How the FBI Foiled 'The Americans'-Style Plot to Steal Satellite Secrets for Moscow


Sensitive military satellite schematics. Dead-of-night copying of computer files. Illicit material slipping though security. Contacts using a burner phone. Clandestine rendezvous with an undercover Russian spy. A possible murder plot. 

California man Gregory Allen Justice was finally living in real life the high-risk, cloak-and-dagger adventure he saw when he watched his favorite espionage thrillers like James Bond, Jason Bourne and, most recently, "The Americans."

Except, unknown to Justice, one very, very important part of the story was fiction after all: His Russian contact was no Russian, but an FBI agent who played along as Justice attempted to betray his country for cash.

"So what I'm offering is basically everything on our servers, on our computers," Justice told the undercover agent in their first meeting, according to prosecutors. "The plans, the test procedures, that's what I have access to."

For years Justice had been a contract engineer, working for a private company on behalf of the U.S. government, on projects including satellite and communication work for the Defense Department and NASA. The company, which was not identified in court papers, had a hand in virtually every American satellite orbiting the earth, and a few built for foreign nations, Justice said.

What drove him to sell out his country, court documents indicate, was a combination of financial distress and frustration at work about getting passed over for promotions.

In fact, the complaint against Justice portrays him as something of a sad sack.

He worked the overnight shift, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and claimed to do the work of two people but remained unnoticed. His wife suffered from health issues that kept her home and were draining the couple's bank account -- so much so that he once told his wife to cancel appointments because they didn't have the money to get the car fixed and couldn't get her to the doctor.

It's almost a sympathetic picture until court papers also reveal that in reality one of the main reasons the Justices were broke is because he was sending another woman, who he met online and never in person, thousands of dollars in cash and gifts regularly. (The woman had catfished Justice using a European model's photo, court papers indicate. The real woman lived with her boyfriend and son elsewhere in California.) He also used more than $4,000 to pay for online courses apparently in an effort to become more Bourne-like: "Spy Escape and Evasion," "Legally Concealed," "Fight Fast," etc.

Whatever his reasons, in 2015 Justice decided he had had enough of his life as it was. He reached out directly to the Russians by first sending Russian officials some schematics and then calling up a Russian "naval attache" in hopes of establishing a long-term relationship. The Russians didn't bite, but upon uncovering Justice's plans, the FBI decided to pick up where Moscow left off.

In 2016 an undercover agent reached out to Justice in the guise of a Kremlin confidant and took Justice up on his offer. During their meetings, the two spoke repeatedly about espionage TV series "The Americans," and Justice explained that he wanted to have a relationship with his Russian foreign intelligence contact like those portrayed on the show. 

"I know it's not like real life, but I like spy movies," Justice told the undercover agent.

In all, Justice met with the undercover agent five times at locations near Los Angeles. At the meetings he handed over satellite data that he had copied from company computers and smuggled through security checkpoints on USB drives. Justice apparently didn't know that the company he worked for could take screenshots of his computer about every six seconds, meaning the FBI could watch as executed his digital thievery.

Most of the information was of little worth, but some related to encryption and jamming counter-measures was potentially damaging in the hands of a clever adversary, experts interviewed by the FBI said.

In exchange, Justice received relatively small sums of cash and the sense of significance that he craved.

Though Justice even told his supposedly-Russian handler that he was doing it all for his ailing wife, the FBI tracked the money and found that, often times, it went directly to the fake European model.

In fact, the case took an unexpected and even darker turn when Justice requested that the undercover officer obtain for him a powerful drug that he said was to help his wife sleep. Prosecutors later said Justice lied about his wife needing the drug, was aware that it had been used in murders. The government feared Justice was plotting to poison his wife.

He never got the chance, as a few months after he took the FBI's bait and handed over a trove of satellite information, Justice was arrested and charged with economic espionage and violating trade agreements. Last September he struck a deal with the government, pleaded guilty and received five years in prison. He is currently housed in a low security prison in Arizona, according to prison records.

“Unlike a reality television series, selling secrets to a foreign government is not entertaining, but in the wrong hands, threatens national security and puts American lives at risk,” Danny Kennedy, the Acting Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office, said when Justice was sentenced.

Justice's case recently popped back up on the FBI's website as a past case summary, and the FBI's public affairs office couldn't resist a final quip: "Justice, it could be said, was definitely served in this case."

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