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Nozette Guilty of Defrauding Government, Had Threatened to Flee to India

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
October 27, 2009
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Accused spy Stewart David Nozette in India.

Accused spy Stewart David Nozette in India.

More pieces of the Stewart David Nozette spy case are falling into place, and they’re revealing a twisted and disturbing picture. The Washington Post reports that Nozette:

  • Pleaded guilty in January to over billing NASA and the Department of Defense by more than $265,000 for contracting work between 2000 and 2006;
  • Sought to avoid a two-year jail term by cooperating with government officials on unrelated corruption investigations;
  • Allegedly told a colleague that he would flee to Israel or India and reveal all the secrets he had if the government put him in jail on his fraud conviction.

Nozette’s threat to flee is what led the U.S. government to begin a sting operation with an undercover FBI agent posing as a member of Israel’s security agency, Mossad:

The colleague tipped off federal investigators, who were concerned because Nozette had ties to an Israeli aerospace firm and was working on a lunar project being run by the Indian government. Authorities soon launched a sting operation. By September, the FBI agent was meeting with Nozette and exchanging cash for information through a U.S. post office box in the District, federal officials have alleged.

Federal authorities said Nozette turned over sensitive information about the government’s defenses and its defense strategy. The Justice Department has stressed that Israel was not accused of crimes tied to Nozette.

As a result, instead of facing a two-year sentence for fraud with perhaps a reduction for cooperating with authorities, Nozette now faces life in prison if the government can prove its spy case.

The latest revelations are extremely revealing. For one, government officials have confirmed that it was in fact India to which Nozette had allegedly threatened to flee. In the indictment, the nation had been identified only as “Country A.”

The charges also mention a trip that Nozette took in January to India in which he left with two thumb drives that were not discovered on his person during a search upon his return to the United States. No charges have been made in connection with the thumb drives, but the inclusion of the information in the indictment raises suspicions that Nozette may have been passing secret information to foreign sources.

Nozette was a co-investigator for ISRO’s Chandrayaan-1’s mini-RF instrument, one of two experiments that NASA placed aboard the lunar orbiter. He worked closely with Indian scientists on the project, and visited ISRO’s facilities at least twice.

The mini-RF instrument was a powerful radar system with very sensitive dual-use technology. It took some doing to get American export officials to agree to ship it to India, as Peter J. Brown points out in an article for the Thaii-ASEAN News Network:

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.

The reaction from Indian officials has been curious. ISRO’s first reaction was to deny Nozette was spying on them by saying he had no access to sensitive areas. When pressed for more information, the Indian space agency declared all information about Nozette’s visits to be “classified.” Relating to a civilian lunar probe.

These responses seem to have done the trick. In skimming through the Indian English language press, I can’t find any evidence that the media are pursuing the question any further.

Instead, they seem primarily focused on the end of G. Madhavan Nair’s six-year tenure as chairman of ISRO. This, in itself, is interesting because it seems to have come up rather suddenly.

The first public mention I can find in the Indian English language press dates to a few days before the Nozette scandal broke – and a mere two weeks before Nair’s retirement on Oct. 31. His successor, K Radhakrishnan, was informed on Saturday, Oct. 24 by phone and faxed a copy of his appointment.

Nair was first appointed ISRO chairman in 2003 and received a pair of two-year extensions. It’s not clear from the press reports I’ve read whether Nair is retiring on his own accord or if the government had decided not to offer another extension. The odd thing is that the India media don’t seem to be even asking the question – which is the obvious one when someone of that status retires. Why?

All these developments are very interesting. Stay tuned. I don’t think this is the end of the story.