Washington - Several Jewish organizations are refusing to cooperate with the defense in the case against two men accused of passing classified information while working for the main pro-Israel lobby.
According to sources close to the defense team, three major Jewish organizations are telling their employees not to testify on behalf of Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, former officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The defense sources expressed disappointment over the alleged refusal to cooperate, describing it as yet another example of the organized Jewish community turning its back on Rosen, Aipac’s former policy director, and Weissman, its top Iran specialist.
The Forward has learned that the appeal to the Jewish groups relates to a dinner meeting that took place three years ago. During the meeting, which was arranged by Rosen, he and officials at the three other Jewish organizations were briefed by a senior administration official on issues relating to the Middle East.
Sources said that testimony from the other officials who attended the dinner meeting would help make the case that the passing of information — even classified information — from government officials to Jewish organizations, as well as to other interest groups, was common practice in Washington. Such testimony, the defense team hopes, would convince a jury that Rosen and Weissman had no way of knowing they were engaged in any kind of illegal activity.
The Forward received information regarding the other participants in the meeting, but was unable to confirm their identities for the record.
One of the people who is believed to have been at the meeting said it would “not be a truly accurate description” to say he has refused to cooperate. The individual, who would not confirm or deny he was at the meeting, said that “it is premature” to conclude what would be the final response to the defense’s request for cooperation.
A day after the dinner meeting three years ago, Rosen, who was under FBI surveillance at the time, briefed his colleagues at Aipac about the meeting and about the information — presumably, some of it classified — that was shared by the government official.
After learning that the prosecution had records of the meeting, Rosen’s and Weissman’s defense teams contacted the three representatives of Jewish organizations who attended the meeting and asked them to testify as to the nature of the discussions. According to the defense sources, the three representatives — after consulting with their respective organizations — refused to cooperate. It is still possible that they will be called to testify, but such a step is unlikely, given the defense team’s strong reluctance to calling witnesses who do not want to cooperate.
The Jewish community generally has distanced itself from Rosen and Weissman following their dismissal from Aipac in early 2005. One exception is Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Hoenlein has spoken out against the indictment of the two former Aipac staffers.
Rosen and Weissman are accused of passing national defense information they received from former Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin to Israeli diplomats and members of the media. The case, which first erupted in August 2004, is now nearing its end, with a trial scheduled for early summer.
Judge T.S. Ellis III of the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., is expected to rule by the end of next week on one of the last remaining pretrial issues: how to handle classified information. The prosecution has requested that once the trial begins, scheduled for June 4, any information relating to classified material be shared in a closed manner, with jurors hearing testimony through headphones and being handed documents without the public hearing or seeing the evidence. Furthermore, the jurors will be warned that the information they’ll be hearing is classified and that any disclosure of it would be against the law.
The government argues that these steps are needed in order to protect the secrecy of the information dealt with in the case. The defense, on the other hand, is asking to keep the trial as open as possible. According to the defense argument, telling the jury that the information is classified would prejudge the issue at the core of the case, which is whether the information conveyed by Rosen and Weissman was classified and of a nature that should not have been disclosed.
A decision in favor of the defense could delay the start of the trial, because the prosecution would have to produce nonclassified versions of the documents and information relating to the case.
The other big undecided issue concerns the list of witnesses who would be called to the stand.
The defense would like to call several high-profile witnesses, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and senior officials from the State Department, the National Security Council and the Pentagon. The goal would be to prove that the government routinely passed information to Aipac and that the practice was seen by all sides as legitimate.
Sources close to the case indicated that the defense intends to call senior Aipac officials to the stand in order to prove that all actions taken by the two accused employees were authorized and acceptable.
Patrick Dorton, a spokesman for Aipac, said that the organization was not advised about any request to have Aipac employees testify, but “if any of our employees will be asked to testify, they will do so.”
Last month, Ellis ruled out the possibility of deposing three Israeli diplomats involved in the case. The judge found that there was no need to ask for depositions from the Israeli diplomats who were in touch with Rosen and Weissman, and that their testimony would not be crucial for the case.
Aipac still has not reached an agreement with Rosen and Weissman’s attorneys over the payment of their legal fees. While early estimates said the total cost would be at least $4 million, sources close to the defense say that the lawyers’ fees have already exceeded $5 million and are expected to reach almost $8 million by the time the trial is over.
Aipac, according to a source close to the organization, is willing to pay the legal fees but is conditioning the payment on Rosen and Weissman signing an agreement that would prevent them from suing the organization in the future. “We have repeatedly offered to sit with them and reach an agreement which will answer their needs,” the source said, adding that the two former staffers refused to sign any waiver ruling out future lawsuits.
Rosen and Weissman would like to preserve the right to sue Aipac if issues regarding severance pay are not dealt with once the trial is over. Weissman is also expecting an apology from Aipac, if he is acquitted.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.