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US scientist spy may have worked for ISRO

world Updated: Sep 09, 2011 01:29 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times
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A US space scientist, who may have collaborated with India’s ISRO on Chandrayaan-1, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to attempting to sell classified information to a man he thought was working for Israeli intelligence.

Stewart David Nozette, 56, pleaded guilty to espionage in a deal with the justice department, which, if approved by the judge, will put him away for 13 years. He was arrested in October 2009.

He worked for NASA, departments of defense and energy and the White House National Space Council, and enjoyed too-secret clearance allowing him access to highly classified documents and information.

While working for NASA he had visited Indian Space Research Organisation facility in Bangalore twice.

The two space agencies collaborated in a mission that is believed to have found ice on the Moon, bolstering earlier findings of water.

Nozette’s had assisted in the development of Clementine bi-static radar that led to the discovery of water ice on the south pole of the Moon, said the department of justice in its announcement of the scientist’s guilty plea.

But it was not clear if he had indeed worked with ISRO on the Chandrayaan.

“There is no discussion in the public record about work with the Indian space agency on its program to send a device to the moon,” William Miller of the US attorney’s office here told Hindustan Times.

While ISRO has confirmed his visits to the facility, it has steadfastly maintained that it’s usually wary of foreigners and never allows them more than necessary access to the facility.

While he might not have not have managed to steal anything from ISRO, did he try and sell it classified information that he was merrily hawking to a country which could pay him for it and give him a passport?

“There are no allegations that Mr. Nozette tried to sell information to India,” Miller said.

ISRO launched Chandrayaan, an unmanned spacecraft, in 2008. It carried a NASA radar called Mini-SAR, that found more than 40 small carters near the Moon’s north police containing water ice.

The scientist, who enjoyed top secret clearance, had been in the market for a long time, since 2002, when he sent an email threatening to sell classified information about a project he was then working on to an “unnamed country or Israel”.

The FBI stumbled upon this mail while investigating him in 2007.

In 2007, Nozette got a call from a man who said he worked for the Israeli intelligence service Mossad. The scientist reacted with enthusiasm, saying at the end of the meeting: “Good, happy to be of assistance.”

Except, this man was not from Mossad. He was an undercover FBI agent.

Nozette walked into the trap. He passed on information, some of which was clearly classified, and collected money over three meetings. He then got ambitious, and scaled up his asking price, by several millions.

“So I tell ya at least two hundred million so I would say, you know, theoretically I should charge you certainly, you know, at most a one percent,” he told the undercover FBI agent. He was arrested shortly.