Fans of Israeli espionage melodrama are having a hard time digesting the latest episode, the October 19 arrest of scientist Stewart David Nozette on charges of trying to spy for Israel. From what’s known so far, the case seems to defy traditional understandings of Israel as either victim or menace.
For that sub-group of Israel-boosters whose frame of reference is Jonathan Pollard, serving life in prison for giving American secrets to Israel, Nozette makes an awkward martyr. He offers no overt Jewish identity markers to rally around, no visible passion for Israel, indeed no evidence of having actually helped Israel in this affair. As the FBI admits, the whole gambit was the bureau’s idea, not his.
Nor does the case help critics who view Israel as a threat to American security. His arrest, a sting operation with no links to Israel, appears anomalous. Israel is a bystander this time, a plot device in someone else’s play.
In reality, this is a psychodrama about America’s counterintelligence services and their bottomless fear of Israeli spies. The fear dates back to the 1985 arrest of Jonathan Pollard, the civilian Naval Intelligence analyst caught passing classified information to Israel. Pollard traumatized the intelligence community, insiders say. Ever since, the feds have been haunted by fears that Pollard was only a cog in a larger but impenetrable Israeli spy machine.
But the trauma is deeper than that. Pollard left the intelligence community spooked, so to speak, by fears that Jewish religious devotion to Israel could create confused loyalties or worse. Few believe more than a tiny fraction of American Jews are confused. Still, if 3,000 American Jews currently work in sensitive defense jobs, a conservative estimate, then one-half of a percent could mean a dozen at-risk employees. The number sounds small, but in counterintelligence terms it’s terrifying.
Since Pollard, traumatized feds have groped for a way to detect moles without the appearance of a witch-hunt. Over time several individuals have come under suspicion and several lives have been ruined, but nothing was ever proved. CIA analyst Adam Ciralsky was grilled in 1997 about family links to the United Jewish Appeal. Tank engineer David Tenenbaum was suspended that year and his home ransacked, apparently because of his yarmulke. Two staffers at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and a Pentagon analyst were caught up in 2004 in a sensational investigation that ended in a guilty plea for the analyst and a five-year legal ordeal for the other two. Charges were dismissed.
The closest the feds have come to catching an actual spook was the arrest last year of an octogenarian retired Army engineer, Ben-Ami Kadish, for spying linked to Pollard’s handlers in the 1980s.
Now comes Nozette, perhaps the unlikeliest suspect of all. Nothing about him suggests pro-Israel zealotry. His passions are all about space science.
Nozette was raised in Chicago’s heavily Jewish West Rogers Park section. His parents, Morris and Helen Nozette, were involved in the local Reform temple, according to their Chicago Tribune obituaries, but apparently had no major involvement with Israel. Son Stewart showed little interest in Jewish matters as an adult, various sources say. Negotiating with the undercover FBI agent supposedly recruiting him to Israeli intelligence, he tried to finagle an Israeli passport by describing his parents — not himself — as Jewish.
What he did absorb at home was a zeal for entrepreneurial science. His father, an engineer, had worked on the Manhattan Project developing the nuclear bomb. After the war he took his skills and launched a successful plastics firm.
Stewart Nozette followed his father, pursuing science, weaponry and commercialization of research. He’s best known for his leadership in the search for water on the moon. Days before his arrest he was to address an advanced geophysics seminar at Mississippi State University. His topic was his latest project, a complex ballet of multiple spacecraft with the twin goals of mapping the moon’s surface and searching for ice underneath.
Dual use, finding multiple applications for discoveries, is a recurring theme in Nozette’s career. A scientist on the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative, he later led a Pentagon program to repurpose a missile-detecting SDI satellite as a lunar explorer. His best known publication is a 1987 book, “Commercializing SDI Technologies.” For decades he’s shuttled between government and the private sector, developing technologies for one and applying them to the other, often through his own nonprofit, the Alliance for Competitive Technology.
His alleged espionage venture looks like more dual-use and commercialization, but carried a step too far — trying to sell U.S. government secrets to a foreign country. According to the criminal complaint filed by the FBI in federal court October 16, Nozette was contacted by phone this past September by an undercover FBI operative posing as an agent of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service. Nozette agreed to supply classified satellite and nuclear information on request, for a fee. Six weeks and two secret envelope drops later, he was arrested.
Why was Nozette picked for the sting? A government source told The Washington Post that suspicions arose during a 2006 investigation of his firm’s billing practices. Feds noticed he had been consulting for a decade for an Israeli government-owned aerospace firm (identified in the Israeli press as Israel Aircraft Industries). In 2007 his home was raided. He told an associate that if he were arrested, he would flee to Israel or another country and “tell them everything” — hinting, the Post said, that his Israeli contract included spying.
But the FBI complaint says the flee-to-Israel remark was “based on an unrelated criminal offense,” meaning the bureau saw no link between his firm’s Israel Aircraft contract and the current espionage charges. The complaint also quotes Nozette telling his “recruiter” in September: “I thought I was working for you already. I mean that’s what I always thought, [the foreign company] was just a front.” If the Israelis were using him as a spy, he wasn’t told.
Possibly the FBI knows much more about Nozette’s Israel Aircraft consulting than it’s saying. More likely, after 20 years of trying and mostly failing to find more Israeli spies, the bureau decided to manufacture one.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com and read his blog at www.forward.com.