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South Dakota man accused of attempted espionage with FBI agents posing as Russians

The federal courthouse in Rapid City
The federal courthouse in Rapid City.

A South Dakota man and former defense contractor is accused of attempted espionage. He allegedly used his security clearance to share classified Air Force documents with undercover FBI agents posing as a Russian operatives.

John Murray Rowe Jr. is charged in federal court with gathering or delivering defense information to aid a foreign government. If convicted, he faces up to life in prison.

The 63-year-old Lead resident is accused of providing classified documents and information by email and during in-person meetings with undercover agents in Deadwood.

Rowe's LinkedIn page says he works as an engineer in the field of defense electronics and weapons systems. He lists former employment at Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics.

He most recently worked at JMR Automation Technologies, which he opened in Lead in October 2020, according to his LinkedIn and records from the South Dakota Secretary of State.

A call to his work number immediately went to a voicemail with a message that simply said "John Rowe."

Rowe was arrested in Lead on Wednesday evening, according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Justice. He is detained at the Pennington County Jail.

All of Rowe's alleged actions took place in South Dakota, but the case is charged in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania where the undercover agents appear to work.

Suspicious behavior

What follows is alleged in an affidavit signed by an FBI agent.

Rowe, who is originally from Massachusetts, worked as a test engineer from 1980 to 2018. He held various security clearances, including "top secret" clearance, while working with defense contractors.

Rowe began working at a defense contractor in 2015 and had a "secret" clearance level. The timeline in the affidavit aligns with when Rowe worked for BAE Systems in New Hampshire, in according to his LinkedIn page.

The security officer at the company reported Rowe to the Department of Defense in April 2017. The officer said he was concerned Rowe might be a threat after viewing his social media profile and posts. One of Rowe's posts said he shared information about U.S. fighter jets with a woman who might be a Russian spy even though he knew he wasn't allowed to share it.

Rowe began a new job in October 2017 where he also had a "secret" clearance level. His new job was at Cobham in Pennsylvania, according to his LinkedIn page.

Rowe was caught in February 2018 bringing a thumb drive into a classified space to install software onto a computer, which violated company rules. He later asked the company's information security officer if it was possible to hold a U.S. and Russian security clearance at the same time.

The company fired Rowe in March 2018 due to his multiple security violations.

The violations and his "fervent interest in Russian affairs" identified Rowe as "a potential insider threat," the Justice Department's news release says.

The FBI "began an undercover operation to determine Rowe's willingness to communicate classified information to a foreign government," the affidavit says.

The affidavit picks up in March 2020, two years after Rowe was fired. It's unclear if the FBI was investigating or had any communications with Rowe before then.

Undercover sting

An undercover FBI agent approached Rowe in Lead in March 2020 and introduced herself as a Russian agent. They met at a hotel in Deadwood where the agent said the Russian government was interested in information Rowe had about the U.S. government.

Rowe allegedly shared classified information with the agent, explained that his security clearance would expire in April 2020, and said he'd like to move to Russia.

"I’ve been saying this to people. I said, 'I’m gonna go work for the Russians.' I’ve been saying that for the last two years," Rowe allegedly told the agent.

Rowe then emailed with a second undercover FBI agent — posed as the same Russian agent — from March through November 2020.

Rowe discussed classified security protocols and how he could use his experience to conceal his relationship with the Russian agent, the affidavit says. He also allegedly shared classified information, including the "specific operating details of the electronic countermeasure systems used by U.S. military fighter jets."

The affidavit says the FBI spoke with an Air Force expert who confirmed this information was classified at the "secret" level. That means unauthorized disclosure reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to national security.

Second meeting

Rowe had a second meeting with the original undercover agent in September 2020. They met in Deadwood where Rowe allegedly shared more classified information about the Air Force.

He later emailed to say he'd like to meet the agent and other Russian agents for an in-person meeting in Pennsylvania.

“I did find those classified documents that I took from" a company and government agency, Rowe allegedly wrote.

It's unclear if Rowe ever traveled to Pennsylvania. The last communication mentioned in the affidavit is an email exchange from November 2020.

Federal prosecutors are now charging Rowe, more than a year later. It's unclear if the FBI was investigating or had any communications with Rowe between these dates.

Rowe is scheduled for an initial appearance at the federal court in Rapid City on Friday morning.

Arielle Zionts, rural health care correspondent, is based in South Dakota. She primarily covers South Dakota and its neighboring states and tribal nations. Arielle previously worked at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, where she reported on business and economic development.