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(photo credit: Associated Press [file])
Friday's sentencing of Larry Franklin, the former Pentagon analyst who was convicted of communicating classified information to staffers at the America Israel Public Affairs Association and to an Israeli diplomat, is only the first of the trials in the case, but it can serve as an indicator to what can be expected when the second begins in late April.
Judge T.S. Ellis of the US District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, set forth two important principles when sentencing Franklin to 12 1/2 years in prison: The first was accepting Franklin's claim that he had no intention other than helping what he believed to be American interests, and the second was that no matter what the intentions might have been, the law is the law and whoever breaks it faces harsh punishment.
For former AIPAC staffers, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, this means good news and bad news. The good news is that the court does not seem to see the matter as an espionage case or as an act directed at harming the US or assisting a foreign nation. The bad news is that this perception doesn't really make any difference on the legal level.
The Rosen-Weissman case, which will be brought to a jury trial on April 25, is different than the case against Franklin. While the Pentagon analyst was obliged by the law and by agreements he had signed not to reveal any classified information he came across during his work, Rosen and Weissman are civilians who were passing on oral information they had received second hand. US criminal law does enable the government to go after civilians who leak classified information, but this an extremely rare charge.
In the months heading up to their trial, Rosen and Weissman, through their attorneys, will be busy trying to get the prosecution to reveal as much as possible from the secret surveillance tapes on which the case is based. These tapes allegedly contain conversations that prove not only that the AIPAC staffers received information from Franklin, but that they knew this information was classified.
This is the main issue in dispute.
If the defendants are able to refute the claim that they knew the information was classified, then this is no more than standard lobbying practice. On the other hand, if the prosecution proves that they knew that information was classified, then leaked it to foreign officials and members of the press, they would be in a difficult legal position.
The key witness will be Franklin himself. He will be asked about his conversations with the two defendants, and his testimony will be critical in establishing whether Rosen and Weissman did indeed know they were dealing with information that should not have been in their hands. Franklin's testimony will be closely watched by the prosecution. If he lives up to his prior agreement with the government, the prosecution will move to reduce his sentence to a prison term below that recommended in the federal guidelines. If his testimony is not satisfying and he does not act by the agreement with the prosecution, the existing sentence will remain and he will be taken to serve the full term at the minimum security prison in Cumberland, Maryland.
Two other parties to this story, that have been kept out of the legal process so far, might be also affected by the testimony in the Rosen-Weissman trial: AIPAC and the State of Israel.
AIPAC was quick to fire Rosen and Weissman after evidence had emerged alleging that they knew the information they got from Franklin was classified. This has proven to be an effective tactic so far and the lobby itself was almost untouched. But when the trial begins and senior AIPAC officials are called to the stand, it will be much more difficult for the lobby to distance itself, in the public's eye, from the affair.
Same is true regarding Israel. The three Israeli diplomats involved will not come to testify, due to their diplomatic immunity, but they will be mentioned again and again. Though there is no claim of any misconduct on their behalf, the detailed account the trial will provide of the information flow between US officials and Israeli representatives might create a PR problem for Israel's image in the US.
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