An acclaimed former NASA scientist was arrested Monday on charges that he attempted to sell sensitive defense secrets to a person he thought was an Israeli intelligence officer.
Stewart David Nozette, 52, worked in top government jobs from 1989 to 2000 and had access to military satellite programs and nuclear weapons programs, according to court papers that were unsealed Monday after the scientist was arrested at his Chevy Chase home.
According to Mr. Nozette’s biography at NASA.gov, he played a lead role in developing the Clementine bistatic radar. The radar, which discovered water on the South Pole of the moon, can be used to track ballistic missiles.
The criminal complaint against Mr. Nozette cryptically notes that on or near Jan. 6, the scientist traveled to “foreign country A” with two computer thumb drives. Upon his return to the United States, an officer with U.S. Customs and Border Protection “could not locate the thumb drives that been in Nozette’s possession when he had left the United States,” the complaint said.
Prior to that trip, Mr. Nozette “informed a colleague that if the United States government tried ‘to put him in jail’ [based on an unrelated criminal offense], Nozette would move from the United States to Israel or foreign country A [not Israel], and ‘tell them everything’ he knows,” the indictment said.
Court records show that Mr. Nozette was under federal criminal investigation over allegations that he defrauded NASA through the Alliance for Competitive Technology, a company he founded. In 2007, federal agents executed a search warrant at his Maryland home and the offices of this company.
From 1998 to 2008, Mr. Nozette worked as a consultant for an aerospace company owned by Israel, according to court records. Mr. Nozette provided answers to technical questions posed by the company every month and received regular payments that totaled $225,000, the court papers said.
David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security, hailed the arrest as a warning to all would-be spies “who would consider compromising our nations secrets for profit.”
According to excerpts of conversations recorded by an undercover FBI agent, Mr. Nozette said he was not approached by the Israeli intelligence service, known as the Mossad, before the apparent sting.
“I don’t get recruited by Mossad every day. I knew this day would come, by the way,” he told the agent, according to the indictment.
Kenneth Piernick, a former senior FBI agent who worked both in counterintelligence and counterterrorism, said Mr. Nozette appeared to have been the object of a “false flag” operation, in which an FBI agent poses as an intelligence officer of a foreign government.
“He must have made some kind of attempt, which triggered the FBI’s interest in him,” Mr. Piernick said. “They cut in between him and whoever he was trying to work with and posed as an intelligence officer, agent or courier to handle the issue, and then when he delivered what he intended to deliver to that person, his contact was likely an undercover FBI agent or [someone from] another U.S. intelligence service.”
Mr. Nozette was so proud of his access to state secrets that he recited from memory information that the complaint said was highly classified. Indeed, Mr. Nozette bragged he had a “Q clearance” between 1990 and 2000, “which involved all aspects of nuclear weapons programs,” court papers said.
He also said he had access to more than 20 activities known as “special-access programs” that are so secret that the list of government officials allowed to know about them is limited to only a handful.
“These are the most sensitive subjects, and it will have to be re-created from memory over some time,” he told the FBI agent posing as the Mossad officer.
Craig Covault, editor-at-large of SpaceFlightNow.com, who interviewed Mr. Nozette several times during his 36 years covering the aerospace industry, said he was shocked by the arrest.
“To my knowledge, he was a dedicated scientist whose manner would give you no clue he was a spy. He was a very solid scientist,” Mr. Covault said.
Tarron Lively and Sandra Frederick contributed to this report.