Stewart Nozette narrowly escaped the death penalty after admitting trying to sell U.S. secrets to Israeli spies
A former scientist with Nasa has narrowly escaped the death sentence after he admitted trying to sell U.S. secrets to Israeli spies.
Stewart Nozette was snared by an undercover sting operation launched after a tax investigation uncovered classified documents at his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
In a conversation recorded in downtown Washington, the 54-year-old told an undercover agent posing as an Israeli spy: 'I've crossed the Rubicon ... I've made a career choice.
I'm prepared to give them the whole thing ... all the technical specifications.
In court Nozette pleaded guilty to one count of attempted espionage, admitting he tried to provide Israel with information about satellites, early warning systems, retaliation strategies, communications intelligence information and major elements of defence strategy.
Prosecutors said Nozette agreed to divulge secrets to what he thought was Israeli spy agency Mossad through a post office box in exchange for money and an Israeli passport.
He took two payments - one for $2,000, the other for $9,000 - from the post office box in September 2009 in exchange for answers to questions about U.S. satellites.
Nozette had earned 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.
After gaining a doctorate in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he made his reputation as a defence technologist working on the abortive Strategic Defence Initiative missile defence shield during the Reagan-era.
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.
Nozette was recorded telling the FBI's undercover agent that the secrets he was revealing had cost the U.S. government anywhere from $200million to almost $1billion.
He said he thought he should be paid one per cent of that cost - $2 million.
Investigators learned that Nozette could be a potential spy after a search of his home in February 2007 in connection with a 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 had Nozette sent an email in 2002 threatening to sell information about a classified programme he was working on to Israel or another foreign country.
Investigators would not disclose to whom he sent the email, but said the FBI decided to conduct an undercover operation to see how serious his claims were.
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.
At one point in the recording of his meeting with the undercover agent, 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 would leave his wife behind. 'She would ask too many questions,' he said in the recording.
Nozette was sentenced to 13 years in prison on Wednesday, after U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman said he was prepared to accept a plea-deal.
Appearing in court in a prison jumpsuit, 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 said Nozette told the undercover agent that he already had passed classified information to Israel through his consulting work for state-run Israel Aerospace Industries.
But prosecutors could not prove Nozette gave the agency any secrets and he was not charged with doing so.
We do not have any information he passed on classified information,' said Ronald C.
Machen Jr., U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.
We believe we thwarted that before it occurred.'