The US Department of Justice said on Monday it had charged Stewart David Nozette, 52, with a number of espionage counts after a sting operation involving an undercover FBI agent.
Nozette is accused of “knowingly and willfully attempting to communicate, deliver, and transmit classified information relating to the national defence of the United States to an individual that Nozette believed to be an Israeli intelligence officer.”
The Department of Justice insisted there had been no wrongdoing by Israel.
Nozette, who was arrested in the Washington suburb of Chevy Chase, Maryland, and taken into custody, could make his first court appearance on Tuesday.
If convicted, he could face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
‘Top secret’ security clearance
“The conduct alleged in this complaint is serious and should serve as a warning to anyone who would consider compromising our nation’s secrets for profit,” said David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security.
Nozette developed an experiment that fueled the discovery of water on the south pole of the moon, and previously held special security clearance at the Department of Energy on atomic materials.
In addition to stints with NASA and the Department of Energy, Nozette worked at the White House on the National Space Council under then-president George H W Bush in 1989 and 1990.
“From 1989 through 2006, Nozette held security clearances as high as top secret and had regular, frequent access to classified information and documents related to the US national defense,” the Justice Department said.
In early September, Nozette received a phone call from a person “purporting to be an Israeli intelligence officer, but who was in fact an undercover employee of the FBI,” the DOJ said.
“Nozette met with the UCE (undercover employee) that day and discussed his willingness to work for Israeli intelligence,” informing the agent that “he had, in the past, held top security clearances and had access to US satellite information.”
Nuclear, military, space information
The scientist offered to “answer questions about this information in exchange for money”.
Over the next several weeks, Nozette and the undercover agent exchanged envelopes of money for answers to lists of questions about US satellite technology.
“In addition, Nozette allegedly offered to reveal additional classified information that directly concerned nuclear weaponry, military spacecraft or satellites, and other major weapons systems,” DOJ said.
FBI agents retrieved a manila envelope left by Nozette in a designated location this month that “contained information classified as both top secret and secret that concerned US satellites, early warning systems, means of defense or retaliation against large-scale attack, communications intelligence information, and major elements of defense strategy.”
In 1987, the United States sentenced Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard to life in prison for providing Israel – from May 1984 to his arrest in November 1985 – thousands of confidential military documents on US spying, particularly in Arab nations.
Israel has appealed for his release repeatedly, and in vain. And Pollard supporters in Israel and the United States have done the same for the man who since has obtained Israeli citizenship.