A US district court Friday allowed the defense in the trial of two former AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) employees to ask Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to testify in the trial, after they claimed that Rice had leaked to the AIPAC staffers the same information that they had received from a former Pentagon employee and for which they are being prosecuted.
Judge T.S. Ellis of the US District Court in Alexandria Virginia granted the defense's motion to subpoena Rice and three other government officials: retired general Anthony Zinni who was the administration's special envoy to the Middle East; William Burns, who was assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs and is now the US ambassador to Moscow; and David Satterfield, who was Burns's deputy and is now the Deputy Chief of Mission in Baghdad.
The decision to allow the defense to proceed with the subpoena process does not ensure that the government officials will actually appear in court, but it does give the defense permission to contact the State Department and put in a request for the testimony.
In the hearing, attorney Abbe Lowell, representing former AIPAC staffer Steve Rosen, told the court that Rice's testimony is needed since she had met with Rosen in the past, while serving as National Security Adviser, and conveyed to him the same information that he and his colleague Keith Weissman later received from former Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin.
Rosen and Weissman were indicted for communicating national defense information which they got from Franklin to Israeli diplomats and members of the press. Franklin signed a plea agreement with the government and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
US attorney Kevin DiGregory asked the court not to grant the defense's request to summon the government officials, and denied Lowell's claim that Rice had leaked information to Rosen.
The State Department denied the allegations Rice herself had leaked classified information to the former AIPAC staffer, and spokesman Sean McCormack said that "the claims by these defense lawyers are utterly false." Jewish activists in Washington speculated over the weekend that the meeting between Rosen and Rice, who was at the time National Security Adviser, was not a private conversation but rather a routine meeting Rice held with a group of Jewish activists.
"These are usual meetings that take place from time to time in which we discuss issues regarding the US policy on matters we are concerned about," said the Jewish activist.
This is the first time Rice's name has been mentioned in connection to the AIPAC case. The request to subpoena her sheds some light on the possible tactics of the defense, which will seek to show that the exchange of information between Rosen and Weissman and Franklin was not unusual and was similar to that they had conducted with senior administration officials, including Rice.
While allowing the defense to move on with their attempt to subpoena senior government officials to the trial, Ellis denied their request to depose three Israeli diplomats who are mentioned in the indictment. Ellis ruled that since the Israelis have refused to be deposed by the defense, there is no sense for the court to allow such depositions. The US court has no authority to force foreign officials to testify or give depositions.
In the Friday hearing, both sides provided oral arguments regarding Rosen's and Weissman's requests to dismiss the entire case. Attorney Lowell claimed that the 1917 Espionage Act by which the former lobbyists are being prosecuted is vague and was never used in such a case, and thus Rosen and Weissman had no way of being aware of the fact they were breaking the law. He also argued that prosecuting them as citizens who received oral information impacts on their right to freedom of speech as provided by the First Amendment.
Prosecutor DiGregory claimed the law was not vague and argued it does not infringe on the defendants' right to free speech, since the communication between the lobbyists and Franklin can not be defined as protected speech.
Ellis has not ruled on the request to dismiss the case. The trial, which was supposed to begin in late May, was postponed once again, due to the lengthy process of clearing classified information which the defense wishes to use in the case. The trial is now scheduled to begin on July 11.