TEL AVIV, Israel ― The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has upheld an Obama-era visa denial that has banned the chief executive of Israel’s largest government-owned company from stepping foot on U.S. shores for more than six years.
Whether Joseph Weiss, president of Israel Aerospace Industries, is “an unfortunate victim of bureaucratic inertia,” as his U.S. attorney believes, or is suspected by Washington of an inappropriate connection to a “brilliant scientist” who “sought to sell some of America’s most closely guarded secrets” ― as claimed by the U.S. Justice Department ― neither Weiss nor nearly a dozen current and former Israeli and U.S. government officials know for sure.
Trump has worked to void a spectrum of policy decisions implemented during the presidency of Barack Obama, but it appears his administration has decided against revoking the visa denial on Weiss.
As a matter of policy, the U.S. government does not explain reasons for visa denials, four or five of which Weiss received since his visa expired in mid-2011. “They gave no reason, no connotations that it had anything to do with the security of the United States. Just declined,” Weiss recounted in the latest of several interviews with Defense News.
After numerous attempts to extract explanation from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies, Defense News received this reply from the State Department: “Our Consular Affairs team has carefully reviewed your inquiry. As expected, they’ve determined that Section 222(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) prohibits us from discussing individual cases. There’s nothing more we’re able to release publicly on this matter, in accordance with US law.”
But in myriad interviews over more than a year, it appears that Weiss, along with his predecessor at the IAI helm and at least two other IAI employees who have since retired, is being penalized for business contacts with Steward David Nozette, a U.S. physicist and planetary scientist who enjoyed security clearances at the highest levels of the U.S. government through his work with the Energy Department’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Defense Department and the White House National Space Council.
Nozette was one of several U.S. consultants on the IAI payroll hired to promote IAI technologies in the United States. In January 2009, Nozette pleaded guilty to defrauding the U.S. government of $265,000 and evading payment of more than $200,000 in federal taxes. He was arrested later that year, on Oct. 19, 2009, in an FBI sting operation after Nozette provided envelopes full of classified material and thumb drives on three separate occasions to an undercover investigator he thought was from the Israeli spy agency Mossad.
According to publicly available court documents, Nozette offered to become “a regular, continuing asset” to what he believed was the Mossad; accepted $12,000 in cash for the three so-called dead drops; and was negotiating a $2 million payment associated with information he said he could provide on classified U.S. satellites.
Nowhere in the voluminous documents filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Case No. 09-276, the United States of America v. Stewart David Nozette, was there an allegation or even an allusion to impropriety on the part of the Israeli government, the Mossad, IAI or Weiss.
However, Nozette did tell an undercover investigator that he had expected the Mossad to contact him and that he thought he may have already been working for the Israeli spy agency through IAI.
According to an FBI transcript filed in court, upon learning that he was speaking with the self-proclaimed agent of Mossad, Nozette replied: “I knew you guys would show up.” In the next breath, Nozette said he was amazed “it didn’t happen sooner,” and that “I thought I was working for you already.” In a redacted statement, Nozette went on to say: “I mean that’s what I always thought [the foreign company] was just a front.”
Nozette pleaded guilty on Sept. 7, 2011, to one count of a multi-count indictment and — in a deal that spared the U.S. government from going to trial — was sentenced to 156 months in federal prison. In its “Memorandum in aid of sentencing,” the government noted that without the plea deal, Nozette would have faced a 327-month incarceration. The mitigated sentence was “the result of an assessment by the Government that a contested trial would be exceedingly complicated given the classified information at issue.”
In his sentencing memorandum, Anthony Asuncion, assistant U.S. attorney, hailed Nozette as a “brilliant scientist” whose experience in the space arena was “diverse and impressive” and whose motive for betraying his country “was greed, pure and simple.”
Nozette, according to Asuncion, “sought to sell some of America’s most closely guarded secrets — including information directly concerning satellites classified as Top Secret/SCI [Secure Compartmentalized Information — to a person he believed as an agent for a foreign intelligence organization.”
When asked about his relationship with Nozette, Weiss said the American expert was on the IAI payroll long before he entered his previous job as managing director of IAI’s missiles, systems and space division. In that role, Weiss and other IAI executives met Nozette a few times in the United States and once during a visit to Israel. Weiss said he was the one who decided not to renew Nozette’s contract when it expired in 2009.
“I must emphasize that we hired him to help advance our technology in the U.S. and promote cooperation with U.S. firms. We never at any time expressed any interest in the other way around,” Weiss said.
The well-respected IAI executive, who assumed the top job in 2012, insists the U.S. travel ban barely harms his ability to function as the head of Israel’s largest government-owned company with nearly $4 billion in turnover and whose U.S. sales are projected to exceed $1 billion in the coming year.
“I can’t say I’m able to function 100 percent with this limitation, but I’ve made accommodations to get around this ban,” Weiss said.
Nevertheless, the continued visa denials rub raw for a man who lived two years in the United States during his time as an officer of the Israeli Navy, and with whom he maintains strong business and personal friendships.
“I honestly don’t know for sure if this is linked to Nozette, but one plus one maybe equals two. I’ve always said I’m ready and eager to answer any questions that could clear things up, but no one has ever asked me those questions,” Weiss said.
In interviews dating back to early 2016, three former Israeli national security advisers, one former Israeli ambassador to the United States and a former U.S. ambassador to Israel wholeheartedly vouched for Weiss’ integrity and acknowledged that attempts to reconcile the issue with the U.S. proved futile.
“I made informal attempts to get to the bottom of this, and each time I was told not to touch it. It is what it is,” one former Israeli national security adviser told Defense News.
A prominent U.S. industry executive with partnership agreements with IAI said he also tried to intervene on behalf of Weiss through a pro-Israel senator and his staff on Capitol Hill. “We were told to leave it alone,” the executive said.
Orna Simhoni-Ofer, spokeswoman for Israel’s Defense Ministry, which shares responsibility for government-owned IAI with the Israeli Finance Ministry, declined comment on the issue. Mahran Rinawe, a spokesperson for the Finance Ministry, said: “To our knowledge, this issue is being handled by lawyers.”
Sources close to Weiss said the IAI chief had hoped that the change of administration in Washington could move what is viewed in Israel as bureaucratic inertia. To that end, IAI has hired a senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice, an organization that heavily identifies with the Republican Party and whose chief counsel, Jay Sekulow, is one of Trump’s personal attorneys.
But in interviews in Washington since Trump became president, key figures who had previously tried to intervene on Weiss’ behalf told Defense News there has been no change so far on the U.S. position.
IAI has spent at least $100,000 over the years on attorney fees, in addition to work devoted to the visa issue by its full-time counsel ― Israeli taxpayer money that could have gone into research and development.
As of this writing, the matter was never brought up by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his phone calls and meetings with Trump or U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, nor was it raised in his many previous exchanges with Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.