Navy Civilian Sentenced for Trying to Sell Aircraft Carrier Secrets

Gavel at rest

NORFOLK -- A 36-year-old Navy engineer was sentenced Thursday to 11 years in prison for attempting to sell designs for the nation's newest aircraft carrier to the Egyptian government.

U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson sentenced Mostafa Ahmed Awwad to the high end of the sentencing range -- between eight and 11 years -- that was spelled out in plea agreement Awwad signed in June when he pleaded guilty to attempted espionage.

Before his arrest last December, Awwad, a husband and father of two, lived in York County's Coventry subdivision and worked as a civilian engineer at Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

He was accused of stealing thousands of design drawings for the $13 billion Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier, now in the final stages of construction at Newport News Shipbuilding, and turning them over to an undercover FBI agent he thought was an Egyptian spy.

"This is a serious crime," Jackson said before sentencing Awwad. "One of the worst you could commit."

Jackson noted that Awwad became a U.S. citizen in June 2012 -- in a naturalization ceremony Jackson himself presided over at the same Norfolk federal courthouse. In an oath Awwad took that day, he "swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States," Jackson said.

Three years later, Jackson added, Awwad was being sentenced for trying to sell out that very country.

"You went out and you attempted to sell and convey secrets that are an ... instrumental part of the national defense," Jackson said. "This wasn't an aberrational act. You took a series of steps, and but for being arrested, you probably would have continued with your conduct."

Before being sentenced, Awwad apologized for committing the crime, saying he has lots of "sorrow, anguish and regret" over what he did. "Every time I open my eyes, the nightmare is still there," he said.

Awwad said he isn't evil, but "a man who lost his way" and "made a terrible mistake." He apologized to his family, the state of Virginia, the Navy, "and most of all, to my country, the United States of America."

"I take full responsibility for my actions," he said. "I ask for leniency and mercy for the sake of my tormented family."

Awwad's wife, Dalia Elsherbeni, took the witness stand at the hearing. "The impact is huge," she said, wearing a hijab and occasionally wiping tears from her eyes. "It still is and always will be."

She spoke of how her husband often calls the family in Colorado -- where she and the boys, ages 3 and 1, now live -- from jail. He reads and sings to the boys, she said, and sometimes simply listens to them playing through the phone.

"They have a father who loves them," Elsherbeni said, adding that Thursday was the 3-year-old's birthday.

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Awwad's younger brother, Amr Awwad, an Egyptian who traveled to the United States with his father on Tuesday, also took the witness stand. He said Awwad and his four siblings were well-educated and grew up in a loving family.

"He came here for a better opportunity," he said. "We all knew that the U.S. was a better place."

Amr Awwad added that his brother tried to recruit him to come here, too. "It's all what you like, it's your character, you will love it," he said Mostafa Awwad told him. "So here I am finally. The first time in the United States. In court."

Several Newport News Shipbuilding managers were in the audience at Thursday's sentencing hearing. So, too, were several Navy officials, including the commander of Norfolk Naval Shipyard, and many agents with the FBI and Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

Awwad was born in Saudi Arabia, but grew up as an Egyptian, and came to the United States in 2007. He graduated from Old Dominion University in December 2013, landing a job at Norfolk Naval Shipyard a few months later.

At a bond hearing late last year, prosecutors detailed several chilling statements Awwad made while meeting with the undercover FBI agent. He turned over some of the carrier designs at a clandestine drop spot at the Sandy Bottom Nature Park in Hampton.

The drawings were generated by Newport News Shipbuilding, but Norfolk Naval Shipyard had the designs in preparation for maintenance work once the ship joins the fleet. 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 at a hearing last December.

Prosecutors also said Awwad boasted of how he could install "bugs" on nuclear submarines when they come through Norfolk Naval Shipyard for routine maintenance.

A statement of facts that Awwad and prosecutors signed off on as part of the June guilty plea said the designs he attempted to turn over showed where "vulnerable" shipboard areas -- such as nuclear reactors, weapons storage spaces and technology infrastructure -- were located.

"There's not many things that exceed an aircraft carrier in their centrality to our national defense," Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Hatch said Thursday in asking Jackson to impose an 11-year prison sentence. "The degree of harm that could have come if someone tried to attack or exploit (the carrier) is very great."

Hatch also said Awwad told the agent he wanted to meet with high level Egyptian intelligence officials. "This was a person who was willing to do much more," Hatch said. "He took the trust that this nation put in him, and he betrayed it."

Awwad's attorney, James Broccoletti, asked for eight years, emphasizing that the designs that Awwad took and attempted to sell "were not secret and were not classified."

Instead, the 2008 "preliminary draft" designs were protected as both NO FORN, which means "no foreign nationals" are supposed to see them, and NNPI, or "Naval Nuclear Propulsion Information."

Broccoletti said Awwad boasted about access levels he didn't actually have. And he didn't take the initial steps to try to sell the documents, Broccoletti said, asserting the undercover FBI agent called Awwad first. "They went fishing, and they caught him," Broccoletti said.

Though Awwad got the high end of the sentencing range in the plea agreement, Broccoletti said, it was lower than sentencing guidelines -- 12 years and eight months to 15 years and eight months -- before the plea deal. The death penalty was also taken off the table in the plea agreement.

Broccoletti said he was surprised to learn Thursday that Jackson was the judge who presided over Awwad's naturalization ceremony in 2012. "That was a bad twist of fate," he said.

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