By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former U.S. government scientist Stewart Nozette was once on the cutting edge of space exploration, but instead of resting on those laurels he will spend 13 years in prison for trying to sell some of his country's most closely guarded secrets.
He once sketched on a napkin a concept for satellite technology that eventually helped confirm that there was water on the moon, but in 2009 Nozette sought to sell classified information to someone he thought was an Israeli intelligence officer but was an FBI agent in an undercover sting operation.
Nozette, 54, pleaded guilty last September to trying to provide classified information about U.S. satellites, early-warning systems, communications intelligence and other information to the agent who was posing as an Israeli Mossad agent.
U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman on Wednesday sentenced him to 13 years in prison, a term that had been agreed to as part of Nozette's plea deal. The judge also sentenced him to 37 months for unrelated tax and fraud charges, and that sentence will run concurrently with the espionage term.
The scientist has been in custody since his arrest in October 2009 and will get credit for that time already served. The criminal charges did not allege that Israel was involved in the plot or scheme.
Nozette worked in numerous capacities for the government and space program, including at the famed Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and he helped design lightweight satellite radar technology that was used to help find water on the moon.
His lawyers and federal prosecutors clashed during the sentencing hearing about the reasons Nozette tried to pass secrets to someone he thought was an Israeli spy. But, Nozette said he accepted responsibility for his crimes and expressed regret.
Nozette was already under federal investigation for a tax and fraud case at the time he was arrested for the attempted espionage, and he said he should have come forward to report the initial contact by the purported Israeli agent.
"It was a fatal lack of judgment ... I accept full responsibility for this error," he quietly told the court, standing before the judge in an orange-colored prison jumpsuit.
Nozette was also ordered to pay just over $200,000 in restitution for the tax and fraud case, though his lawyers said he was broke and his wife had left him.
His lawyers said Nozette was under surveillance for more than a year to see if he was spying for Israel, but authorities did not uncover any evidence of wrongdoing and he had previously disclosed his work for a firm owned by the Israeli government.
Nozette admitted that did ultimately try to sell information but his lawyers said he was under tremendous pressure from the other investigation which was forcing him out of the space program at a critical discovery time.
His lawyers also did acknowledge that some information related to a project Nozette worked on was stored on his home computer but said that the program was classified afterwards.
Prosecutors countered that Nozette hid classified information in a safe deposit box in California as further evidence of his betrayal and that he demanded cash during one meeting with the undercover agent and said it "is good for anything ... you can eat it, drink it or screw it."
The prosecutors played clips of video surveillance from Nozette's meetings with the undercover agent in a posh Washington hotel during which he negotiated payment for turning over classified information.
Anthony Asuncion, one of the prosecutors on the case, said after playing the video clips that Nozette was seeking to betray his country "with a smile on his face."
(Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by Anthony Boadle)