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
"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
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
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
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
"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.