The U.S. government is abandoning espionage-law charges against two former lobbyists for a pro-Israel advocacy group, federal officials announced this morning.There is not an issue of prosecutors getting a raw deal--the case was weak from the beginning and only got more absurd.
Prosecutors said they will ask a judge to dismiss the case against Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman because a series of court decisions had made it unlikely they would win convictions. The two are former lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, an influential advocacy group.
Rosen and Weissman were charged in 2005 with conspiring to obtain classified information and pass it to journalists and the Israeli government. They were the first non-government civilians charged under the 1917 espionage statute with verbally receiving and transmitting national defense information. Some lawyers and First Amendment advocates have said the case would criminalize the type of information exchange that is common among journalists, lobbyists and think-tank analysts.
...the decision is a stunning vindication for the former lobbyists, who were accused of providing information about topics that included the activities of al-Qaeda and possible attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. Rosen, of Silver Spring, was AIPAC's director of foreign policy issues and was instrumental in making the committee a formidable political force. Weissman, of Bethesda, was a senior analyst. AIPAC fired them in 2005.
Rachel Neuwirth wrote in December 2006, in an article entitled A National Disgrace:
Neither Keith Weissman nor Steven Weissman was ever an Israeli spy. Neither was recruited by Israeli agents. Neither received a cent from Israel . Neither gave classified documents to Israel . They never even saw such documents; rather they are accused of having passed on information that they had heard by word of mouth that their informants allegedly learned from such documents. In effect, they are charged with gossiping and trading in rumors!The Wall Street Journal featured an editorial in April 2007 noting the absurdity of the charge:
In fact, they are not even technically accused of espionage, but only of giving "national security information" (a vague phrase that can refer to unclassified as well as classified information, not necessarily in writing) to "persons not entitled to receive it." These individuals, according to the indictment, included not only Israeli diplomats, but also unnamed American journalists and other American citizens not connected with Israel . The indictment thus criminalizes the widespread practice in Washington of leaking classified information to the press...
The consequences of this spectacle--the indictment of two citizens for activities that go on every day in Washington, and that are clearly protected under the First Amendment--far exceed any other in the now long list of non-crimes from which government attorneys have constructed major cases, or more precisely, show trials. A category in which we can include the mad prosecutorial pursuit of Mr. Libby.The absurdity of the case extended beyond the legal issues to the people involved:
A prosecution that looked flimsy at the outset has grown progressively weaker, with Judge Thomas Ellis sometimes openly disdaining elements of the government’s case and the chief prosecutor quitting to go into private practice, leaving his staff to plod ahead even as legal scholars scratch their heads.Unusual steps were taken in order to enable the testimony of people the prosecution wanted to prevent from appearing in court:
In an unusual maneuver designed to evade a threat of government sanction, a key defense witness in the trial of two former officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) who are charged with mishandling classified information last week moved to quash (pdf) a subpoena summoning him to testify at their upcoming trial.In the end, the prosecution went to absurd lengths just this past February to justify preventing Leonard's testimony--lengths the judge would not tolerate:
J. William Leonard, the former director of the Information Security Oversight Office, indicated he was prepared to testify that the classified information at issue did not meet the standards for national security classification. If so, the defendants could not have violated the law by receiving and transmitting the information without authorization. Not only would they not be guilty, there would have been no crime.
But prosecutors objected to Mr. Leonard’s testimony, arguing that he should not be permitted to appear since he briefly consulted with prosecutors about the case while he was still a government employee in 2006. In a March 31 motion (pdf), they even suggested that he could be liable to a year in jail if he testified for the defense.
In the normal course of events, government officials are sometimes threatened with sanctions if they refuse to testify in a judicial or congressional proceeding. But in the topsy-turvy world of the AIPAC case, Mr. Leonard is threatened with sanctions if he does testify.
To forestall that eventuality, Mr. Leonard was formally subpoenaed (pdf) by the defense on July 25. His attorney, Mark S. Zaid, then moved to quash the subpoena on August 28, in the expectation that the court would issue an order compelling Mr. Leonard to testify. Such an order would serve to shield him against the threatened sanctions from the prosecution.
“In filing this Motion to Quash, Mr. Leonard seeks either a ruling from the Court that there is no impediment to his testifying or, alternatively, a Court Order requiring that he testify,” wrote Mr. Zaid, who frequently litigates national security and classification-related cases. “Without one or the other action, Mr. Leonard will be forced to reconsider whether he can testify for the Defendants.”
Prosecutors sought to bar Leonard from the witness stand, saying that his testimony would violate a law banning government officials who have been substantially involved in an investigation from bearing witness for any party contesting the United States in court case arising out of the investigation.One could argue that justice was finally served--but considering the background of the case and how long such an obviously weak and baseless case was allowed to drag on, justice was not behind the bringing of this case to begin with.
In an order released Wednesday, [Judge] Ellis summarily dismissed prosecution claims that an hour-long conversation prosecutors had with Leonard in 2006 qualified as "substantial involvement" in the investigation as defined by the law. [emphasis added]