Gregory Allen Justice, 49, offered up sensitive files about US satellite programmes in exchange for cash iStock

A debt-ridden military engineer has been arrested under suspicion of plotting to commit economic espionage by selling US satellite secrets to Russia. In an investigation by the FBI, an undercover operative posed as a foreign agent and held a number of meetings with Gregory Allen Justice, 49, who offered up sensitive files held on military servers in exchange for cash.

Primarily a satellite contractor, Justice was part of a team that built and tested military-grade systems for the Air Force, Navy and Nasa. These included orbital projects like the Wideband Global Satellite (WGS), Global Positioning System (GPS) and the Milstar Communication Satellite.

While not working with top secret material, the information on such projects were held under strict US law. WGS, for example, was described by Justice himself as "a communications relay to allow troops on the ground in foreign countries to communicate with each other."

Special Agent Peter Lee, in an unsealed affidavit, explained how Justice was paid sums of $500 or $1,000 for copies of satellite schematics and proprietary trade secrets during five separate meetings since February this year.

After raising suspicions for transferring data onto a USB flash drive, he was investigated and subsequently arrested on 7 July on charges of economic espionage and violations of the Arms Export Control Act.

In one meeting outlined in the court filings, Justice, a self-described spy-movie fan, who said he enjoyed Jason Bourne and James Bond flicks, offered up "basically everything" to the undercover operative. He said: "Since the 1980s the US Air Force has been building and launching surveillance satellites called WGS [...] so what I'm offering is basically everything on our servers, on our computers. The plans, the test procedures, that's that I have access to."

Yet while the central probe into Justice focused on the trade of secrets to Russia, the investigation also exposed how the man was increasingly struggling with money – based on medical bills of his "housebound" ill wife and mysterious transactions to a woman known as 'Chay' or CM. The FBI, in the court documents, outline how Justice was likely caught up in a 'catfish'-like extortion scheme.

In one conversation with the undercover employee – or UCE – Justice referenced his hospital debts. He said: "Right now my main concern is trying to cover existing medical bills. I'm so underwater with, with everything right now." The records show, upon review, bank account transactions from 2013 to 2015 showed medical expenses totalling nearly $6,000.

He added: "I think the best way to do this is not to set anything based on my needs because my wife is going to need medical care for the rest of her life, so that number will grow. Even if I got enough to balance the scales today, tomorrow I'm back in debt."

However, the agent investigated 'Chay' and found her to be a woman living with her boyfriend and child in California. She had reportedly sent Justice pictures of herself but these were found to be of an unnamed Eastern European model.

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Gregory Allen Justice offered up sensitive files held on military servers in exchange for cash Christiaan Colen

Justice sent the woman thousands of dollars – and extravagant gifts like an Apple iPhone – claimed the FBI agent. Between 10 December 2015 and 6 May, Justice allegedly sent 'Chay' 22 separate money transfers totalling $21,420.

"Mr Justice allegedly placed his own interests of greed over our national security by providing information on sensitive U.S. technologies to a person whom he believed was a foreign agent," said assistant attorney General Carlin. "In the wrong hands, this information could be used to harm the United States and its allies. The National Security Division will continue to relentlessly identify, pursue and prosecute offenders that threaten our national security."

If convicted, Justice faces a statutory maximum penalty of 15 years in federal prison for the economic espionage charge and a statutory maximum penalty of 20 years in prison for violating the Arms Export Control Act. "Our nation's security depends on the honesty and integrity of those entrusted with our technological secrets," said US attorney Eileen Decker.

"In this case, the defendant sought to undermine our national security by attempting to sell proprietary and controlled information about satellites to a foreign government's intelligence service. Fortunately, law enforcement agents were able to timely and effectively intervene to protect this critical technology."