Israeli officials declined to comment Tuesday on the arrest of US scientist Stewart David Nozette on espionage charges.
According to an FBI criminal complaint, Mr. Nozette was passing classified information to agents he believed were working for the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, but were really undercover US officers. He was arrested on Monday.
The complaint does not accuse him of spying for Israel, but it did reveal that Nozette believed he had already been working for Mossad through a front organization in the past. According to the document, he told an undercover agent whom he believed to be from Mossad, "I thought I was working for you already. I mean, that's what I always thought. [The foreign company] was just a front."
That company has been identified in the Israeli press as Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), which is owned by the Israeli government and is the country's largest aerospace and defense company.
From November 1998 through January 2008, Nozette worked as a technical consultant for IAI, answering questions posed by the company once a month in return for payments totaling about $225,000 over a decade.
Israeli officials said there was no reason to comment on the issue, pointing out that he hasn't been accused of spying for Israel. Israel Radio reported Tuesday that senior government officials said in response to the developments that Israel does not gather intelligence in or spy on friendly states.
Spying on friends?
The issue of whether Israel conducts espionage activities in the US has continued to be a sore point in relations between Jerusalem and Washington, however, and has been seized on in particular by US critics of what has been described as the "special relationship" between the US and Israel.
"There is a very firm commitment and very strict instructions to all Israeli officials going to America which says, 'Don't even get close to something that would smell of collecting information,'" says Mr. Melman, author of Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel's Intelligence Community. But the FBI doesn't believe it, he adds. "There is a sense of deep suspicion in the department of FBI which deals with counter-espionage, especially when it comes to Israel."
Such suspicion is a byproduct of the Jonathan Pollard affair in the late 1980s, Melman believes. "They are looking at Israel's record of 40 years, in which Israel was regularly spying in America – in other words, the Pollard case wasn't an isolated one – and they won't believe that Israeli no longer spies on American soil or against Americans," he says.
Mr. Pollard, a former American intelligence officer who was convicted in 1987 of spying for Israel, is serving a life sentence in a US prison. Though when he was arrested Israel denied he had spied for them, Israeli officials eventually gave Pollard citizenship and acknowledged in 1998 that he had been an Israeli asset.
Israel maintains that it has not conducted any spying activities in the US since the Pollard affair.
The FBI "has clearly tried to trap Israelis and Israeli diplomats, to see if they are really committed to the idea of not spying," says Melman.
Melman says that this climate of suspicion has been fed by the surfacing of other cases. In one last year, 85-year-old former army engineer Ben-ami Kadish was convicted of spying for Israel for 20 years during the same time when Pollard was active. Both Pollard and Kadish had the same handler, Yosef Yagur. Mr. Yagur had worked for the company that became IAI.
Before the FBI cornered Nozette, he had quipped that if the US government ever tried to prosecute him for a criminal offense, he would go to Israel or another foreign country and "tell them everything" he knows, according to court papers that cite an unnamed colleague.
A former White House expert, Nozette had helped discover evidence of water on the moon, worked in various positions over the years for NASA and the US Department of Energy, and held security clearances considered top secret.
The court papers say that as part of the sting operation, an FBI agent contacted Nozette posing as a spy for the Mossad. When the scientist and undercover agent met later in the day at a hotel, Nozette told the agent he had access to much of what the "US has done in space." As part of the operation, he received an Israeli passport under an alias.