribution by the Arms Export Control Act, the affidavit said.
It is rare for foreign nationals to have access to such information, said Annalisa Weigel, a senior lecturer at MIT and a member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, an engineering society.
But when foreigners — such as Khazaee — become naturalized U.S. citizens, they achieve the ability to gain far more access to security-sensitive programs, she said.
Weigel worried that incidents such as Khazaee's indictment could reverberate through the community of foreign-born engineers, who already are barred from many aspects of the aerospace industry.
"There are many, too many, barriers to entry for foreign-born engineers," she said. "There is a backlog of good students who are eager to enter the workforce but can't because of current policies."
Lani Azahari, 31, an aviation engineer originally from Malaysia, for instance, has been trying to get a job in the aerospace industry since 2009. But she has been unable to break into the business because she is not a U.S. citizen and therefore cannot obtain a security clearance needed in many aerospace facilities.
Azahari said it is disheartening to see the allegations against Khazaee because the criminal charges could turn people against foreign engineers.
"It's not representative of the bulk of us who want to serve the country," she said.
Khazaee is being detained in New Jersey, awaiting his transfer to Connecticut to face the charges. He has yet to be arraigned in the case.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times