WASHINGTON — The sentencing last week of former Pentagon analyst Lawrence Franklin, who admitted to giving classified information to two pro-Israel lobbyists, may have begun to lift the veil of mystery that has shrouded the explosive investigation since it first surfaced a year-and-a-half ago.
Sentencing remarks by the judge, as well as recent actions by the prosecution — including the plea agreement reached with Franklin — suggest strongly that the government is preparing to come down hard on the two ex-lobbyists accused of receiving the classified information. This is part of a strategy aimed at tightening government secrecy, according to legal experts and pro-Israel activists who have followed the case closely.
The two lobbying officials, former American Israel Public Affairs Committee staffers Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, are scheduled to go on trial April 25. Both men have pleaded not guilty.
The investigation, kept under close wraps from the beginning, has prompted furious speculation over the months as to the investigators’ true targets and motives, with theories ranging from reducing lobbyist influence to plugging leaks, deterring Israeli spying in America, redirecting Middle East policy and even antisemitism.
As the government’s legal strategy unfolds, however, numerous observers say it is becoming evident that the Bush administration views the case as part of its campaign to tighten control over classified information and deter leaks by broadening the reach of secrecy laws.
“This case is going to say a lot about the sweep of these criminal laws that have never been tested before in a meaningful way,” said leading Washington constitutional lawyer Lee Levine, an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.
“What’s important here is that during the entire history of this country, the government — if not in the formal wording of the laws, then certainly in their application — has recognized that there is a practical difference between their application on government officials in a democracy and their application upon ordinary citizens,” Levine said. The mere fact that Rosen and Weissman were indicted, he added, “obviously suggests that this administration is seeking to move that line [separating the culpability of government officials from that of private citizens] somewhat further.”
Franklin, a former Pentagon Iran analyst, pleaded guilty October 5 to three charges of mishandling classified information. In his guilty plea, Franklin admitted passing classified information to the two lobbyists and to giving an Israeli diplomat a classified document said to involve American policy toward Iran.
Appearing January 20 before U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III in Alexandria, Va., Franklin was sentenced to 12 years and seven months in prison. The charges could have brought as many as 25 years in prison.
As part of his plea deal, Franklin agreed to testify against the two lobbyists. Rosen was Aipac’s director of policy issues and was considered the organization’s chief strategist. Weissman was the organization’s top Iran specialist.
In his remarks during sentencing, Ellis gave a clear indication that he sympathizes with the view that secrecy laws should be applied to the public as well as to government officials. He declared that people “who come into unauthorized possession of classified information must abide by the law.”
In what was interpreted as a reference to Aipac, the judge continued: “That applies to academics, lawyers, journalists, professors, whatever.” The implication, some observers said, was that Ellis does not intend to accept as valid defense an argument by Rosen and Weissman that they are not culpable because they are not government officials and therefore not sworn to secrecy, and that a government official willingly gave them the information.
Further indicating the government’s strategy, both the prosecution and the judge made clear at the sentencing that Franklin’s prison term would be reduced significantly if he cooperates with the government and testifies against Rosen and Weissman at their trial. Until then, Franklin will stay out of prison.
“The prosecution is tempting him and keeping this sword hovering above Steve and Keith’s heads,” said a friend of Rosen and Weissman, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He can say all sorts of things to get a lighter sentence.”
Franklin’s attorney, Plato Cacheris, told the Forward that the prosecution’s anticipated motion to reconsider Franklin’s sentence after he completes his testimony against Weissman and Rosen is “significant.” He made clear that his client would cooperate with the government. However, he added that he would not draw conclusions about the judge’s attitude toward Rosen’s and Weissman’s case from anything that Ellis said in court. “There was nothing I could learn from what he said. We’ll have to see when the day comes,” Cacheris said.
Abbe Lowell, Rosen’s attorney, released the following statement in reaction to Franklin’s sentencing: “Steve Rosen and his family are heartbroken that Larry Franklin has suffered and hope that something good comes out of this for them. Mr. Franklin admitted that he violated the law, which he did without Mr. Rosen’s knowledge or involvement, and Mr. Rosen steadfastly stands by his plea of not guilty. He looks forward to winning this case.”
The Forward has learned that the prosecution has not yet concluded its investigation into the Rosen and Weissman case and that it is still collecting material on the environment in which the two operated. Sources said the prosecution is still seeking detailed information on the inner workings of Aipac. Prosecutors are interviewing people who know the organization intimately and who seem to be thoroughly familiar with Aipac’s work.
Although Franklin’s prison sentence was low in relation to the federal guidelines for the three felonies of which he was convicted, some observers viewed his 151-month sentence as harsh. Such a long prison term will add to the “chilling effect” that the Franklin-Aipac case already has had on relations between government officials and nongovernmental organizations, both Jewish and non-Jewish, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
“This creates a situation where if you meet with a government official, you are at your own peril,” Foxman said. “Are you supposed to ask the official, ‘Is this classified?’ ‘Is that unclassified?’” Franklin’s sentencing, he said, “has made this more serious than we had thought before.” The chilling effect, Foxman said, would particularly impact lobbying groups. “If you add to this the atmosphere against lobbying” that is now plaguing America, “then you really don’t know what the lines are, what the parameters are” in terms of relations with government officials, he said.