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NORFOLK -- A retired Navy cryptologist from Virginia Beach was arrested Thursday on a charge of trying to pass secret information to Russian agents.
Robert Patrick Hoffman II, a 20-year veteran who retired last year as a petty officer first class, was jailed pending a bond hearing Tuesday.
The charge of espionage or attempted espionage carries a maximum penalty of death, but the U.S. Attorney's Office said the government would not seek it. The maximum otherwise is life in prison.
Hoffman, 39, made an initial appearance in federal court Thursday afternoon. U.S. Magistrate Judge Tommy E. Miller told him he would be appointed two attorneys.
The FBI conducted a sting operation that snagged Hoffman, according to an indictment handed up Wednesday and unsealed Thursday.
Hoffman is accused of believing he was passing secret information to Russians "pertaining to methods to track submarines, including the technology and procedures required," the indictment says.
But in truth, Hoffman passed the information to an unidentified undercover FBI operative posing as a Russian, the indictment says. It
goes on to say Hoffman should have known that the information passed would have been used to injure the United States.
The indictment provides no further details of the undercover operation. It
describes the information passed as "secret," one level below "top secret," and says the unauthorized release of such information "could reasonably result in serious damage to the national security."
Hoffman, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., joined the Navy in 1991 and held a top-secret clearance by the time he retired a year ago. Three times throughout his career, he signed nondisclosure agreements.
Few other details are known about Hoffman. There was no answer at his home address in the 700 block of Holladay Court in the Aragona neighborhood. One neighbor said she did not know him.
Of his 117 Facebook friends, four are from Belarus.
When he arrived in court Thursday, he was wearing a green T-shirt that read "Bred to Fight" on the back and had a colorful print of a rooster. He answered the judge with "yes" and "no" replies but said little else.
When he left the courthouse, he grinned at news photographers.
Assistant U.S. attorneys Robert J. Krask and Alan M. Salsbury declined to answer questions after the proceeding. A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Neil M. MacBride said the office would have no comment.
While there have been relatively few spy cases here, the Hoffman case bears striking similarities to the region's most notorious spy ring -- the John A. Walker Jr. case. Walker and his family members were convicted of, among other things, passing secrets about American submarines to the Russians.
Walker, however, spied for the Soviet Union for 18 years before he was caught in 1985. He is serving a life sentence but will be up for parole in 2014.
Sarah Hutchins contributed to this report.