A 54-year-old Maryland scientist said Wednesday that he regretted supplying classified information in exchange for cash to a person he believed was a member of Israeli intelligence but was really an undercover FBI agent.
Stewart D. Nozette of Chevy Chase, who had previously pleaded guilty to attempted espionage in a deal with prosecutors that set his sentence at 13 years, was officially sentenced Wednesday to that term by U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman during a lengthy hearing in the District’s federal court. Friedman also sentenced him to just over three years in prison – a term to run concurrently with his espionage sentence – in an unrelated fraud and tax case.
At the end of the proceeding, which included the playing of secretly recorded video of Nozette meeting with an undercover FBI agent posing as a member of the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad, Nozette spoke publicly for the first time since his arrest in October 2009.
“I regret failing to report” to authorities that he was approached by a man he suspected of being an Israeli agent, he told Friedman. The scientist added, “I accept full responsibility for this error” and noted the meetings occurred just as his life began to “snowball downhill.” His lawyers have said he was contemplating suicide at the time and was angry at how he was being treated in the fraud investigation, making him an easy target for FBI agents seeking a big arrest. They noted that he at first refused to provide the undercover agent classified information.
In pleading guilty to attempted espionage in September, Nozette admitted he passed secrets to the undercover agent in exchange for more than $20,000. The agent approached Nozette in September 2009 and they had a series of secretly recorded meetings at the District’s Mayflower Hotel. The undercover agent also arranged to exchange information, questions and money with Nozette through a “dead drop,” which was a P.O. Box in the District. In those exchanges, Nozette provided classified information about “satellites, early warning systems, means of defense or retaliation against a large-scale attack, communications intelligence information, and major elements of defense strategy,” court records show.
Though the sentencing was largely a formality, both sides took pains to paint divergent pictures of Nozette, who was once one of the country’s leading space scientists who had access during his career to key defense programs.
Prosecutors say Nozette was motivated to become a traitor by greed and played a video clip in court of the final meeting between Nozette and the undercover agent. “I’ve crossed the Rubicon,” Nozette calmly tells the agent, because he would no longer be able to pass a government polygraph. Nozette adds that his initial price of $50,000 was too low and suggests that the Israeli government pay him at least $2 million.
“He agreed to be a traitor to the United States with a smile on his face,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Asuncion told the judge.
Defense lawyers countered that Nozette was under enormous strain when FBI agents began to target him in the sting operation. At the time, Nozette was actually working as an undercover informant for the government in the hopes of getting a reduced sentence in a fraud and tax case tied to contracting work he provided federal agencies. He pleaded guilty in early 2009 to charges of conspiring to defraud the U.S. government and to commit tax evasion, admitting that over a number of years he had filed false invoices for work totaling $265,000 and evaded more than $200,000 in taxes.
While investigating that case, federal agents in 2007 stumbled across classified information on his home computer and an e-mail he sent in 2002 threatening to provide classified information to an unidentified country or Israel. Agents trailed Nozette for a year, his lawyers said, but discovered no evidence that he provided any classified information to a foreign power. In 2009, the FBI launched its sting.
Bradford Berenson, one of Nozette’s attorneys, on Wednesday accused the government of entrapment and of “ignoble, dishonorable conduct.” He said there was no evidence that Nozette would ever have passed secrets to a foreign government absent the FBI operation. Instead of launching a sting operation, agents should have questioned Nozette or spoken to his attorneys, Berenson said.
Berenson and Nozette’s other lawyers, Robert Tucker and John C. Kiyonaga, argued that the government carefully tailored the sting to take advantage of the scientist’s frustrations with the fraud case and his sympathy for Israel.
The hearing was a final chapter in the legal saga involving Nozette, a scientist who has a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is credited with developing a satellite-based radar system that helped discover water on the moon during a 1994 mission.
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