Confirming a theory first reported by TPMmuckraker last week, quotes from law enforcement officials in the Washington Post reveal that the country to which espionage suspect Stewart Nozette allegedly traveled with two computer thumb drives in January was India.
Contacted by TPMmuckraker last week, the spokesman for the Indian Embassy in Washington said the embassy had no comment on the Nozette case, though he was familiar with the matter. Nikhilesh Dhirar did not immediately respond to a request for comment today. No wrongdoing by India is alleged, and it’s not known what was on those thumb drives Nozette allegedly brought to India, where he was working on a space project.
As a scientist working at the highest levels of NASA, the Department of Energy, and the military, Nozette had clearance to access an impressive range of classified information on satellites, weapons systems, and the like.
The coverage of the case against Nozette, a high-ranking government scientist who allegedly sold classified information in September to an FBI employee posing as a Mossad agent, has overwhelmingly focused on the Israeli angle. That’s in part because the complaint itself centers on Israel — the phony Mossad agent, Nozette’s work for an Israeli government aerospace firm, and his discussion of his Jewish parents and the Law of Return to Israel — though it alleges no criminal activity by Israel.
But the complaint also mentions an unnamed “Country A.” It’s alleged that Nozette traveled to that country for three weeks in January with two computer thumb drives, returning to the United States without them. And sometime before that trip, Nozette told a colleague that if the government tried to put him in jail in a case involving overbilling of NASA, Nozette would move to Israel or Country A and “tell them everything,” according to the complaint. Keep in mind that Nozette was working closely with the Indians on the Chandrayaan-1 moon project.
Here’s where the Post fills in one of the holes in the story:
According to the unsealed court documents, Nozette was charged with defrauding the government and tax evasion and pleaded guilty in January to overbilling the government $265,205 for work he and an employee did for NASA and the Defense Department between 2000 and 2006. Nozette admitted that he used that money to help pay personal credit card bills, car loans and maintenance costs for his swimming pool. He faced at least two years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines, according to the plea papers. …
Last year or early this year, Nozette told a colleague that he would flee to India or Israel if the government tried to put him in jail in the fraud case, according to law enforcement officials. He told the colleague that he would share “everything” he knew with Israeli and Indian officials, the authorities said.
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.
Strangely, despite the India revelation, the Post fails to mention the section of the complaint that alleges Nozette brought two computer thumb drives to Country A. In his dealings with the undercover FBI agent, Nozette also used a thumb drive.
By the Post’s new account, the tip from Nozette’s colleague prompted the sting operation that unfolded in September. But it’s worth noting that authorities reportedly launched a national security probe focusing on Nozette as early as 2006, when they found indications he was working for a foreign government.
On the Indian front, various newspapers have picked up the Nozette story. The Deccan Herald asked the Indian Space Research Organisation about the dates of Nozette’s visits — which ISRO had previously referenced — and was told tha the “information cannot be divulged as it is classified.” ISRO has not responded to requests for comment from TPMmuckraker.
We’ll be digging into the court records on the fraud and tax evasion case today, so stay tuned.