Washington — At first glance, this may seem like a page from a spy novel, complete with a young undercover agent roaming an empty lab after dark, with thousands of files mysteriously uploaded from a computer to a secret server, and with comic relief in the shape of top researcher who signs up her pet cat as co-author for one of her scientific papers.
But this story — being told through court filings, not on the pages of an airport paperback — could spell trouble for Israel, as the Jewish state tries to shake its image as one of the largest perpetrators of economic and industrial espionage in the United States.
The events, which surfaced publicly only recently, are alleged to have taken place more than four years ago at the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the nation’s leading aerospace research center funded primarily by NASA. The main protagonists in the drama are Sandra Troian, an accomplished professor of applied physics at Caltech, and Amir Gat, an Israeli postdoctoral scholar under her mentorship.
On a local level, the case reflects a toxic work environment which has now led to a lawsuit filed by Troain against Caltech. In it, Troain claims that the prestigious institution took revenge on her for exposing Gat’s alleged theft of secrets.
But on the international level, the Caltech case plays into the broader problem of mistrust between American institutes and companies, and their Israeli counterparts, based on decades-long claims that Israel has been leading a vast secret information collection operation in the United States. The 1985 arrest of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard left some in the American intelligence community feeling that he was not alone and that Israel, despite its denials, runs an espionage network in America. Reports earlier this year, drawn from intelligence briefings provided to Congress, described Israel’s economic espionage in America as having “crossed a red line.”
Gat came to Caltech for his postdoctoral work after concluding his PhD studies at the Technion, Israel’s most prestigious technological research university, located in Haifa. His work under Troian, beginning in March 2010, was focused on a space propulsion project and was controlled under federal laws prohibiting the transfer of high-level defense-related technologies to foreign entities.
In her complaint filed in California’s Superior Court in early November, Troain claimed that Gat repeatedly violated the rules governing use of restricted information obtained during the research at the Jet Propulsion Lab. These breaches included storing information on his personal laptop and ignoring regulations relating to keeping records of calculations and simulations, claimed Troain.
The Cal Tech researcher also wrote in her complaint about a computer virus attack that shut down her team’s work for a week and caused “hundreds of project files to be uploaded in rapid succession to an unknown IP address outside of Caltech.” According to Troain, the virus was traced back to Gat’s computer.
Relations between the two grew sour. Troian claims Gat confirmed to her that he’d been sharing information about the project with a top Israeli scientist who was his PhD adviser and who chairs Israel’s national space research committee. Then, she spotted the young Israeli researcher “wandering alone, unauthorized, in one of her access-restricted experimental laboratories.” According to the court filing, Gat told Troian he was asked by his former mentor in Israel to “look around” the Jet Propulsion Lab.
By August 2010, relations between the two reached rock bottom and Troian fired Gat from her lab. She told Caltech authorities that the Israeli researcher had breached federal export-control rules relating to information he obtained at her lab. She also said he had published online, without authorization, information based on the research.
In her court complaint against Caltech, Troian argued that Caltech never responded to her warnings and that furthermore, the school offered Gat a position in another Caltech lab, where he worked for more than a year.
That might have been that. But in 2012, FBI agents approached Troian and questioned her about Gat. She stated in her court filings that FBI agents told her that Gat was the “focus of a larger investigation involving ITAR violations and possibly espionage.” ITAR is the federal law controlling export of defense-related technologies.