Prosecutors to Drop Charges Against Two Former AIPAC Lobbyists

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 2009; 10:29 AM

The U.S. government is abandoning espionage-law charges against two former lobbyists for a pro-Israel advocacy group, federal officials announced this morning.

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.

Dana J. Boente, the acting U.S. Attorney in Alexandria, said this morning that prosecutors were abandoning the case because of "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.'' Prosecutors have filed a motion to dismiss the indictment, which must be approved by a federal judge.

Baruch Weiss, a lawyer for Weissman, said that the two former lobbyists "are innocent, and it's been clear to us from outset that we would ultimately prevail.'' He said defense lawyers "were able to put together an array of experts to demonstrate to the government that the information" the men were accused of passing along was "innocuous.''

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.

The trial had been set for June 2 in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. But recent pre-trial rulings had made the case difficult for the government. Those decisions included an appeals court ruling that allowed the defense to use classified information at trial. A lower-court judge also said prosecutors must show that the two men knew that the information they allegedly disclosed would harm the United States -- a high burden for prosecutors.

Boente cited "the additional intent requirements imposed by the court" in his statement this morning. "When this indictment was brought," he said, "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."

The AIPAC case has always been controversial, and it came to public attention again with the recent disclosure that a prominent House lawmaker, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif), had been recorded in 2006 on FBI wiretaps allegedly offering to use her influence on behalf of Rosen and Weissman.

Harman strongly denied the allegations and accused the government of an "abuse of power" in wiretapping her conversations. Law enforcement sources have said the review of the case was triggered by the recent court rulings and was unrelated to the revelations about Harman.

If the high-profile trial had gone forward, it was expected to feature testimony from a number of senior Bush administration officials, including former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, former national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, and former high-level Defense Department officials Paul D. Wolfowitz and Douglas J. Feith.