Arlington, Va. - High-profile Bush administration officials could be called to the witness stand if two deposed pro-Israel lobbyists have their way in a court case that is moving toward a January 2008 trial date.
Lawyers for two former lobbyists at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee have asked federal judge T.S. Ellis III to subpoena the highest-ranking foreign policy players in the administration, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, Hadley’s deputy, Elliott Abrams, and other top officials from the White House, State Department and Pentagon.
The two Aipac lobbyists, Keith Weissman and Steve Rosen, are on trial for allegedly receiving classified information from government officials and relaying it to diplomats, journalists and other Aipac staff members. Their attorneys are seeking testimony from Rice and others in order to make the case that passing on classified information to lobbyists was routine conduct in Washington. The prosecution filed a series of motions asking that all subpoenas for government officials be dismissed.
If the subpoenas are approved by the court, the Aipac trial has the potential of turning into a major embarrassment for the Bush administration, which has made fighting leaks in the government one of its policy cornerstones. Having the most senior members of the administration testify under oath about conversations with lobbyists in regard to classified information could shatter what is left from the anti-leak posture the administration has adopted in its early years.
Last Tuesday, the judge moved closer to setting a trial date, securing January 14 — three-and-a-half years after the case first broke out — as the target for beginning the jury trial.
“We’ve got to get this done,” said Ellis in the hearing, while prodding the prosecution to speed up procedures. “This case has languished for quite a long time.”
Currently, the case’s closed-door discussions have reviewed the classified information that will be put forward. After that is completed, the proposed list of witnesses is expected to take center stage in the pretrial hearings.
The list contains some 30 witnesses, few of them directly involved in specific events mentioned in the indictment. Such is the subpoena requested for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. When Rice was national security adviser during the first term of the Bush administration, she held a White House meeting with Aipac’s executive director, Howard Kohr, and with Rosen, who was then the lobby’s policy director. During the meeting, Rice allegedly revealed information that was later conveyed to Rosen and Weissman by former Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin, who already has admitted to passing on classified information as part of a plea agreement with the prosecution.
The purpose of having the government officials testify, defense sources said, is to prove to the jury that leaking classified information to Aipac members, as well as to other lobbyists, journalists and diplomats, was not only standard procedure but also a pattern of behavior directed from the highest ranks in the administration.“We want to show it was authorized from the top,” a defense source said.
In addition to members of the State Department and Pentagon, the list may include current senior staff members of Aipac, though defense sources would not confirm that they are actually on the final list.
Due to the nature of the case, which centers on the use and proliferation of classified information, the court is required to approve each of the witnesses, and the topics about which he or she will be asked, in order to ensure that classified information is not revealed during the testimonies.
The government prosecution has filed motions arguing that the subpoenas are not relevant to the case. But Ellis has given some indication that he sees things otherwise. During one of the closed-door hearings, Ellis said that testimonies dealing with the nature of the relationship between Aipac and America’s government are “flatly relevant to this case,” since it is important for determining the defendants’ state of mind when they encountered classified information.
It is already clear that court will not allow the entire witness list presented by the prosecution, since Ellis is attempting to keep the trial short and not all the officials requested are relevant to Aipac issues.
Meanwhile, as the trial date was postponed yet again, the legal bills of the defendants have reached a record high. According to unofficial estimates within the defense team, both defendants have already incurred $7 million in legal fees a figure that might grow to $10 million by the time the case is over, making this trial one of the costliest in American history.
An agreement reached several months ago between Aipac and lawyers for Weissman ensures that the lobby will cover Weissman’s legal costs. A similar agreement is still being negotiated between Aipac and Rosen’s lawyers.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was 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.