Former Aerospace Engineer Pleads Guilty to Misappropriation of Trade Secrets Intended for Iran

Although it appears that the U.S. and Iran are moving closer to a deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program, Iran’s allies appear to remain committed to acquiring military-grade technology from U.S. companies by way of engineers sympathetic to Iran.

According to an FBI press release, a former Pratt & Whitney engineer, Mr. Mozaffar Khazaee of Connecticut, pleaded guilty to violating the Arms Export Control Act by attempting to send to Iran export-controlled trade secrets (such as technical manuals, specification sheets, etc.) relating to jet engines used in the U.S. Air Force’s F35 Joint Strike Fighter program and F-22 Raptor program. He now faces a possible 20 years in prison. The investigation revealed that Mr. Khazaee misappropriated the materials from at least three different defense contractors where he has worked since 2009. Mr. Khazaee is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Iran.

According to court documents, federal law enforcement agents began investigating Khazaee in November 2013 when U.S. Customs officers, assisted by Homeland Security special agents, inspected a shipment that Khazaee sent by truck from his home in Connecticut to a freight forwarder located in Long Beach, California.  The shipment was intended for Iran. The bill of lading for Khazaee’s shipment indicated that it contained household goods, but inspectors discovered that the shipment contained numerous boxes of technical manuals, specification sheets, and other proprietary material on the F-35 and F-22 programs in the form of hardcopy documents and electronic media.

The evidence gathered suggests none of this was by accident. Many documents were labelled as “Export-Controlled,” or stamped with “ITAR-controlled” warnings. Forensic analysis of Khazaee’s computer and storage media revealed emails and letters from 2009 through 2013, in which he sought employment with numerous state-controlled technical universities in Iran. According to the FBI, Khazaee described the knowledge and skills he acquired while working for U.S. defense contractors and wrote: “[a]s lead engineer in these projects I have learned some of the key technique[s] that could be transferred to our own industry and universities.” Khazaee stated that he was “looking for an opportunity to work in Iran, and . . . transferring my skill and knowledge to my nation.”

When investigators approached Khazaee’s former employers, they confirmed that none of the documents were permitted to be removed from company premises, but did not explain why their removal was not detected earlier.

Investigators linked the boxes containing the documents to Khazaee by identifying his fingerprints on the boxes, finding hand written materials that matched Khazaee’s script in his passport and elsewhere, and finding “prescription medication containers imprinted with  Khazaee’s name,  Khazaee’s college documents, emails to and from  Khazaee, an expired Iranian passport appearing to belong to Khazaee, and credit card bills addressed to him at his residence in Manchester, Connecticut”.

Khazaee is not alone in trying to help Iran. A quick review of the Justice Department’s January 2015 summary of major U.S. export enforcement cases revealed many investigations relating to Iran.

For example, in December 2014, Jae Shik Kim, a citizen of South Korea, was indicted by a federal grand jury in the District of Massachusetts for exporting military-grade accelerometers from the U.S. to Iran without a license.  Kim was the president and CEO of Karham Eng., Corp., a company located in Seoul, South Korea.  From December 2007 until his apprehension, Kim and his company conspired with individuals in China and Iran to procure U.S.-made aircraft parts used in the navigation systems of aircraft and missiles as well as U.S.-made pressure transducers.  Pressure transducers can be used in gas centrifuges to enrich and produce weapons-grade uranium.

In a second reported investigation, on December 4, 2014, in the Northern District of Illinois, Nicholas Kaiga of Brussels and London pleaded guilty to one count of attempting to violate export control regulations.  Kaiga allegedly attempted to export aluminum tubes controlled for nuclear non-proliferation purposes from a company in Schaumburg, IL, through Belgium, to a company in Malaysia, without an export license. According to the complaint affidavit and indictment, the Schaumburg company began cooperating with law enforcement in December 2007, after a person in Iran attempted to purchase 7,075 aluminum tubes from the Schaumburg company.

Given the threat to all nations posed by the proliferation of military technology, companies with sensitive technology need to be extra vigilant in preventing their technology from falling in the wrong hands.