Washington - In the upcoming trial of two former pro-Israel lobbyists, the witness stand will likely alternate between top Bush administration officials called by the defense lawyers and top spy agency officials called by the prosecution.
The government prosecutors have revealed their plans for witnesses in a number of recent filings in their case against the two lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, both of whom have been accused of passing classified information.
The lawyers for lobbyists Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman have long said that they will call to the stand Bush administration officials in order to prove that all information received and passed on by the defendants was already known and in some cases even reported in the media.
The recent court filings now indicate that the prosecution is planning to summon a number of top intelligence officials, two of whom are the chief FBI official who was in charge of investigating the September 11, 2001, terror attacks and a former senior CIA officer who was responsible for the agency’s declassification policy.
The use of these witnesses appears to be part of an unexpected strategy on behalf of the prosecution — to show that the former lobbyists not only broke the law but also exposed America to a real national security threat.
The case against Rosen, former policy director of Aipac, and Weissman, the lobby’s Iran specialist, surfaced in the summer of 2004 and was followed by raids on the Aipac headquarters in Washington. The two senior staffers were accused in an indictment of receiving classified information from Larry Franklin, a Pentagon staffer who had been in touch with the Aipac defendants for several years. Leading up to the indictment, Franklin cooperated with the government in a sting operation.
The classified information provided by Franklin to the staffers referred to threats to the lives of Israelis operating in the Kurdish region of Iraq. According to the indictment, Rosen and Weissman rushed to pass along the information to Israeli diplomats as well as to other Aipac officials and members of the press.
The opening of the trial has been postponed repeatedly, due to the lengthy process of debating how much information will be presented in court. The government has tried to limit the release of transcripts and documents, arguing that classified information might be revealed during the trial.
Now, though, the pretrial stage of the case is nearing its end, with almost all the issues surrounding the use of classified information during the trial settled. If no appeal is filed, the trial will begin April 29 and will last several weeks. This timing would, coincidentally, bring a verdict close to the date of Aipac’s annual policy conference, scheduled this year for June 2.
The government has so far presented three expert witnesses it wishes to call to the stand, according to court filings. The first is Dale Watson, who headed the FBI’s counter-terrorism operation until 2002. He was in charge of investigating early Al Qaeda attacks against the United States in Saudi Arabia, as well as the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the assault on the USS Cole in Yemen.
While details of what Watson will be asked to testify about were kept under seal, sources following the case said that he will be asked about the importance of the information given to Rosen and Weissman in terms of fighting the war against terror.
Another expert witness who will be called by the prosecution is William McNair, the former information review officer for the CIA’s directorate of operations. McNair, who retired in 2003, was the CIA’s lead official in dealing with issues regarding the release of classified information. He appeared many times in court, opposing requests based on the Freedom of Information Act. According to press reports, McNair was one of only a few officials within the agency who had access to all classified documents.
The third witness the government intends to call is Paul Dettmer, assistant deputy chief of staff for the U.S. Air Force’s Department of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.
All three expert witnesses are expected to be part of the prosecution’s attempt to prove that information communicated by the defendants was “potentially damaging to national security” and “closely held.” This was the bar set by the judge in the case, T.S. Ellis III. The witnesses, each of them an expert in the field of intelligence, will be asked for their views about the importance and classification level of the information.
As part of the ongoing debate about the secrecy of information revealed by Rosen and Weissman, the judge went back last week to the three Israeli diplomats who were given information by the lobbyists. If the defense is able to prove that the government itself gave the information to the Israelis, it would support the claim that no harm could have been done by disclosing it further.
This is also the rationale behind the subpoenaing of Bush administration officials by the defense. Among those approved by the court are Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Anthony Zinni, the retired general who once commanded American military in the region and then acted as Middle East Peace envoy for the Bush Administration.
The government can still invoke the state secrecy clause to avoid having officials testify, but the judge has made it clear that in that case, he would consider punishing the prosecution.
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.