A former Nuclear Regulatory Commission employee has been charged with attempting to launch a cyberattack on Department of Energy computers and steal nuclear secrets, which he then planned to sell to a foreign country.
An indictment unsealed Friday shows that 62-year-old Charles Harvey Eccleston tried to spread a malicious computer virus among department computers via email invitations to a conference.
The goal of the attack was to cause damage to 10 or more department-protected computers during a one-year period and to extract sensitive, nuclear weapons-related government information, according to the five-page indictment.
Court documents show that Mr. Eccleston attempted to launch the attack in January 2015, but do not indicate which country he intended to provide with nuclear secrets.
The Washington Post reported that Mr. Eccleston planned to sell the information he obtained through the scheme to China. However, a 50-page criminal affidavit shows that Mr. Eccleston had planned to offer China his services as a secondary option. Iran and Venezuela were also on the list of potential co-conspirators.
Mr. Eccleston initially proposed his plan to steal nuclear secrets and provide them to the foreign country in April 2013. The affidavit describes in detail how Mr. Eccleston walked into the embassy of what prosecutors describe as “Country A” that year and offered his services as a government employee with a top-secret security clearance. But he would only provide those secrets to “Country A” if his name and personal information was concealed to avoid legal prosecution.
“Eccleston offered a list of 5,082 email accounts of all officials, engineers and employees of the ‘U.S. Energy Commission,’ which he explained he was able to retrieve because he was an employee of the ‘U.S. Atomic Energy Commission,’ and held a top secret security clearance and access to the ‘U.S. Energy’s Commission’s‘ system,” the affidavit states. “Eccleston asked for $18,800 from Country A in exchange for the email accounts.”
Mr. Eccleston also stated that he could obtain for use by “Country A” accurate engineering blueprints of modern U.S. nuclear plants, though he didn’t immediately suggest an asking price for that task, according to the affidavit.
Mr. Eccleston was looking to obtain just enough money to support his lifestyle in the Philippines, where he had been living since May 2011.
Court documents show that Mr. Eccleston was unsure if this scheme would pan out. In an email to an undercover agent, Mr. Eccleston explained that he could not guarantee success but was willing to try over and over again — using various methods — until he achieved his goal.
“Due to things that are occurring as we talk, in the newspaper, everybody is going back for retraining, and they are teaching people to be very careful … to be prudent, to be careful what they click on and for people to go in for retraining and I honestly don’t know successful this will be,” he said in the email. “However, if it’s successful, then the project, we can try more projects. If it’s not successful, I have more sophisticated ideas on how to do this. So I have … if it doesn’t work well, I have several other ideas that I think will be much, much, more successful.”
Prior to living in the Philippines, Mr. Eccleston worked at both the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Department of Energy, according to the affidavit. Court documents show that he worked at the Department of Energy between 1988 and 2001 as a principal scientist who held a top-secret security clearance. He had also previously worked on several top-secret projects for the Pentagon, according to the affidavit.
Several years later, Mr. Eccleston found work with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as a Facilities Security Specialist. He worked for the commission between 2008 and 2010, where he held a secret security clearance. He was fired from that job in October 2010 due to performance and conduct issues.
Court records indicate federal public defender Stephanie Thornton-Harris had represented Mr. Eccleston until Wednesday.