• U.S.

Did the Sailor Go Overboard?

5 minute read
Douglas Waller/Washington

Ariel J. Weinmann seemed to be a patriotic high school student. He once wrote a letter to his local newspaper in Salem, Ore., complaining about classmates who didn’t take their hats off when the national anthem was played. And before joining the Navy he collected over 100 letters and cards from elementary school students to send to the crew of the USS Constellation aircraft carrier as a thank-you for their service. Today, however, Weinmann sits in a Navy brig in Norfolk, Va., accused for the moment of espionage, which, if he were to be convicted, could result in his spending the rest of his life in prison.

The Navy is saying little about the charges against the 21-year-old petty officer third class — and it’s uncertain which of the accusations will stick. Weinmann, a submariner, is also accused of desertion and stealing a laptop computer with classified information on it. But all of the charges are preliminary at this point and Navy sources tell TIME they may change if he faces a court-martial.

Most importantly, Navy investigators are still trying to determine if Weinmann actually passed any secrets to a foreign power. In an exclusive interview with TIME, his father, Robert Weinmann, says he believes his son did not. “I don’t know what happened, but I know my son,” says Robert Weinman, who works as a quality control inspector for a manufacturing company in Salem. “He has a very high sense of morals. He’s the kind of person who gets very indignant about something he doesn’t feel is morally right.”

The Navy alleges that Ariel Weinmann deserted on July 3, 2005, after his sub, the USS Albuquerque, had returned to Groton, Connecticut. Robert Weinmann says his son ended up in Vienna, Austria, living with a friend. He adds that at the Navy’s request he “tried very hard” to encourage his son to return to the service, but that Ariel refused.

Weinmann says he didn’t learn that his son was wanted for other crimes until April 1, 2006, when FBI and Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents came to his Salem home to search Ariel’s room and seize some of his belongings. In mid-March, Ariel had flown from Vienna to Mexico City for a visit. On March 26, he had taken a flight to Vancouver, British Columbia, from Mexico City to visit his sister but was arrested by federal authorities during a stopover in Dallas, Tex.

The Navy’s preliminary charges allege that while on a port call at Bahrain with the submarine — and later in Vienna and Mexico City after he deserted — Ariel Weinmann passed confidential and secret information “relating to the national defense” to a foreign agent. Since his case first became public last week, Internet blogs have speculated that Israel was receiving the classified information. Robert Weinmann says his son is not Jewish (the family’s heritage is German), and Navy sources also say Israel is not the alleged recipient.

Military sources have told TIME they are investigating whether Ariel Weinmann passed secrets to Russia, although they caution that at this point it’s still unclear whether the sailor gave classified information to any country. He is accused of stealing a laptop computer from the sub. But investigators are still trying to determine if any of the information in the machine was actually given to a foreign agent or if they just have a case of a disenchanted sailor who deserted with a piece of Navy property.

Robert Weinmann says he and his wife were startled when Ariel told them in October 2002 that he planned to join the Navy in July after he graduated from high school. Interested in art, classical music and history, Ariel “was very idealistic and spent a lot of time daydreaming about the great things he would do with his life,” Weinmann says. After hearing the pitch from a recruiter that he could see the world if he joined the sea service, “Ariel was very focused and excited about the Navy,” his father adds.

Ariel Weinmann was trained as a submarine fire control technician, whose job is to help track targets in the vessel’s command center, and was then sent to the USS Albuquerque, based in Groton. The nuclear-powered Albuquerque is one of the Navy’s fast-attack submarines, armed with torpedoes and cruise missiles. The sub can also creep close to shore to infiltrate special operations commandos or intercept electronic communications on land.

Robert Weinmann says his son did well in submarine training, but after a six-month tour aboard the Albuquerque in waters off Europe and the Middle East “he just got disillusioned” with the Navy and the Bush Administration’s foreign policy. Weinmann says his son complained that the submarine’s technology was old. (While commissioned in 1983, the Albuquerque is still considered by the Navy to be the most advanced vessel of its kind in the world.) Weinmann says his son also told him he became troubled by the submarine’s collecting intelligence on U.S. allies, although he says Ariel never gave specifics.

The Navy had no comment on the father’s allegations. Ariel Weinmann’s military attorney, Lt. Cdr. Karen Somers, said in a written statement for TIME that her client “thanks his family for their continued support,” but “it is not appropriate for me to comment on the case since the charges are still being investigated.”

For Robert Weinmann, “the whole thing just makes no sense,” he says. “Ariel never got into any trouble growing up. He goes out and joins the Navy and he’s all gung-ho. He did great through submarine school. Then he goes out on that boat and his life just goes to hell. What happened?” The Navy clearly has many of the same questions about Ariel Weinmann as his father.

—With reporting by Sally B. Donnelly/Washington

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