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Scientist pleads guilty in espionage case

Stewart Nozette
A NASA web site image shows Stewart David Nozette, who pleaded guilty Wednesday to one count of attempted espionage for trying to sell classified information to an undercover FBI agent posing as an Israeli spy.Anonymous / AP
/ Source: NBC News and news services

A former government space scientist pleaded guilty Wednesday to one count of attempted espionage for trying to sell classified information to an undercover FBI agent posing as an Israeli spy.

During an appearance in federal court, Stewart David Nozette of Chevy Chase, Md., jailed since his Oct. 19, 2009, arrest, admitted that he tried to provide Israel with top secret information about satellites, early warning systems, ways of retaliating against large-scale attack, communications intelligence information and major elements of defense strategy.

Both the Justice Department and Nozette's lawyers have agreed to a sentence of 13 years in prison, with credit for two years Nozette has already spent behind bars. U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman said he was prepared to accept the deal, pending Nozette's cooperation with prosecutors, a procedure expected to last into November.

"Stewart Nozette was once a trusted scientist who maintained high-level government security clearances and was frequently granted access to classified information relating to our national defense," U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said in a statement obtained by NBC station WRC. "He will now have the next 13 years behind bars to contemplate his betrayal."

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

Nozette worked in a variety of sensitive military and civilian jobs, including at the Department of Energy, Department of Defense, NASA and the White House’s National Space Council. FBI agents arrested him after an undercover sting operation in which he provided classified materials on three occasions to a person posing as an Israeli intelligence officer, the U.S. Attorney’s office said. Nozette pleaded guilty to one of the occasions. The material he provided concerned material classified as "Tops Secret" and "Secret" and which pertains to U.S. satellites, early-warning systems and other elements of national defense, prosecutors said.

The federal indictment returned after Nozette’s arrest does not allege that the government of Israel or anyone acting on its behalf broke any laws in connection with the case.

The undercover FBI investigation began after law enforcement agents executed a search warrant at Nozette’s home in 2007 as part of a separate fraud investigation. Inside the house, authorities found classified documents and other materials that suggested Nozette was open to selling U.S. secrets, according to court documents.

Just before his arrest, Nozette told an undercover FBI agent that the secrets he was passing to Israel had cost the U.S. government anywhere from $200 million to almost $1 billion, according to newly filed court papers in the case.

"So I tell ya, ... theoretically I should charge you certainly, you know, at most" 1 percent, the court papers quoted Nozette as telling the agent.

In the Oct. 19 conversation at the Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington, Nozette told the undercover agent that "I've crossed the Rubicon ... I've made a career choice," and then, according to the papers, he laughed.

"I'm prepared to give them the whole thing ... all the technical specifications," according to the court papers.

Nozette has a doctorate in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was known primarily as a defense technologist who had worked on the Reagan-era missile defense shield effort formally called the Strategic Defense Initiative. He also helped discover evidence of water on the moon.

Because Nozette knows so many secrets, including about the nation's nuclear missile program, Attorney General Eric Holder ordered special communications restrictions placed on him in jail.