Image: Stewart Nozette
AFP-Getty Images file
Stewart Nozette, middle, and Paul Spudis, then both of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, hold a photo of the moon's south pole at a Dec. 3, 1996, press briefing at the Pentagon.
updated 10/29/2009 5:33:38 PM ET 2009-10-29T21:33:38

A judge on Thursday ordered a U.S. space exploration scientist accused of attempted espionage to stay behind bars, after prosecutors said he claimed to have passed secrets to Israel.

Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson decided there was too much of a flight risk for Stewart Nozette, 52, to be free while he awaits trial.

Nozette pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted espionage. He is accused of seeking $2 million for selling secrets to an undercover FBI agent posing as an Israeli intelligence officer. The Justice Department could seek the death penalty.

At the hearing, prosecutor Anthony Asuncion said Nozette told the agent he had passed classified information to Israel in the past. Nozette is not charged with doing so.

Nozette was arrested last week.

In court papers filed ahead of Thursday's detention hearing, prosecutors say Nozette asked for $2 million to share what he knew about top-secret government programs.

They also say he kept a stash of gold Krugerrand coins worth tens of thousands of dollars in a safe deposit box in California — more evidence, they say, of his risk of flight.

His lawyer, John Kiyonaga, filed papers urging Nozette be released.

"Never having actually dealt with a foreign intelligence service, he lacks any demonstrable connection to the resources presumably available to such an entity for moving people covertly between countries," the lawyer wrote.

In decades of government work on various science and space projects, Nozette had high-level security clearances. He was known primarily as a defense technologist who had worked on the Reagan-era Star Wars missile shield effort formally named the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Authorities do not charge Nozette passed any classified information to the Israeli government. The charges against him, though, suggest he thought he had.

According to prosecutors, Nozette was paid more than $200,000 by a company that was wholly owned by the Israeli government, and spoke to them regularly.

During one of his secretly recorded conversations with the undercover FBI agent posing as an Israeli intelligence officer, Nozette said: "I thought I was working for you already. I mean, that's what I always thought, (the foreign company) was just a front."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Spy scientist?

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    >> new york. david , a nasa scientist has allegedly been caught trying to spy for a foreign country . 52-year-old stewart david nozette, a former scientist government credited with helping discover water on the moon was arrested. he's charged with trying to pass information to a man he thought was an israeli intelligence officer. nbc news justice correspondent pete williams joins us live.

    >> it's a fairly standard sting case, i guess you could say. the allegation here is that he met a couple of times with this man who claimed to be an agent of the israeli intelligence operation and said he would try to remember classified secrets about u.s. satellite systems in return for money. according to court documents the under cover agent said is there something we can do for you. he said, yes, you can pay me. a couple of times they would put questions in to a post office box here in washington. he would take questions out, answer them, the man posing as an israeli official would put money. know ze nozette would take the money. he had been in essence a consultant to an israeli aircraft agency owned entirely by the israeli government for which he had been paid $225,000. so it would seem that that's what got the u.s. interested in him in the first place. that he was providing sensitive information to the israelis for quite a long time before they trapped him up in this sting.

    >> pete, i love that you called it a standard sting. i guess as standard as any spy sting involving a nasa employee could be. you don't see that every day. nonetheless, what else do we know about his background?

    >> well, he'd been a government scientist. not just nasa but also the department of energy , department of defense . he'd worked on all sorts of radars. he was a specialist in satellite systems. he was a specialist, the government says, in top secret programs. and that is the allegation that is the essence of the government complaint here. that he was passing to this man posing as an israeli agent information about government programs that was classified secret or top secret . that's why they've charged him with attempted espionage.

    >> nbc news justice correspondent, thank you very much, pete williams . david , intrigue there for sure.

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