Scientist accused of espionage described as gifted, ambitious

Stewart Nozette has a hearing Thursday on two counts of attempted espionage.
Stewart Nozette has a hearing Thursday on two counts of attempted espionage. (AP)
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By Del Quentin Wilber and Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

By all accounts, Stewart D. Nozette is a brilliant and creative scientist, an astronomer who once sketched a key part of a lunar mission on the back of a cocktail napkin and daydreamed of colonizing the moon.

In a recent photograph, he appears the caricature of a NASA geek: a pudgy man wearing an ugly green shirt with a pen protruding from the pocket. Wisps of his hair scatter in all directions.

But Nozette is not your stereotypically shy, reserved genius. He is ambitious and unafraid to engage in political combat. He has been known to prod public officials and lawmakers to fund his programs or scuttle those of rivals, friends and colleagues said. He has donated more than $35,000 to politicians and causes.

And, according to recently unsealed court documents, he stole lots of government money to finance personal credit cards, mortgages, car loans and maintenance on his swimming pool.

It's those traits -- his hubris and expensive tastes -- that might explain why the astronomer regarded by many in his field as accomplished and gifted has landed in such serious trouble with the law, investigators and former colleagues say.

Nozette, 52, who has held sensitive military and civilian government jobs, was indicted Oct. 21 on two counts of attempted espionage, accused of giving sensitive government information to an undercover FBI agent posing as an Israeli intelligence officer.

The agent paid Nozette $11,000 for classified material, which was exchanged in recent weeks through a "dead drop" post office box, the FBI says. A federal judge in the District has ordered him held without bond until a hearing Thursday.

The charges carry the death penalty, although prosecutors do not seemed inclined to seek it. In a news release, the Justice Department said Nozette faces life in prison if convicted.

Nozette's attorney, John Kiyonaga, declined to comment. No one answered the door last week at Nozette's Chevy Chase home.

Friends said they couldn't come up with a motive for Nozette's suspected conduct. Nozette, the son of a well-off Chicago plastics executive who worked on the U.S. government's Manhattan nuclear bomb project in the 1940s, never seemed to need money. There were no outward signs that he might be upset with his country.

With a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he spent most of his life toiling on some of the government's most sophisticated defense systems and civilian space programs. His only fixation, friends said, seemed to be finding evidence of ice on the moon.

"Stewart is too smart to be caught up in something like this," said science fiction author Jerry Pournelle, who worked with Nozette and others in the early 1980s to advise the U.S. government on space policy. "I just find the whole thing very odd."

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