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    Middle East
     Oct 23, 2009
The spy who lost his thumb drives
By Peter J Brown

Dr Stewart Nozette, American space scientist and noted geophysicist, missile defense expert and leading lunar researcher at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), was arrested this week by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) after being swept up in a sting operation aimed exclusively at him. It is a story that started to unfold three years ago.

Nozette is an elite satellite worker who moves easily between the high-tech world of ultra-sophisticated radar systems and state-of-the-art satellites. He was assigned to very sensitive projects for the US Naval Research Laboratory, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and NASA. And then there was his work with the US Department of Energy. During the administration of president George H W Bush, the White House's National

  

Space Council had engaged Nozette, too.

In other words, Nozette's resume was quite electric from a satellite standpoint. Inject a bit of foreign intrigue and missile defense, and the voltage soars. His work involved extensive contact with research teams in Israel and India as well.

Yes, Nozette was in India - he made his latest trip in January as part of a joint project with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) - and for 10 years between 1998 and 2008, he worked for the Israelis, although the identity of the specific government-owned company that paid him has been withheld. In specific, Nozette provided monthly reports to an unidentified Israeli government-owned aerospace company.

Is India, in fact, "Country A" which is named throughout the court documents that have been revealed by US authorities? One can only guess.

When an attempt was made just a few weeks ago to fly ISRO's Chandrayaan-1 lunar probe in tandem with NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) so that the synthetic aperture radars on both spacecraft could engage in so-called bi-static observations of the lunar surface, Nozette was standing by to help ensure success on August 20 as these two spacecraft - only 20 kilometers apart - passed high over the Erlanger Crater at the lunar North Pole. He was principal investigator on the LRO's so-called Mini-RF radar system, and he had to go over the pointing problems that arose and ultimately caused this joint mission to fail.

It was left to Nozette to explain what had gone wrong. Readers all across India and around the world caught a brief glimpse of him via numerous newspaper and magazine articles.

"The gyros were drifting 0.8 degrees per hour," Nozette said at the time. "That was about 10 times worse than we thought."

Just prior to the sting operation by the FBI - indeed, the timing seems quite odd - Nozette was telling the global media that "ISRO should be congratulated".

"They did a good job, but the moon is somewhat of a harsh environment," he said after India's lunar mission came to an abrupt and unexpected end in late summer.

This week, ISRO is saying nothing about Nozette's kind words, and conveying a sense of calm by emphasizing that no harm was done to India's space or national interests by Nozette in this regard now that Nozette finds himself facing a proceeding in a US federal courtroom.

Keep in mind that under US law, Nozette remains innocent of all charges until proven guilty. His alleged actions constitute a federal offense based on allegations that he communicated, delivered and transmitted classified information, according to the US Department of Justice.

But it is the timing once again that is perplexing. Yes, there is much more to this than meets the eye. Just ask Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical intelligence at Texas-based STRATFOR, a global intelligence company.

"OK, there is more to it. It must be understood that Israel currently poses one of the most profound espionage threats to the United States - especially pertaining to defense technology - and they are very high on the FBI's list of counter-intelligence priorities," said Stewart.

Israel also just happens to be where the US is jointly conducting one of the largest and most sophisticated ballistic missile defense drills that the world has ever seen. This "Juniper Cobra" joint military exercise now underway has a twist. After the drill is over, a lot of the US anti-missile weaponry and associated equipment will very likely be left behind to help defend Israel in the event of an Iranian strike over the coming months.

Strange time for the FBI to be engaged in a sting operation involving someone posing as an Israeli Mossad operative.

Nozette opened his own non-profit company outside Washington, DC, known as Alliance for Competitive Technology, Inc (ACT) years ago, and by 2006, he was battling NASA's inspector general in court, and spending thousands in legal fees in the process. The US Internal Revenue Service was waiting in the wings, too, because of concerns over how money was handled, or perhaps more accurately, mishandled.

