The Justice Department Friday ended the high-profile prosecution of two former pro-Israel lobbyists suspected of having sought and distributed classified information involving Iran and Iraq — a decision that could strengthen the rights of reporters, lobbyists and social activists to obtain and publicize government secrets.
The decision to drop the case against Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, who were dismissed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in 2005, was anticipated for several months. It came after the Justice Department lost a series of pretrial rulings on the classification of the evidence it wanted to bring to court and on the bar the prosecution would have to meet.
Dana J. Boente, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in a statement Friday morning, “When this indictment was brought, the government believed it could prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt based on the statute.
“However, as the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit noted, the District Court potentially imposed an additional burden on the prosecution not mandated by statute. Given the diminished likelihood the government will prevail at trial under the additional intent requirements imposed by the court and the inevitable disclosure of classified information that would occur at any trial in this matter, we have asked the court to dismiss the indictment.”
Mr. Rosen, who had been AIPAC’s top strategist on foreign policy issues, expressed relief.
“Of course we are relieved it is over,” he told The Washington Times. “It was an unjust prosecution. But thank God we live in America, where this kind of injustice can be corrected by the courts.”
Mr. Weissman, who had been the lobby’s top expert on Iran, added, “Now I have to figure out what I want to do when I grow up. This has been hanging over me for five years.”
The two purportedly talked to a reporter and an Israeli diplomat about policy options toward Iran then under review by the Bush administration and about threats to Israelis in Iraqi Kurdistan. While the counts fall under the 1917 Espionage Act, the prosecution explicitly stated that the two former AIPAC officials were not considered agents of a foreign power.
The case aroused considerable controversy in Washington because of the Israel lobby’s high profile and the fact that Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman were the first private citizens prosecuted under the Espionage Act for mishandling classified information obtained through conversation. The precedent, if upheld, could have made much national-security journalism and foreign-policy lobbying a federal crime.
While some critics of AIPAC saw the indictments as justified because of what critics regard as the group’s undue influence over U.S. foreign policy, several civil liberties groups rallied to the defendants’ cause and said they were prosecuted for doing something that happens in Washington every day.
Steve Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said Friday’s decision “closes the door on an ill-conceived attempt to use the Espionage Act as a means to punish leaks of classified information.”
The original indictment indicated that the FBI asked for and received a special warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to monitor the AIPAC lobbyists, going as far back as at least 1999.
The case has had repercussions for Israeli officials.
Uzi Arad, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was barred from coming to the United States for nearly two years because he was mentioned in the indictment, He was overheard meeting with Lawrence Franklin, a former Pentagon Iran specialist who pleaded guilty to mishandling classified material when he took secret and top-secret documents from his office to his home.
Franklin has been sentenced to 12 years in federal prison, though he has yet to serve any time. Israeli officials confirmed to The Times that Mr. Arad will be traveling to the United States this month as part of Mr. Netanyahu’s delegation when the Israeli prime minister meets with President Obama.