WASHINGTON (AFP) – US authorities arrested a leading American scientist who had worked for the White House and NASA and charged him with attempted spying for Israel.
Stewart Nozette, 52, was apprehended after a sting operation involving an undercover FBI agent, the Department of Justice said, adding that there was no wrongdoing by Israel.
He is charged with “attempted espionage for knowingly and willfully attempting to communicate, deliver, and transmit classified information relating to the national defense of the United States to an individual that Nozette believed to be an Israeli intelligence officer.”
Nozette, who was arrested in the Washington suburb of Chevy Chase, Maryland and taken into custody, could make his first court appearance Tuesday on the charge, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
“The conduct alleged in this complaint is serious and should serve as a warning to anyone who would consider compromising our nation’s secrets for profit,” said David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security.
Nozette developed an experiment that fueled the discovery of water on the south pole of the moon, and previously held special security clearance at the Department of Energy on atomic materials.
In addition to stints at the US space agency NASA and the Department of Energy, Nozette worked at the White House on the National Space Council under then-president George H.W. Bush in 1989 and 1990.
“From 1989 through 2006, Nozette held security clearances as high as top secret and had regular, frequent access to classified information and documents related to the US national defense,” the Justice Department said.
In early September, Nozette received a phone call from a person “purporting to be an Israeli intelligence officer, but who was in fact an undercover employee of the FBI,” it said.
“Nozette met with the UCE (undercover employee) that day and discussed his willingness to work for Israeli intelligence,” informing the agent that “he had, in the past, held top security clearances and had access to US satellite information.”
The scientist offered to “answer questions about this information in exchange for money,” the Justice Department said.
“In addition, Nozette allegedly offered to reveal additional classified information that directly concerned nuclear weaponry, military spacecraft or satellites, and other major weapons systems.”
Over the next several weeks, Nozette and the undercover agent exchanged envelopes of money for answers to lists of questions about US satellite technology.
First, Nozette answered questions for a 2,000 cash payment, including one answer that “contained information classified as Secret,” the Justice Department said.
Later in September, the suspect picked up a payment of 9,000 dollars in cash and more questions, answers to which he returned to a drop-spot in a manila envelope this month.
FBI agents retrieved the envelope and found “the answers contained information classified as both Top Secret and Secret that concerned US satellites, early warning systems, means of defense or retaliation against large-scale attack, communications intelligence information, and major elements of defense strategy.”
It was unclear how Nozette came to be targeted by the FBI sting. The Department of Justice and FBI did not immediately return calls seeking further comment.
“The FBI is committed to protecting the nation’s classified information and pursuing those who attempt to profit from its release or sale,” said Joseph Persichini, Jr., of the Washington branch of the FBI, according to a statement.
In 1987, the United States sentenced Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard to life in prison for providing Israel — from May 1984 to his arrest in November 1985 — thousands of confidential military documents on US spying, particularly in Arab nations.
Israel has appealed for Pollard’s release repeatedly, and in vain.