A detained US scientist, who played a key role in India's Chandrayaan mission in finding evidence of water on the Moon, had sought to sell top US secrets to Israel for a sum of US $ 2 million, federal prosecutors have charged.
52-year-old Stewart D Nozette, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientist and Maryland resident, was taken into custody by the Federal Bureau of Investigation last week on charges of espionage for Israel. He had served 16 years in sensitive positions in various wings of the federal government, including the White House, NASA and Energy Department and assisted in the development of the Clementine bi-static radar experiment which purportedly discovered water ice on the south pole of the Moon.
According to the grand jury indictment, the information which Nozette tried to provide to Israel included directly concerned satellites, early warning systems, means of defence or retaliation against large-scale attack, communications intelligence information and major defence strategy elements.
Federal prosecutors charged that Nozette had sought to sell the top US secrets for US $ 2 million. The Washington Post, in a recent report, claimed that Nozette had threatened to sell secrets to Israel or India, if authorities tried to put him behind bar in a fraud case against him, in which he had pleaded guilty early this year. However there is no mention to India in any of the affidavits or indictments, expect for direct mentioning of Israel, and an unnamed 'Country A'.
According to court papers filed on Wednesday, Nozette travelled to 'Country A' from Dulles International Airport, on January 6 this year, wherein a Transportation Security Agency Officer inspected his personal belongings and noted that he had two USB pen-drives in his possession. On his return from the 'foreign country A', on January 28, the custom officials conducted a thorough search of his baggage and carry-on luggage, but could not locate the thumb drives that he had in his possession when he had left the US, the court papers said.
Two days later on January 30, Nozette pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to defraud the US government with respect to false claims and tax evasion in an amount up to US $ 399,999. As part of his sentence, he agreed to pay restitution of US $ 265,205 to the US government. On the day of his arrest on October 19 from a hotel in Washington, Nozette had demanded US $ 2 million in compensation for his espionage from an undercover FBI official posing as an agent of the Israeli secret service.
He argued that the US had invested a total of US $ 1 billion to develop and deploy the classified programme he had compromised. The undercover handed US $ 10,000 to Nozett during their final discussion, which the NASA scientist kept in his pocket. And as he came outside, he was arrested by the FBI.
The FBI had earlier made a payment of US $ 11,000 to Nozette for some other top secret information. At the time of his arrest, FBI agents found a key to a safe deposit box in Nozett's wallet.
During a search warrant of the safe deposit box, the FBI agents discovered, among other things, three computer drives, eight videotapes, 55 gold 'Krugerrand' coins worth roughly US $ 50,000, and US $ 30,000 in savings bonds. Krugerrand is a South African gold coin, first minted in 1967 to help market South African gold.
Court papers said Nozette owns numerous properties in several states, including his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland and a vacation home in Merritt Island, Florida. A recent tax assessment estimates the approximate value of the properties at US $ 19, 59,999 and US $ 550,000 respectively. Federal prosecutors urged the court not to release him as there are higher chances of him fleeing the country or taking shelter into a diplomatic mission in Washington.
"Nozette has contemplated and taken affirmative steps to prepare to leave the United States," they argued. However, Nozette's attorney said that the NASA scientist does not present an inordinate risk of flight. "He is charged only with an 'attempt' to treat with a foreign intelligence service. Never having actually dealt with a foreign intelligence service, he lacks any demonstrable connection to the resource presumably available to such an entity for moving people covertly between countries," the attorney said.
"Neither does he have any demonstrable assets overseas to assist his flight. Moreover, his only travel document, his passport, is in the possession of his counsel on the related case against him before this Court. Presumably, said counsel could be ordered to convey the passport to the Court. Finally, the Government's claim notwithstanding, he is unlikely to find support in any foreign embassy," he said. PTI