Judges words bode trouble for ex-AIPAC staffers

washington | It was surprising enough that the judge quadrupled the prosecution’s recommended sentence for Larry Franklin, from three years to more than 12.

But the true bombshell at the sentencing of the former Pentagon analyst, who is at the center of the case involving pro-Israel lobbyists and classified information, came as lawyers were shutting their briefcases Friday, Jan. 20.

That’s when U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III told the courtroom in Alexandria, Va., that he believed civilians are just as liable as government employees under laws governing the dissemination of classified information.

“Persons who have unauthorized possession, who come into unauthorized possession of classified information, must abide by the law,” Ellis said. “That applies to academics, lawyers, journalists, professors, whatever.”

It was difficult to assess whether Ellis was thinking out loud or was pronouncing his judicial philosophy. The judge earned a reputation as a voluble off-the-cuff philosopher when he adjudicated the case of John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban.”

If those are Ellis’ jury instructions in April, when two former staffers of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee go on trial, the implications could have major consequences.

Defense lawyers for Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman have joined free-speech watchdog, Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, in casting the case as a major First Amendment battle.

Franklin pleaded guilty to a statute barring government employees from leaking classified information. That statute rarely has been prosecuted; before Franklin, the last successful prosecution experts can recall was in the 1980s.

Franklin, a mid-level Iran analyst at the Pentagon, admitted to leaking information to Rosen and Weissman in 2003 because he wanted his concerns about the Iranian threat to reach the White House.

By the summer of 2004, government agents co-opted Franklin into setting up Rosen and Weissman. He allegedly leaked classified information to Weissman about purported Iranian plans to kill Israeli and American agents in northern Iraq.

Weissman and Rosen allegedly relayed that information to AIPAC colleagues, the media and Gilon. AIPAC fired the two men in March 2005.

In sentencing Franklin, Ellis described the former Pentagon analyst’s motives as “laudable,” but said his motives were beside the point.

“It doesn’t matter that you think you were really helping,” Ellis said. “That arrogates to yourself the decision whether to adhere to a statute passed by Congress, and we can’t have that in this country.”

Those views could be bad news for Rosen and Weissman, who hoped to rest part of their defense on an altruistic desire to save lives.

More to the point, it suggests Ellis believes government statutes are sacrosanct, however little they have been used. That’s what concerns free-speech advocates.

“These provisions of the Espionage Act are widely recognized in the legal literature as incoherent,” said Steven Aftergood, who heads the government secrecy project for the Federation of American Scientists, a nuclear watchdog that relies heavily on leaks for its information.

“We do not arrest and charge every reporter who comes into possession of classified information. We do not arrest people who receive leaks of classified information, we never have,” he said. “For the judge to suggest otherwise is quite shocking.”

Lucy Dalglish, the Reporters Committee executive director, described the case as “terribly important.”

“If we had a situation where journalists can be punished for receiving information, hello police state,” she said.

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief