U.S. Planetary Scientist Admits Attempted Espionage

P. Bagla/Science

A one-time principal investigator on a NASA mission that is still orbiting the moon has admitted trying to sell classified materials to an FBI employee posing as an Israeli intelligence agent. Stewart Nozette, 54, made the confession yesterday in a District of Columbia federal court after learning that he was facing a sentence of 13 years negotiated by the Justice Department and his lawyers. He will be credited with the 2 years of imprisonment since his arrest.

Nozette was already in trouble with the law when he fell for the FBI sting. In January 2009, he had pleaded guilty to overbilling the government by $265,000 on government contracts awarded to a technology company he ran. He used the money, among other things, to pay credit card bills and to maintain the swimming pool at his Chevy Chase, Maryland, home.

While Nozette was awaiting sentencing and cooperating with government investigators, he was approached by the supposed Israeli agent. The ploy grew out of a discovery made during a 2007 search of his home in the course of the contracting case. Court records show that an e-mail was found in which Nozette threatened to take classified materials he was working with to a foreign country, possibly Israel. He had long had access to classified materials while holding a number of sensitive positions, including work at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and service during 1989 and 1990 on the White House National Space Council that was led by Vice President Dan Quayle.

By the time Nozette met with the supposed Israeli agent in a Washington hotel room in October 2009, he had agreed to receive $11,000 in return for passing on classified materials about U.S. satellite defense systems. In the videotaped conversation in the hotel, he negotiated for a new identity, a passport, and travel to another country such as Singapore.

Apparently, Nozette was ready to give up his life as a leading planetary scientist. In 1994 he had helped set off the search for ice on the moon by running a jury-rigged radar experiment on the Clementine spacecraft that, by his interpretation published in Science, showed signs of ice buried near the moon's south pole. He then became the principal investigator on the radar experiment on NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter as well as the co-PI on a radar on an Indian lunar orbiter. Both instruments returned far stronger evidence for lunar ice, a resource whose presence the LCROSS impact mission eventually confirmed.

But all that was in his past. "I've crossed the Rubicon," he said in the hotel room. "I've made a career choice."