AN American astrophysicist with top-level nuclear security clearances appeared in court yesterday after being arrested in an FBI sting and charged with trying to sell secrets to Israel.
Stewart Nozette, who helped to discover water on the Moon and spent six years at a top-secret defence technology agency, was lured into a trap by federal agents.
They posed as Israeli intelligence operatives who met him at a Washington hotel and agreed to pay him cash for classified papers.
"I don't get recruited by Mossad every day," Mr Nozette allegedly said, according to wiretaps. "I knew this day would come. I just had a feeling."
He was arrested at his home in a leafy suburb of Washington on Monday and charged with attempting to communicate, deliver and transmit classified information. He faces life in jail if convicted. Mr Nozette was an acclaimed government scientist who had worked for Nasa.
A member of the White House's National Space Council under the first President Bush, he developed a radar experiment credited with finding water on the Moon and worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the nerve centre of US nuclear weapons research, in 1990-99.
He also thrived as a private consultant. According to court documents, he earned $US225,000 as a consultant for Israel Aerospace Industries, a company owned by the Israeli Government.
A complaint filed at the US District Court in Washington does not accuse Israel of spying, and senior Israeli government officials insisted yesterday that their country did not conduct espionage activities in friendly states.
However, Mr Nozette's work for Israel Aerospace Industries is listed in the case against him.
He was searched while leaving on a business trip to an unnamed country, when officials found two small external computer hard drives in his luggage. Searched again on his return, the hard drives were missing.
According to court papers, he was caught putting an encrypted hard-drive into a post office box.
Channing Phillips, acting US Attorney for the District of Columbia, said: "This case reflects our firm resolve to hold accountable any individual who betrays the public trust by compromising our national security for his or her personal gain."