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In Colorful Case, U.S. Submarine Expert Accused Of Attempting To Spy For Russia

Robert Patrick Hoffman leaves U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Virginia, on December 6, 2012.
Robert Patrick Hoffman leaves U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Virginia, on December 6, 2012.
What do submarines, online dating, and an alleged meeting with the president of Belarus have in common?

They're all part of an odd and colorful spy case being heard this week in U.S. federal court. Just how the pieces fit together remains to be seen.

The man at the center of the case, Robert Patrick Hoffman II, spent most of his two-decade career in the U.S. Navy working as a cryptographic technician on submarine technology.

The 40-year-old retired in late 2011 and soon traveled to Belarus. For reasons not entirely clear, that trip stoked the interest of federal investigators.

Nearly two years later, Hoffman is in court to face charges of passing classified information to men he thought were Russian agents. Hoffman says he was, in fact, attempting to help the U.S. government catch the supposed spies. He could face life in prison if convicted.

Hoffman was arrested in December 2012 as U.S. agents swooped down on his home in Virginia Beach, Virginia. His trial began on August 15 in the nearby city of Norfolk.

It didn't take long for intrigue to emerge.

Mystery Witness

Scott Daugherty, a journalist for the local "Virginian-Pilot" newspaper who has been covering the case, reports that a mystery witness took the stand on August 16. Hidden behind a black curtain, the witness was identified as a female undercover agent for the FBI who had courted Hoffman for five months over the Internet. Posing as a single woman seeking a relationship, the agent said she went on several dates with Hoffman last summer.

According to a secret recording of one of the dates that was played for the court, Hoffman claimed to have met a rather important figure during his time in Eastern Europe.

The indictment against Hoffman
The indictment against Hoffman
"In the information that has been put into evidence, [Hoffman] said he met some women in either Bahrain or Iraq that were from Belarus," Daugherty says. "They were dancers. He became friends with them while he was deployed there. Then, in 2011, he traveled to Belarus for a three-week [trip] -- I believe he called it a 'man vacation' or a 'mancation.' He went to clubs, hung out, and apparently he said his hotel room was across the street from either the presidential mansion or the parliamentary mansion. He told the undercover FBI agent that he'd actually shaken the hand of the president."

Hoffman also mentioned a set of gold-tone "challenge coins" that he had ordered from a manufacturer, which depicted the old and new Belarusian flags on either side. Such coins are usually used in the U.S. armed services to commemorate missions. Hoffman said he gave some of the coins to the women he had befriended and then to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka himself in Belarus.

"He said [in the recording that] he didn't know why the president was meeting with him, that he just figured, 'Hey, I've got these Belarus coins, I'm living across the street from the presidential palace, let's see if I can meet the president of Belarus' -- that he wanted to try do something, I guess, a little weird," Daugherty says. "I think the prosecution is trying to paint this as [a sign that Hoffman] was trying to curry favor and become a spy for the Belarusian government. I think the defense is painting this more as that he went over there and just walked in. It's unclear exactly where the truth is."

Compensation From 'Vladimir'

Did Hoffman really meet Lukashenka, bearing gifts? What were his intentions? He would later tell FBI officials that he had only met members of the president's staff. Whatever the reality, something about Hoffman's trip caught the attention of U.S. investigators. Hoffman's knowledge of sensitive U.S. submarine technology may have had something to do with it.

According to prosecutor Alan Salsbury, the FBI sent Hoffman a letter in September 2012 that purported to be from a Russian agent named "Vladimir." It offered him "generous compensation" for his knowledge.

Hoffman took the bait and allegedly made three trips to a Virginia state park in late 2012 to drop off information. Salsbury said that in his final trip he dropped off a flash drive containing top secret details on how the U.S. Navy tracks its own submarines and foreign warships.

Hoffman's defense team, meanwhile, is seeking to present him not as an ill-meaning informant but as a misguided patriot. The court is also considering a log that Hoffman kept, documenting what he allegedly thought to be a one-man mission to expose Russian spies.

After his third drop Hoffman did, indeed, meet with FBI agents, where he provided the log, copies of the information he had given to the purported spies, and even strips of electrical tape.

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His defense said Hoffman hoped the tape had preserved the spies' fingerprints, which would allow the FBI to track them down.

"He wanted to lure [the spies] in," attorney Keith Kimball said during his opening statement on August 15. "He was acting perhaps foolishly but not criminally."

Prosecutors have hit back, presenting an e-mail Hoffman allegedly sent to his purported spy contact after meeting with the FBI in which he apparently warned of impending danger.

Who was Hoffman really trying to fool? How does his trip to Belarus figure into the plot?

Lawyers for the prosecution and defense told RFE/RL they could not comment while the case is ongoing. Two of Hoffman's neighbors also declined to comment. Hoffman has several Facebook friends from Belarus, none of whom responded to RFE/RL inquiries.

The trial is expected to last at least through the end of this week.

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