Space scientist, MIT PhD, pleads guilty, gets 13 years in prison for espionage

Planetary scientist, physicist, Stewart Nozette thought he was selling US military, satellite secrets to Israel

A space scientist with a PhD in Planetary Sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who once worked for NASA, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, and the White House's National Space Council, pleaded guilty today to attempted espionage for offering classified satellite  information to a person he believed to be an Israeli intelligence officer.

In pleading guilty Stewart Nozette, the Department of Justice and the federal court agreed to a 13 year prison sentence with credit for two years he 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, according to the DoJ.

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FBI agents arrested Nozette on  Oct. 19, 2009, after an undercover operation in which he provided classified materials on three occasions.  He was subsequently indicted by a federal grand jury and pleaded guilty to one of these charges.   The indictment does not allege that the government of Israel or anyone acting on its behalf committed any offense under US laws in this case, the DoJ stated.

Some of the classified information Nozette is said to have passed to the FBI agents included data directly concerned satellites, early warning systems, means of defense or retaliation against large-scale attack, communications intelligence information, and major elements of defense strategy.   As well as the capabilities of a US military weapon system research and development effort, the DoJ stated.  

According to the DoJ, Nozette had an impressive resume that included:

  • A Ph.D. in Planetary Sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1983
  • Worked at the White House on the National Space Council, Executive Office of the President, from approximately 1989 through 1990.
  • Worked as a physicist for the US Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from approximately 1990 to 1999, where he designed highly advanced technology.
  • Assisted in the development of the Clementine bi-static radar experiment which purportedly discovered water ice on the south pole of the moon. A version of the Clementine satellite currently hangs on display at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and was later hailed as the vanguard of the new "faster, cheaper, better" revolution in space exploration.
  • President, treasurer and director of the Alliance for Competitive Technology (ACT), a non-profit organization that he organized in March 1990. Between January 2000 and February 2006, Nozette, through his company, ACT, entered into agreements with several government agencies to develop highly advanced technology. Nozette performed some of this research and development at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in Arlington, Va., and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
  • From 1989 through 2006, Nozette held security clearances as high as TOP SECRET and had regular, frequent access to classified information and documents related to the national defense of the United States. The factual proffer also provides details about the undercover operation that led to Nozette's arrest.

He also had some other legal issues however.  The DoJ said at the time of his arrest, Nozette was awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty in the US District Court for the District of Columbia to charges of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government with respect to false claims and tax evasion in an amount up to $399,999.   In that case, Nozette agreed to pay restitution of $265,205 to the US government.   Nozette is still awaiting sentencing in the case however, under terms of today's plea, the sentence in the fraud case is to run concurrently with the sentence for attempted espionage, the DoJ stated.   

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