The whole sequence of events that triggered the FBI sting operation in 2009 started then. NASA's inspector general in 2006 was pursuing leads and looking for false expense claims and that pile of paperwork apparently spawned an investigation after suspicions were raised that Nozette had links to a foreign government.

Well, he was in fact a "technical adviser" for a company that was wholly owned by the Israeli government from 1998 to 2008. In that span of time, Nozette was paid an estimated US$225,000.

In the meantime, he still had his ongoing projects for NASA via ACT and US military agencies eagerly wanted his input. That required US government clearances.

"For this work, he needed a top secret security clearance and access to sensitive compartmented information - referred to as SCI which is very closely protected top secret information," said Stewart. "This contact [which surfaced during the NASA IG's investigation] caused the US government to suspend Nozette's SCI access in March of 2006 and is what brought him to the attention of the FBI and caused them to open an investigation on him. This history obviously influenced their decision to approach him with an undercover officer posing as a Mossad officer, and Nozette's reaction was telling. 'What took you guys so long?'"

So long, indeed.

Nozette allegedly flew to "Country A" in January, but only after a US Transportation Security Administration screener at a Washington airport was astute enough to log his airline departure along with two computer thumb drives which did not make the return trip.

By September, the FBI came calling. Days after the above-described joint NASA-ISRO mission failure, Nozette's phone was ringing. Mossad was on the other end, Nozette was told. The caller was actually an undercover FBI agent.

Israel is livid about this ill-timed and unwelcome slap in the face by the FBI. On Tuesday, a day after the news broke about the Nozette affair, the Jerusalem Post turned to none other than Steve Rosen, former foreign policy chief at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Like Nozette, Rosen and Keith Weissman were accused by the US government of passing along classified information. The case against Rosen and Weissman was dropped last spring.

"One of the things that our case revealed is the very extreme views that are held by some in counter-intelligence agencies of the CIA and FBI about Israel," Rosen told the Post. "They believe that the Mossad spied on the US on a huge scale and they believe that the Pollard case was the tip of some sort of iceberg." (Jonathan Pollard, an American former naval intelligence analyst, was sentenced to life in 1985 for spying for Israel. He admitted handing the Israelis thousands of documents, photographs and other highly classified material over 18 months, receiving at least $45,000.)

"When you keep repeating that the Mossad is spying on America, Israel is harming the United States, of course it harms the alliance between Israel and the US," Rosen continued. "The current case is even more peculiar because the government of Israel did nothing."

Which is true, of course, absent any evidence to the contrary.

"It's revealing that they used Israel for the sting," Rosen added. "They could have used China, or others. But they chose Israel."

"This case certainly raises the legitimate question of whether this was a legitimate sting or whether it was an unfairly selective sting aimed at Jews to test dual loyalty," Weissman's attorney in the AIPAC case, Baruch Weiss said.

As US and Israeli personnel stood side by side for the start of Juniper Cobra - this joint US-Israeli military exercise was delayed a week, but seems to be on track at this time - Nozette was standing in front of a judge.

What is known is that Nozette did meet with the Mossad FBI agent, did express his willingness to work for Israeli intelligence, did disclose that that he once held a very high level security clearance, did accept $11,000 in cash, did provide a single document and a single encrypted computer thumb drive, and did delve into sensitive and secret aspects of such things as vital US surveillance satellite systems, missile detection/early warning systems and communications intelligence information, among other things.

What is not known is how US and Israeli defense and intelligence officials reacted to the news.

Now, consider at the same time, that several satellite experts and non-proliferation supporters in the US had second thoughts about any US participation in ISRO's Chandrayaan-1 lunar mission in the first place, not only because of the radar technology involved but because US expertise on payload integration might be absorbed directly by ISRO only to resurface later on an Indian rocket or ballistic missile.

Just another strange twist to the tale of Nozette and his twin thumb drives - that are apparently still missing.

Peter J Brown is a satellite journalist from the US state of Maine.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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