A scientist who worked for the federal government pleaded guilty to attempted espionage on Wednesday.
Prosecutors say Stewart David Nozette tried to pass classified information to an undercover FBI agent posing as an Israeli intelligence officer.
Nozette admitted in federal court that he tried to provide Israel with top-secret information about satellites, early warning systems, ways of retaliating against large-scale attack, communications intelligence information and major elements of defense strategy.
Both the Justice Department and Nozette's lawyers have agreed to a sentence of 13 years in prison, with credit for two years Nozette has already spent behind bars. U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman said he was prepared to accept the deal, pending Nozette's cooperation with prosecutors, a procedure expected to last into November.
Appearing in court in a prison jumpsuit, Nozette said he understood the charge to which he was pleading. He could have been sentenced to death had he been convicted of all four counts of attempted espionage that he faced. He had already pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges for evading income taxes.
Nozette studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and helped discover water ice on the south pole of the moon. He had top-secret clearances between 1989 and 2006, when he worked for several different federal agencies.
Authorities said Nozette shared sensitive materials with people he thought worked for the government of Israel after secret meetings at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Just before his arrest, Nozette told an undercover FBI agent in the sting operation on Oct. 19, 2009, that the secrets he was passing to Israel had cost the U.S. government anywhere from $200 million to almost $1 billion, according to newly filed court papers in the case. "So I tell ya ... theoretically I should charge you certainly, you know, at most" 1 percent, the court papers quoted Nozette as telling the agent.
In the Oct. 19 conversation, Nozette told the undercover agent, "I've crossed the Rubicon ... I've made a career choice," and then, according to the papers, he laughed.
"I'm prepared to give them the whole thing ... all the technical specifications," according to the court papers.
"The cost to the U.S. government was $200 million ... to develop it all," Nozette is quoted as saying. "And then that's not including the launching of it. ... Integrating the satellites. ... that probably brings it to almost a billion dollars."
Prosecutors said Nozette agreed to provide regular information to the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, through a post office box in exchange for money. They accused him of asking for an Israeli passport and payments in cash under $10,000 each to avoid reporting it. Authorities said he took two payments — one for $2,000 and another for $9,000 — from the post office box to answer questions about U.S. satellite systems.
NPR's Carrie Johnson reported from Washington for this story, which includes material from The Associated Press.