washington — conversations that two staffers at the most influential pro-israel lobbying organization in washington had with a reporter and an israeli diplomat appear to be a focus of an american government investigation that could lead to espionage charges.
There is mounting evidence that the government plans to indict two former officials at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Steve Rosen, the organization’s former policy director, and Keith Weissman, its former senior Iran analyst.
The pro-Israel lobby fired the two men last month, citing new information. But Aipac is continuing to pay the men’s attorneys, incurring legal costs that one source says have reached $1 million. Rosen is being represented by Abbe Lowell, one of Washington’s top lawyers.
Howard Kohr, Aipac’s executive director, told staff in a recent conference call that he fired Rosen and Weissman on the advice of Nathan Lewin, the attorney the organization hired to deal with the case. Lewin came across the information that led to their firing in the course of reviewing the government’s case. Kohr told his staff that Lewin did not reveal the nature of the information, according to sources.
The crux of the government’s case, multiple sources say, is Weissman’s meeting with Larry Franklin, a mid-level Pentagon Iran analyst, on July 21, 2004, outside a Nordstrom’s outlet in the Pentagon City mall in Arlington, Va.
Franklin allegedly warned Weissman that Iranian agents in predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq planned to kidnap, torture and kill American and Israeli agents in the region.
Weissman didn’t realize that Franklin apparently had been cooperating with the FBI for several months and was being used in what is believed to have been a sting against Aipac staffers, sources said.
Weissman immediately informed Rosen and the information was relayed to the White House, sources close to the defense said.
Rosen and Weissman then called Naor Gilon, who heads the political desk at the Israeli embassy in Washington, and Glenn Kessler, the State Department correspondent for the Washington Post, the sources said.
The FBI is believed to have co-opted Franklin a year earlier, after observing a lunchtime meeting he had with Rosen and Weissman at Tivoli, a restaurant in Arlington.
In a criminal charge sheet filed earlier this month against Franklin, the government said that over lunch, Franklin verbally related top-secret information to two Americans citizens, who have been confirmed to be Rosen and Weissman.
Franklin was arrested earlier this month on charges of leaking classified information. He is due to appear at a preliminary hearing on May 27. His lawyer suggested he would plead not guilty.
Weissman’s lawyer, John Lassikas, and Lowell, Rosen’s attorney, declined comment. So did the FBI and the office of Paul McNulty, the federal attorney in Virginia who is prosecuting the case against Franklin. Sources close to the case said that McNulty may attempt to indict Rosen and Weissman as early as next month.
The FBI apparently taped the July 21, 2004, conversation that Weissman and Rosen had with Kessler, the Washington Post reporter, according to sources. Rosen and Weissman got in touch with the White House and Kessler because they wanted to get the information out as soon as possible, sources said.
Franklin told the Aipac staffers that he was giving them the information because they had better connections than he did.
In the exchange, Rosen, Weissman and Kessler joked about “not getting in trouble” over the information, according to sources.
Rosen said that “at least we have no Official Secrets Act,” according to sources. Acquaintances say that was a standard Rosen line, distinguishing the United States from other nations, including Britain, that criminalize the receipt of classified information. American law is clear about assigning criminal penalties for leaking classified information, but it is murky when it comes to receiving such information.
Prosecutors seem likely to allege that the conversation with Kessler and the comment about an “Official Secrets Act” prove Rosen and Weissman knew the information was classified, according to sources familiar with the FBI interrogations. That is where the alleged conversation with Gilon comes in. While the simple receipt of classified information is hard to prosecute, relaying it to a foreign official may violate the 1917 Espionage Act, which deals with obtaining classified information “to the advantage of any foreign nation.”
If the government does plan to pursue espionage charges against the two former Aipac staffers, it could be a stretch, according to legal experts.
The language of the 1917 law emphasizes solicitation — its first sentence describes a transgressor as someone who pursues “information with intent.’’ Yet it was Franklin who allegedly told Weissman that he had new information and suggested that they meet. Sources say attorneys for the two men will argue entrapment.
It is not clear if the information allegedly relayed by Franklin to Rosen was truthful. Weissman and Rosen have claimed they did not knowingly pass along classified information.