WASHINGTON — Jewish organizations are worried that a reported plea bargain involving a former Pentagon official will complicate two former pro-Israel lobbyists’ efforts to defend themselves against charges that they passed on secret information to Israel.
The former Pentagon official, Lawrence Franklin, reportedly has agreed to plead guilty to disclosing highly classified information to unauthorized people and to improperly keeping highly sensitive documents at his West Virginia home.
Franklin was accused of passing on the documents to the two pro-Israel lobbyists, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman. At the time of the alleged crimes, both men were top staffers at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
“This is the type of situation where one of the defendants, in exchange for a lesser sentence, cooperates against the other defendants; every man for himself,” said a former Aipac official, who is still close to the lobbying group. “This is reason for concern,” said the former official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Rosen was Aipac’s chief strategist and political enforcer for more than two decades; Weissman was the committee’s former Iran specialist. Both were charged with illegally receiving the information and then sharing it with foreign officials and with journalists.
Franklin’s lawyer, Plato Cacheris, told National Public Radio last week that his client would testify against Rosen and Weissman. The former Pentagon official was scheduled to enter his guilty plea Wednesday, after press time.
For months, Aipac insisted that none of its employees had broken any laws. However in April the organization dismissed Rosen and Weissman, allegedly because of information that arose from the FBI investigation.
Aipac officials say they have been told by the Justice Department that the organization is not a target of any probe. But Aipac officials and leaders at other Jewish organizations are still concerned about bad publicity that could emerge during Rosen and Weissman’s trial. Set to begin in January, the trial will be held in a federal courthouse in Alexandria, Va.
The reported plea comes as the judge hearing the case against the two former Aipac staffers raises tough questions about the government’s reluctance to share information with the defendants, suggesting it could lead to a dismissal.
In a routine scheduling session September 19, prosecutor Kevin DiGregory’s plans to withhold from the defense a portion of tapes and transcripts of conversations among Rosen, Weissman and others took aback Judge T.S. Ellis. In these conversations, the defendants allegedly incriminate themselves.
“I am having a hard time, Mr. DiGregory, getting over the fact that the defendants can’t hear their own statements, and whether that is so fundamental that if it doesn’t happen, this case will have to be dismissed,” Ellis said. “Have you ever heard of a case where a defendant couldn’t have his own statements? I have been on the bench 18 years, with another 20 years before that, and it has never happened.”
Prosecutors said the wiretap material was “owned” by various government intelligence agencies and that it was up to those agencies to share the material.
Thomas Reilly, a Justice Department lawyer, invoked the notorious secrecy of the three-judge panel that orders wiretaps under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. He suggested that the sensitivity lay not in what Rosen and Weissman had said but in the party with whom they were speaking.
“It involves FISA-derived electronic surveillance, your honor, of the defendants and third parties,” Reilly said.
Ellis was skeptical of the government’s position. “I can understand how that conceivably might be national security information, but I find it hard to understand how the defendants shouldn’t have access to it,” he said, adding that he might review the material himself.
In a response filed September 29, the government cited precedents to show that prosecutors need not reveal wiretapped information that is not exculpatory or irrelevant to the defense. They likened keeping the information secret to laws that protect informants.
In the September 19 hearing, Ellis said it was up to him to determine relevancy. The defendants have until October 7, 2006, to respond.
Rosen’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, had raised the issue because he said that a lack of access to material would prevent him from meeting court deadlines to file motions to dismiss. Ellis appeared sympathetic and postponed some of the hearings, though he was adamant that the trial would start January 2, 2006.
Lowell said in court that he had spoken to lawyers for the foreign officials — apparently the Israelis — and had little hope of calling them for the defense.
Aipac is committed to paying for the legal defense of Rosen and Weissman because of an indemnification clause in employee contracts. Aipac employees sign an agreement that protects them from legal harm until all appeals are exhausted, according to a source close to the defense of Rosen and Weissman who has firsthand knowledge of the clause.
Aipac’s bill for the pair’s defense has topped $1 million.
Rosen and Weissman were charged with “conspiracy to communicate national defense information to people not entitled to receive it,” which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Rosen also is charged with actual communication of national defense information, also punishable by 10 years in prison.
The charges come under the Espionage Act but do not rise to the level of espionage.
The indictment lists charges involving incidents dating back to 1999, and is related to information on Iran and to terrorist attacks in Central Asia and in Saudi Arabia. For a period in 2004, Franklin worked covertly with the government and relayed allegedly classified information to Rosen and Weissman. One charge against the pair accuses them of relaying the information to a foreign official, widely reported to be an Israeli Embassy staffer.
It is not clear why Franklin decided to enter a guilty plea after maintaining for more than a year that he was innocent. In a July interview with Corporate Crime Reporter, Franklin’s lawyer, Cacheris, said that Franklin cooperated with the FBI investigation early on, without having a formal understanding with the government and without being represented by a lawyer. Only after he learned that the government intended to prosecute him, Cacheris told the Reporter, Franklin decided to hire an attorney and stop his cooperation. Cacheris reportedly said that at first, while still being represented by a public defense attorney, Franklin drafted a plea agreement that would have sent him to prison for six years. The lawyer added that after he was hired he advised Franklin that he should not “be indulging in any pleas in this case.”
In the past, Cacheris had suggested that Franklin would plead guilty to charges that he moved classified documents out of a designated area to his home in West Virginia. That is the least of the charges against him, and doesn’t involve Rosen or Weissman.