WASHINGTON — A former government space scientist was sentenced Wednesday to 13 years in prison after admitting he tried to sell space and defense secrets to Israel in what turned out to be an FBI sting operation.
Appearing in federal court in a prison jumpsuit, Stewart Nozette said he is “paying for a fatal lack of judgment.”
“I accept full responsibility,” Nozette told U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman.
Prosecutors and Nozette’s lawyers agreed to the 13-year sentence, with credit for the two years that Nozette has spent behind bars since his arrest.
Nozette had 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 administration.
Nozette pleaded guilty to one count of attempted espionage, admitting he tried to provide Israel with top secret information about satellites, early warning systems, methods for retaliating against large-scale attack, communications intelligence information and major elements of defense strategy.
In court, prosecutors played a videotape of Nozette telling an FBI undercover agent posing as an Israeli spy that “I’ve sort of crossed the Rubicon,” or passed a point of no return. On the video, Nozette said he would charge Israel “at most 1 percent” for passing information about an unspecified program that Nozette said cost the U.S. government $200 million.
Nozette, 54, was a “traitor” who engaged in attempted espionage with “unbridled enthusiasm,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Asuncion told the judge.
At the time of Nozette’s arrest for attempted espionage in 2009, he was awaiting sentencing on fraud and tax evasion charges.
On Wednesday, the judge sentenced him to 37 months on those charges, to be served concurrently with the sentence in the espionage case.
Nozette was known primarily as a defense technologist who had worked on the Reagan-era missile defense shield effort, nicknamed “Star Wars” and formally called the Strategic Defense Initiative.
As a leading scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the 1990s, Nozette came up with the concept behind the Clementine space mission, which ultimately discovered ice on the moon, according to the sentencing memo in the espionage case by Nozette’s legal team.
One of Nozette’s lawyers, Bradford Berenson, called the espionage case “vindictive” and an illustration of “overreaching government conduct” at a time when Nozette was already enmeshed in the tax and fraud case.
The government suspected Nozette might be interested in spying after a search of his Chevy Chase, Md., home in February 2007 in the tax and fraud probe.
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. Berenson called that case “relatively minor” and a violation that “a lot of small businesses engage in.”
The search of his home turned up classified documents, though Nozette’s lawyers said in his defense Wednesday that they were not marked as such. Nozette was not allowed to have unsecured classified documents in his home.
Agents also discovered Nozette sent an email in 2002 threatening to sell information about a classified program he was working on to Israel or another country. The FBI decided to conduct an undercover operation to see how serious he was.
The attempted selling of secrets “never would have happened but for the tax and fraud case,” said Berenson.
“This was functional entrapment,” said Berenson. Entrapment is a defense to criminal charges when it is established that the agent originated the idea of the crime and induced the accused to engage in it.
Nozette also was ordered to pay $217,800 in restitution for fraudulent claims he made to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in Arlington, Va., and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.