Stewart David - video still from department of justice - September 2009
Stewart David in a video still from the U.S. Department of Justice, September 2009.
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Surveillance and hidden-camera photographs always look exactly like what they are. Taken from a bad angle. Grainy. On the one hand, foggy; on the other, irrefutable proof of something. This photo, of a man having an animated conversation with someone, is no different.

His face is bloated, his hair is receding, his right hand gestures and the buttons on his shirt almost pop on his belly. In front of him are the remains of breakfast, a bottle of Evian water and a half-full dish that belongs to the person he is talking to. The double drapes are drawn, the light of day enters through a crack. A framed picture hangs exactly midway between the drapes, hotel-style.

This is Stewart David Nozette, a space scientist employed by NASA and on Defense department projects. He is offering classified technological material to an FBI agent who is posing as an agent of Israel's Mossad.

Two weeks ago, on September 7, Nozette admitted to attempted espionage in a plea bargain. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison, less the two during which he was under arrest since admitting, originally, to tax evasion.

This photograph, a frame from a video shot in a sting operation in October 2009 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. is part of the evidence that led to his conviction. The Associated Press, which distributed the photo, noted that Nozette had tried to sell secrets nine years ago and had been a consultant to Israel Aircraft Industries. In the meeting at the hotel, he said that what he had already given the Israelis had cost the U.S. $200 million, and that he wanted to escape to Singapore, but without his wife, because she "would ask too many questions."

He said he had "crossed the Rubicon." He then took money and left information about satellites. Obviously, no Israeli had divulged that he had bought anything from Nozette.

This is a photograph of a highly charged moment, of a play that was staged to deceive a crook into believing that everything around him is real, while the photographer knows it is all a bluff. It is a photograph of an intelligence operation. Of the real thing. Of the operation in progress. And it is also a nondescript moment, totally banal, even stupid on Nozette's part, because everyone knows that hotel rooms are the most convenient places for recording and filming.

We cannot say that "nothing in his appearance betrays the fact that he is a space scientist" or a spy, because what in the world is a space scientist in a hotel room supposed to look like?

The more sophisticated crime novels always contain characters who are "quite colorless," whose inner life and deeds "contradict" their exterior appearance. But here there is no contradiction: Nozette is trying to sell something to an FBI agent. This is what he looks like in reality, in the act. Even if he is trying to deceive his deceivers about previous sales, and even if he believes them.

Still, there is no photograph without a hole. And in this photograph, too, whose sordidness is entailed in its purpose, an unexplained detail jabs the eye. A towel. A fairly large towel on the arm of the chair opposite him. What was Stewart David Nozette doing with a towel?