14 Americans Currently in Prison for Espionage

14 Americans Currently in Prison for Espionage

Spies – individuals engaged in the clandestine world of espionage – play a significant role in the realm of international affairs. While some spies may successfully carry out their covert operations undetected, others are eventually caught, prosecuted, and incarcerated (at the least). 

24/7 Tempo has compiled a list of Americans currently serving prison time for their roles as spies for foreign governments that endangered the security of the United States. Many of these people served in U.S. secret service agencies such as the CIA. We assembled the list using information from the FBI, the Department of Justice, and media sources such as the BBC and CNN. (Here’s a list of the most famous spies in history.)

The spies on this list sold out – or attempted to sell out – our nation for a variety of motives. Some acted out of ideological beliefs (for instance, believing that a communist system is superior to ours), some to serve their own nation’s interests, and others simply for financial gain.  

Regardless of their reasons, their crimes involved betraying the trust bestowed upon them by their own countries and engaging in activities that threatened state secrets, military operations, diplomatic relations, and sometimes the very lives of agents in the field. (These are the most infamous cases of betrayal in U.S. history.)

From high-profile espionage cases involving prominent double agents to lesser-known incidents involving operatives working in the shadows, these spies now face the consequences of their actions within the confines of prison walls.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Aldrich Ames
> Crime: Spying for the Soviet Union and Russia
> Conviction date: April 28, 1994
> Prison sentence: Life without possibility of parole
> Current location: Federal Correction Institute, Terre Haute, Indiana

Ames was a CIA officer who committed espionage by spying for the Soviet Union and later Russia. From 1985 to 1994, he provided classified information about CIA and FBI agents to the Soviets, compromising numerous CIA assets and operations. Ames’ actions resulted in the capture and execution of several intelligence agents. The FBI started investigating Ames after reports about his unexplained wealth.

Source: Public Domain / FBI / Wikimedia Commons

Harold James Nicholson
> Crime: Spying for Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service
> Conviction date: June 5, 1997
> Prison sentence: 23 years, seven months
> Current location: ADX Florence federal supermax prison, Florence, Colorado

Another former CIA officer, Harold James Nicholson sold classified information about CIA trainees and operations to Russia from 1994 to 1996. In 1996, Nicholson was arrested and subsequently became the highest-ranking CIA officer ever convicted of espionage. He received a 23-year prison sentence, emphasizing the severe consequences of insider threats within intelligence agencies. In 2011, additional charges were brought against Nicholson and eight years were added onto his sentence. He had enlisted his son Nathan to collect money from Russian officials for his spying, resulting in Nathan’s sentencing to five years of probation and 100 hours of community service.

Source: Public Domain / FBI.gov

Brian Patrick Regan
> Crime: Attempting to sell classified national defense information to Iraq, China, and Libya
> Conviction date: March 21, 2003
> Prison sentence: Life
> Current location: Federal Correctional Institution, Hazelton, West Virginia

Regan, a former U.S. Air Force master sergeant, committed treason by attempting to sell highly classified information. He had collected and hidden about 20,000 pages of highly classified documents with the intent to sell them to China, Iraq, and Libya, but he never successfully completed a sale. Regan’s motivation appears to have been financial – he owed more than $100,000 in credit card debt.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Kendall and Gwendolyn Myers
> Crime: Spying for Cuba
> Conviction date: November 20, 2009
> Prison sentences: Life without possibility of parole (Kendall); 81 months (Gwendolyn)
> Current location: ADX Florence federal supermax prison, Florence, Colorado (Kendall); released after serving sentence (Gwendolyn)

Over a span of three decades, Myers – who is the great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, and also related to William Howard Taft, the 27th president of the United States – and his wife, Gwendolyn, spied for the Cuban government. Apparently their motives were ideological, with them admiring Fidel Castro and noting that health care in Cuba was superior to that in the U.S.

Source: Cpo999 / Wikimedia Commons

Noshir Gowadia
> Crime: Passing national defense information to China
> Conviction date: Jan. 24, 2011
> Prison sentence: 32 years
> Current location: ADX Florence federal supermax prison, Florence, Colorado

An aerospace engineer who worked for Northrop Corporation, Gowadia was convicted of multiple crimes related to espionage and unlawfully providing classified defense information about highly sensitive technology, including stealth technology, to China and other foreign entities. Gowadia’s actions endangered national security by compromising advanced defense capabilities and potentially allowing adversaries to evade detection.

