An accomplished former government space scientist admitted in court Wednesday to trying to sell classified information to Israel, but federal agents say they believe they stopped him from actually passing any secrets. Not that they can know for sure.
The investigators say the undercover sting operation that caught Stewart David Nozette might never have been launched if he hadn't been cheating on his taxes. But it has ended with Nozette facing 13 years in prison.
Nozette pleaded guilty to one count of attempted espionage, admitting he tried to provide Israel with top secret information about satellites, early warning systems, ways of retaliating against large-scale attack, communications intelligence information and major elements of defense strategy.
Prosecutors and Nozette's lawyers agreed to the 13-year sentence, with credit for two years Nozette has already spent behind bars since his arrest. U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman said he was prepared to accept the deal, pending Nozette's cooperation with prosecutors, a procedure expected to last into November.
Appearing in court in a prison jumpsuit, the 54-year-old Nozette said he understood the charge to which he was pleading. He could have been sentenced to death had he been convicted of all four counts of attempted espionage that he faced.
Prosecutors say Nozette told an undercover agent posing as an Israeli spy that he already had passed classified information to Israel but he was not charged with doing so.
"We do not have any information he passed on classified information," Ronald C. Machen Jr., U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia said in an interview with reporters. "We believe we thwarted that before it occurred."
Investigators said in an interview that Nozette apparently thought he gave classified information through his consulting work for the state-run Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd., but they could not prove Nozette gave the agency any secrets. The agents said the investigation included more than a dozen U.S. agencies but did not involve the Israeli government because Israel probably wouldn't admit it even if it had gotten information from Nozette.
During one of his secretly recorded conversations with the FBI undercover agent, Nozette said: "I thought I was working for you already. I mean, that's what I always thought, (IAI) was just a front."
Nozette had high-level security clearances during decades of government work on science and space projects at NASA, the Energy Department and the National Space Council in President George H.W. Bush's White House. He has a doctorate in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was known primarily as a defense technologist who had worked on the Reagan-era missile defense shield effort formally called the Strategic Defense Initiative. He also helped develop a radar experiment that discovered evidence of water on the moon — a version of the satellite involved in the project is on display at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.
The plea agreement said Nozette will not have to serve any additional time for his January 2009 guilty plea on two counts of tax evasion since any prison term in that case will be concurrent with the espionage sentence.
Investigators say they learned that Nozette might be interested in spying after a search of his Chevy Chase, Md., home in February 2007 in connection with the tax and fraud investigation. Nozette ran a nonprofit corporation called the Alliance for Competitive Technology that had several agreements to develop advanced technology for the U.S. government. But he was overstating his costs for reimbursement and failing to report the income on his tax returns.
The search turned up classified documents, which he was not allowed to have unsecured in his home. Agents also discovered Nozette sent an email in 2002 threatening to sell information about a classified program he was working on to Israel or another foreign country. Investigators wouldn't disclose to whom he sent the email, but said the FBI decided to conduct an undercover operation to see how serious he was.
The agents said they found a willing participant, motivated by a desire for money and to flee the country and his pending sentence in the tax case. An undercover agent called Nozette and asked to meet at a hotel. Nozette said yes. "He wanted to start over and start a new life," Machen said.
At one point in a recording of their meeting, Nozette said he wanted to set up somewhere like Singapore because "it's clean, it's nondescript, they speak English there" and doesn't extradite to the United States. He said he'd leave his wife behind. "She would ask too many questions," he said in the recording.
Prosecutors said Nozette agreed to provide regular information for what he thought was the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, through a post office box in exchange for money and an Israeli passport. Authorities said he took two payments — one for $2,000 and another for $9,000 — from the post office box in September 2009 and in exchange dropped off answers to questions about U.S. satellites.
In a conversation recorded at the Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington just before his arrest, Nozette told the undercover agent that "I've crossed the Rubicon ... I've made a career choice," and then, according to the papers, he laughed.
"I'm prepared to give them the whole thing ... all the technical specifications," according to the court papers.
He was recorded telling the agent that the secrets he was passing to Israel had cost the U.S. government anywhere from $200 million to almost $1 billion, including development and the launching and integrating of satellites. He said he thought he should be paid 1 percent of that cost — $2 million.
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