A former government scientist who helped discover water on the moon, worked on the Reagan-era “Star-Wars” ballistic missile defense program and ran a variety of highly classified projects for NASA, the Defense Department and the Department of Energy pleaded guilty this morning to attempted espionage charges for his efforts to sell classified information to Israel.
Stewart Nozette of Chevy Chase, Md., was arrested Oct. 19, 2009, at the Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington by counterintelligence agents from the FBI’s Washington field office after he believed he was meeting with Israeli intelligence agents from the Mossad to pass information to them in exchange for money. It was all an FBI sting operation, but the indictment in the case did not allege that Israel or any of its government officials committed any wrongdoing.
The FBI began its investigation into Nozette in 2002 when agents executed a search warrant at his home in a fraud investigation and discovered classified documents in the home. Nozette, who established his own company, ACT, had been under criminal investigation by NASA’s Office of the Inspector General for submitting false billing records to NASA and the Defense Department as part of his government contracting work with ACT.
Justice Department and FBI officials say Nozette, 54, was motivated by sheer greed. U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Ron Machen said in a statement, “Stewart Nozette was once a trusted scientist who maintained high-level government security clearances and was frequently granted access to classified information relating to our national defense. Today he is a disgraced criminal who was caught red-handed attempting to trade American secrets for personal profit.”
According to court records, in early January 2009, as he traveled overseas, a security check of his personal bags indicated he had two computer thumb drives in his possession. But when he returned on his trip, the drives were no longer in his possession, according to the government.
The FBI used an undercover FBI agent to approach Nozette in September 2009, who told Nozette he worked for Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency. During a lunch meeting with the agent, Nozette indicated he was willing to work for Israeli intelligence and provide them information. In the next several months, the FBI lured him into an FBI-engineered spy game using “dead drops,” where Nozette left envelopes with encrypted thumb drives with top secret information about key U.S. weapon and satellite systems in exchange for cash.
Nozette is best known for his work on the lunar Mini-RF probe, which helped confirm the presence of water on the moon. Nozette is a planetary scientist from MIT who worked for the White House National Space Council and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the 1990s and as a contractor for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.
At the Department of Energy, he worked in the “O” Division and had top-secret clearance, which included nuclear weapon design information, according to the factual proffer agreement in the case filed today in the D.C. federal court where Nozette pleaded guilty.
In a series of later meetings with undercover agents, Nozette discussed getting paid by the Israelis and made reference to the aerospace company, allegedly saying, “I thought I was working for you already. I mean that’s what I always thought, [the foreign company] was just a front.”
During one meeting, Nozette indicated he could be paid in cash up to $10,000. “Cash is fine … [I know] how to handle cash … you buy consumables … cash is good for anything … you can eat it, drink it or screw it.”
In his final meeting with the underover FBI agent, Nozette tried to negotiate terms for providing more information and eventually leaving the country. On video captured by FBI agents, Nozette said, “So, uh … I’ve sort of crossed the Rubicon. . . . Now the, uh, so I think when I said like fifty K, I think that was probably too low. . . .The cost to the U.S. Government was two hundred million. . . . to develop it all. Uh, and then that’s not including the launching of it . . . Uh, integrating the satellites. . . . So if you say OK that probably brings it to almost a billion dollars. . . . So I tell ya at least two hundred million so I would say, you know, theoretically I should charge you certainly, you know, at most a one percent.”
He also said, ” Like I said, I’m making a career choice. And that’s the main thing I wanted to bounce off you today that this isn’t just you know, a few documents. And I like the idea of setting up an alias. And I like the … the escape route to have a place outside the country. … But that means I also have to have money… I have to have enough money.”
In his conversations with the FBI undercover agent, Nozette also discussed his desire to be sent to a country that did not have extradition with the United States. In one part of the conversation, he asked the agent, “If I was physically in Israel … would they give me up?”
Nozette faces 13 years in prison for his attempted espionage.
In a statement, Assistant Attorney General for National Security Lisa Monaco said, “Stewart Nozette betrayed America’s trust by attempting to sell some of the nation’s most closely-guarded secrets for profit. Today, he is being held accountable for his actions. As this case demonstrates, we remain vigilant in protecting America’s secrets and in bringing to justice those who compromise them.”