Source: Julie Tuason from Wimberley, Texas, USA / Wikimedia Commons

Alexander Fishenko
> Crime: Illegally exporting microelectronics from the US to Russia
> Conviction date: Sept. 9, 2015
> Prison sentence: 10 years, plus three years supervised release
> Current location: Three Rivers Federal Correctional Institution, Three Rivers, Texas

Fishenko, a Russian-born businessman and naturalized U.S. citizen, was convicted for his role in a complex and extensive scheme to illegally export advanced technology and sensitive military-grade equipment to Russia. He and his co-conspirators surreptitiously acquired controlled items through front companies, evading export controls and regulations. These actions compromised U.S. national security and violated numerous laws governing the transfer of sensitive technology.

Source: SounderBruce from Seattle, United States / Wikimedia Commons

Ron Rockwell Hansen
> Crime: Attempted transmission of national defense information to China
> Conviction date: March 15, 2019
> Prison sentence: 10 years
> Current location: SeaTac Federal Detention Center, Seattle

A former U.S. Army officer and intelligence contractor, Hansen was convicted of conspiring to transmit national defense secrets to China. Hansen, driven by financial motives, attempted to provide classified information to Chinese agents, compromising U.S. intelligence assets. At his sentencing hearing, he said he “would give anything” to change what he did.

Source: Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Jerry Chun Shing Lee
> Crime: Conspiring to communicate, deliver, and transmit national defense information to China
> Conviction date: May 1, 2019
> Prison sentence: 19 years
> Current location: Federal prison (details unknown)

Lee, a former CIA officer who later worked for Estée Lauder and Christie’s, was convicted for his role in conspiring to communicate, deliver, and retain classified information that could harm the United States. Lee jeopardized national security by unlawfully sharing sensitive information with Chinese intelligence services for personal gain. He was paid various amounts of money at least between May 2010 through December 2013.

Source: Spondylolithesis / Getty Images

Kevin Mallory
> Crime: Conspiring to transmit US defense secrets to China
> Conviction date: May 18, 2019
> Prison sentence: 20 years
> Current location: Federal prison (details unknown)

Kevin Mallory, a former CIA officer and a U.S. citizen who speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese, was convicted for conspiring to provide top-secret documents to a Chinese intelligence agent. He was arrested in 2017, at his residence in Leesburg, Virginia. Mallory held various positions within different government agencies and defense contractors.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Peter Rafael Debbins
> Crime: Providing information about US defenses to Russian agents
> Conviction date: Nov. 18, 2020
> Prison sentence: 15 years
> Current location: ADX Florence federal supermax prison, Florence, Colorado

Peter Rafael Debbins, a former U.S. Army officer, was convicted for conspiring to provide national defense information to Russia. According to court documents, Debbins had a history of involvement with Russian intelligence dating back to 1996. His offenses included divulging details about his time as an Army officer, his training, and his deployment locations. He also disclosed classified information related to U.S. Army Special Forces units and their operations.

Source: Scott Olson / Getty Images

Ji Chaoqun
> Crimes: Acting as an illegal foreign agent; making false statements to the US Army
> Conviction date: Sept. 26, 2022
> Prison sentence: Eight years
> Current location: Metropolitan Correctional Center, Chicago

Ji Chaoqun, a Chinese national residing in the United States, was arrested and subsequently convicted for acting as an illegal agent of a foreign government. Ji, under the direction of Chinese intelligence, targeted individuals within the U.S. defense industry to gather sensitive information and recruit them as intelligence sources. His activities included conducting background checks, providing reports to Chinese officials, and seeking to establish connections with potential sources.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Jonathan and Diana Toebbe
> Crime: Offered secrets about design of Virginia-class nuclear submarines to Brazil
> Conviction date: Nov. 9, 2022
> Prison sentences: 19 years, for months (Jonathan); 21 years, eight months (Diane)
> Current location: Federal prison (details unknown)

Jonathan Toebbe, a former employee of the Department of the Navy and a nuclear engineer, along with his wife, Diana, were sentenced for conspiring to communicate classified information concerning the design of nuclear-powered warships to Brazil. The couple, from Annapolis, Maryland, pleaded guilty to the conspiracy in August 2022.

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