A leading American scientist who once had access to top-secret materials related to national defence and atomic research appeared in court yesterday after being charged with attempting to pass classified materials to Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.
Stewart Nozette, 52, a former Nasa scientist who worked on the Reagan administration's Star Wars missile shield programme, faces a lengthy criminal complaint. The document details a meticulous sting operation that began when an FBI agent contacted him by telephone early last month posing as a Mossad agent. Dr Nozette and the agent subsequently held two meetings, allegedly striking deals to divulge secrets in exchange for cash.
If convicted on the charges of attempted espionage, he could face a sentence of life in prison.
"I don't get recruited by Mossad every day," Dr Nozette allegedly told the FBI agent at their first clandestine meeting in a Washington hotel, unaware that every word of their conversation was being taped. He added, "I knew this day would come." Asked why he had been so sure of that, he responded, "I just had a feeling."
The day he didn't see coming was Monday, when agents put in him handcuffs at the Mayflower Hotel, just steps from the White House, where he had arrived imagining he was about to have another meeting with the men from Mossad. They were in fact the men from the FBI's counter-espionage unit.
"This case reflects our firm resolve to hold accountable any individual who betrays the public trust by compromising our national security for his or her own personal gain," Channing Phillips, acting US attorney for the District of Columbia, said after the arrest.
David Kris, US assistant attorney general, said: "The conduct alleged ... is serious and should serve as a warning to anyone who would consider compromising our nation's secrets."
A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr Nozette has had a stellar career. According to a former colleague, the Stanford University aerospace professor Scott Hubbard, he worked on the Reagan administration's Strategic Defence Initiative, in what Mr Hubbard told the AP news agency "was leading-edge, Department of Defense national security work". He has also been credited with helping to find water on the moon.
Between 1989 to 2006, he was often afforded security clearances that were as high as "top secret", according to a statement from the Justice Department. That gave him "frequent access to classified information and documents related to the US national defence".
In those years he worked variously for the White House's National Space Council and for research bodies for the Energy and Defence departments. In 2000, he set up his own non-profit company which sometimes advised the US government on developing advanced technologies. From 1998 until last year he received payments as a technical adviser to an aerospace company that was wholly owned by the Israeli government. The complaint does not accuse Israel of any complicity in the case.
The Associated Press reported yesterday that authorities became worried about possible espionage activity by Nozette after an investigation in 2006 that looked at whether he submitted false expenses claims.
Alarm bells were further sounded when he travelled abroad earlier this year, leaving for an unidentified country with two computer memory sticks, and returning without them.
It was on 3 September, the complaint says, that he was first contacted by the FBI agent claiming to be with Mossad. During their first hotel meeting, Dr Nozette allegedly acknowledged that he no longer had direct access to national secrets, but pointed to his head and said "it's in" there, implying that there was much in his memory he could divulge. That, he allegedly went on, would include information about what the "US has done in space".
At one point in that meeting, the question of remuneration was raised by Dr Nozette. "Well, I should tell you my first need is that they should figure out how to pay me," he said, adding: "They don't expect me to do this for free." He also asked for an Israeli passport.
The two men agreed on a post-office box in Washington that they would use for further communication. In the following weeks, Dr Nozette allegedly took a total of $11,000 in cash in return for initial fragments of information, including answers to what he thought was a Mossad questionnaire, and an encrypted hard drive.
The complaint said that the FBI had video evidence of Dr Nozette leaving a manila envelope in the post office box.
The materials he passed on before his arrest late on Monday afternoon included information "classified as both 'top secret' and 'secret' that concerned US satellites, early-warning systems, means of defence or retaliation against large-scale attack, communications intelligence information, and major elements of defence strategy", the Justice Department said in its statement.