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Ex-government scientist pleads not guilty on attempted espionage charge

From Paul Courson, CNN
Stewart David Nozette will be held without bond until a jury trial. He is charged with attempted espionage.
Stewart David Nozette will be held without bond until a jury trial. He is charged with attempted espionage.
  • Stewart David Nozette appeared Thursday in U.S. District Court
  • Judge denied bond after seeing undercover video of Nozette and agent
  • Nozette may have planned to leave wife behind if he fled the U.S.
  • Nozette willing "to work for Israeli intelligence," complaint states

Washington (CNN) -- A former U.S. government scientist who served in sensitive positions on classified aerospace projects pleaded not guilty to attempted espionage Thursday.

He will be held without bond pending a jury trial.

Stewart David Nozette, 52, appeared in U.S. District Court wearing a prison uniform with bold, horizontal black and white stripes. He smiled as his defense attorney greeted him, and he seemed relaxed during the proceeding.

In arguing against bond, prosecutors played what they call an undercover videotape of a conversation just 10 days ago between Nozette and an agent. Nozette, sitting back in a chair or sofa at what appears to be a hotel room, is heard negotiating for a false passport and a means to get to a country with no extradition policy with the United States.

"I like the idea of an invisible identity," Nozette was heard saying in the recording. "Can you actually get me that, that artificial name and stuff?" He discussed gift cards under an alias, and a "kitty" that he could use for expenses.

Prosecutors Thursday initially said they would present a witness to authenticate the videotape. But the judge accepted the government's claim and a transcript and allowed the eight-minute recording to be played.

Authorities have said in a criminal complaint that Nozette, of Chevy Chase, Maryland, tried to deliver classified information to someone he thought was an Israeli intelligence official but who was actually an FBI undercover agent.

Nozette, responding on the videotape to the agent's suggestion that arrangements would involve "a lot of work," told the agent, "This isn't just, you know, a few documents. ... I'm making a career choice."

The camera in the undercover video is positioned over that agent's right shoulder, looking directly at Nozette. When the agent asked whether the negotiations were only for himself, Nozette said yes, and suggested his wife would not accompany him.

"She would ask too many questions," Nozette said.

The wife, Wendy McColough, was not seen in the courtroom Thursday, but had been in the spectator gallery October 20 when her husband made his initial appearance. A transcript of the undercover video came out just hours before Thursday's proceeding.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Asuncion has said evidence will show Nozette disclosed to investigators information that was "top secret, related to our national defense, that would cause exceptionally grave damage to national security" if revealed to a foreign country.

In an affidavit, the FBI sets out the case against Nozette, who received a doctorate in planetary sciences from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Nozette had a "top secret" clearance and served at the White House on the National Space Council for President George H.W. Bush, the affidavit says. Later, from early 2000 to early 2006, he did research and development for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Naval Research Laboratory, and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, it says.

The document says Nozette also acted as a technical consultant from 1998 until early 2008 "for an aerospace company that was wholly owned by the government of the state of Israel."

The company consulted with Nozette monthly, getting answers to questions, and he received total payments of $225,000, the affidavit says.

In early September, Nozette was contacted by phone by an individual purporting to be an Israeli intelligence officer, but who really was an FBI undercover agent, the document says.

They met in downtown Washington in front of a hotel, and over lunch, Nozette "demonstrated his willingness to work for Israeli intelligence," it says.

The undercover agent engaged in a series of meetings with Nozette, and eventually Nozette allegedly deposited "secret" information in a "dead drop" post office box. Some of the information, the affidavit says, was classified as secret.

The criminal complaint does not accuse the government of Israel of any violations of U.S. law.

Nozette next has a status hearing November 10 at U.S. District Court, before Judge James Robertson.