Justice Dept. to indict two AIPAC staffers under U.S. Espionage Act
The case involves receipt of classified information from a Pentagon official and its transfer to the representative of a foreign country.
WASHINGTON - The U.S. Justice Department is expected to file indictments against two former senior American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) staffers - Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman - and, according to sources familiar with the affair, the charges will be subsumed under the Espionage Act.
A Virginia grand jury is now examining the evidence in the case, which involved receipt of classified defense information from Larry Franklin, a Pentagon official, and its transfer to the representative of a foreign country, Naor Gilon, of the Israeli embassy in Washington.
Sources involved in the case confirmed that the Espionage Act is on the agenda. However, there is also the possibility that the Justice Department is raising the intention to use that law with the purpose of reaching a plea bargain concerning a lesser offense, albeit one that is still covered by anti-espionage legislation in the U.S.
Presumably, if indeed such an indictment is filed against two former top-level AIPAC staff members, then Gilon's name will come up, even though he is not a suspect. Israeli officials say he was never questioned in the affair. Gilon heads the political department at the embassy.
According to the sources, the grand jury will submit indictments against Rosen, the former head of foreign policy for the lobbying organization, and against Weissman, who was responsible for the Iranian brief in AIPAC. The grand jury is expected to hand down its indictment against Franklin this week. He is suspected of handing over the classified information. That indictment is expected to be similar to the criminal complaint already filed by the FBI.
The classified material is said to involve information about Iranian intentions to harm American soldiers in Iraq, and it was supposedly given to the two former AIPAC staffers during lunch in Virginia on June 26, 2003.
But suspicions against Rosen and Weissman focus on a meeting a year later, on July 12, 2004. Franklin was cooperating by then with the FBI, which had threatened him with an indictment after tracking his earlier meetings with the AIPAC men, discovering the alleged hand-over of secret information. He agreed to take part in a sting operation in which he would give the two information and the investigators would then follow them.
Franklin called Weissman and asked for a meeting to discuss an important subject. At the meeting, in a mall near the Pentagon, Franklin told Weissman that Iranian agents were trying to capture Israeli civilians working in the Kurdish area in northern Iraq. Around the same time there had been conflicting reports in Washington about an Israeli presence in Kurdish Iraq. Journalist Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker had written that Israelis were operating there, but Israel - and the Americans - denied it.
At the meeting, Franklin told Weissman that the information was classified. This is significant in terms of the investigation, since it prevents the AIPAC men from claiming in their defense that they did not know they were dealing with state secrets.
Weissman left the meeting and went straight to Rosen's AIPAC office at Capitol Hill. He said it was a matter of life or death, and that Israeli lives were in immediate danger. The two made three phone calls: to an administration official, to Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post, and to Gilon, at the embassy. Rosen told Gilon about the information and the Israeli official promised he would look into it. All those calls were wiretapped by the FBI and are part of the case against Rosen and Weissman.
Plato Cacheris, Franklin's lawyer, confirmed to The New York Sun this weekend that his client indeed took part in the sting operation and said that the investigators appealed to Franklin's sense of patriotism to win him over.
The fact that Rosen and Weissman, as American citizens, handed information to an official representative of a foreign power while knowing it was classified is incriminating under the 1917 Espionage Act, which defines as a crime receipt of classified information for the purpose of helping any foreign entity.
The estimated 500 cases involving prosecution of this crime over the last 90 years have always focused on the accused party initiating receipt of the information and on the damage done to the U.S. as a result. In this case, Franklin initiated the transferal of information - and there is no clear-cut evidence regarding the damage done to the U.S.
Rosen, who was under FBI surveillance for at least four years, is now planning his defense with the help of high-profile attorney Abby Lowell. He does not want a plea bargain and prefers to fight it out in court, so he can prove his innocence and go back to work for the lobby.
A decisive factor regarding the future of the case will be the extent of the cooperation between Franklin and the investigators. If Franklin depicts his relationship with Weissman and Rosen as close, and one in which he was asked to provide information, it will help the prosecution. Rosen and Weissman claim that the connection with him was minimal and mostly involved trading professional assessments. (Franklin met with Rosen three times, and more often with Weissman.)
But Franklin is not believed right now to be cooperating fully and he faces two charges: one for handing over the information in 2003, and the other for the illegal possession of 83 classified documents at his home in West Virginia. The maximum punishment for each of the charges is 10 years in prison. If he cooperates with the investigation, the punishment could be significantly reduced.
AIPAC will presumably be discussed in the actual trials. But right now, at least, it does not appear the organization itself will be charged. AIPAC leaders have taken a series of steps to cut themselves off from the two former officials suspected in the case. Sources close to the case say the prosecution posed four conditions to AIPAC, which would guarantee that it would not be involved in the indictments: a change of working methods to ensure that such incidents don't happen again; the firing of the two officials and public disassociation from them; no offers of high compensation or anything else to make it appear the two quit of their own volition; and no financing of their defenses.
AIPAC has abided by the first three conditions - and the severance pay offered the two was considered very low, considering the many years they worked for the lobby. But it is said to be helping with their legal fees, indirectly, through its own law firm.
AIPAC's decision to cooperate with the investigators' demands and to fire the two officials was made after it became evident that the FBI had tape-recordings showing that Franklin explicitly said that the material was secret. AIPAC's assessment was that it would be difficult for the organization to continue working on Capitol Hill, and with the administration, while two of its senior officials are facing such charges.
Although the inquiry is not focused on AIPAC, it is possible the organization will be dragged into the affair when the trial begins. If the two fired staffers are put in the dock, they will try to prove that they only did what was routine and conventional work for their organization.
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