US to drop charges against AIPAC pair

Prosecution cites "diminished likelihood gov't will prevail" in case against Rosen and Weissman.

steve rosen keith weissman 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
steve rosen keith weissman 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The US government has decided to drop charges accusing two former pro-Israel lobbyists Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman of illegally disclosing classified information just weeks before their four-year-old case was set to go to trial. The decision came after years of legal wrangling in which a series of preliminary court rulings went against the government, including one which required the prosecution to prove the lobbyists meant to harm America or help Israel when they passed on information. The defense had also won the right to call high profile former officials like Condoleezza Rice to testify that sharing information of this sort was standard procedure, which could have been embarrassing to the government. Acting US Attorney Dana Boente announced Friday that "given the diminished likelihood the government will prevail at trial" under that high legal bar, as well as "the inevitable disclosure of classified information that would occur at any trial in this matter," his office had asked for the indictments against Rosen and Weissman to be dismissed. The two men had been top AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) officials when they were indicted in 2005 for passing information to Israeli officials and the media, the first time the rarely invoked 1917 Espionage Act was applied to private citizens. First Amendment advocacy groups had joined Jewish and pro-Israel organizations in opposing their prosecution. The defendants and their lawyers expressed joy and relief following the announcement, as Weissman's attorney Baruch Weiss told The Jerusalem Post they were "elated." "It's not often that the government dismisses a case on the eve of trial. This is a great victory," he said, praising the new administration for reviewing the case carefully and deciding to end it. But the move - which has to be accepted by the presiding judge before the case is officially closed - doesn't fully disperse the cloud that the prosecutions placed over the individuals and their former employer, including shadows cast on the ways that pro-Israel groups are involved in the crafting of US foreign policy. Rosen told the Post that "there's a disadvantage to not going to trial because there's no jury to collectively declare one innocent," adding that the case continues to adversely affect his life. "I was a person who had his whole life taken away from him," said Rosen, who is finishing up a book about the experience and how the US government selectively leaks information to its own advantage. "It has been a horrific experience." He listed the loss of his livelihood, professional relationships and reputation. He has since filed a civil suit against AIPAC for having fired him during the course of the legal proceedings and hopes that with the criminal case concluded the lobbying group would be willing to settle the case quickly. AIPAC spokesman Patrick Dorton wouldn't comment on the lawsuit, but he welcomed the news about the decision. "We are pleased that the Justice Department has dismissed the charges. It's a great day for Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman and their families," he said. Rosen said the damage wasn't just limited to his personal circumstances, so dropping the charges also doesn't repair those injuries. "It helps some but by itself it doesn't put all of this to rest. We're in a situation where the wild allegations against Israel and the friends of Israel are being printed all over the place, and some people believe," he said. He attacked the depiction of himself and his co-defendant in places as "cartoonish Jews" who weren't loyal to their own country. "It was an anti-Semitic stereotype they were playing into and rightfully so." "For some it did play into ugly stereotypes and there were people who tried to fan those stereotypes," said Jess Hordes, who runs the Washington office of the Anti-Defamation League. He also referred to a "chilling effect" the case had on those who do government issue advocacy work. But he called the US attorney's decision an "important victory" for setting the record straight and for people who believe engaging in advocacy is legitimate. "It puts the lie to those who sought to exploit this to besmirch pro-Israel activism," said Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations head Malcolm Hoenlein, who spoke about how AIPAC's massive annual conference, which starts Sunday, would help the community move on. "Coming as it does before the AIPAC conference, you'll see that people were not intimidated, that officials continue to meet with [activists] in the Jewish community," he said of an event that is expected to draw 6,500 participants and feature speeches by US Vice President Joe Biden and senior members of Congress. AIPAC "is going to stay focused on its core message. That's what it's always done and it's going to continue to do at the policy conference this weekend, and going forward," said someone close to the pro-Israel lobby. "AIPAC has been having the same conversations with Capitol Hill and the White House that it's been having for the past four-and-a-half years. Internally, nobody thinks there's going to be much of a change," he said. Hoenlein agreed that "pro-Israel activists will be reassured" and find comfort in the charges being dropped so they can continue with their work. But, he warned, "You can't undo the damage that was done." "I don't think it has won AIPAC any friends, and it plays into prejudices held by some that pro-Israel lobbying is a somewhat rogue operation," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Secrecy for the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists, who describes AIPAC as now bearing "an asterisk by their name" since even with the charges dismissed it means "somebody in the government thinks they're not the good guys." And for anti-AIPAC conspiracy theorists, he said that "some might conclude that the dropping of charges in this case is further evidence of the lobby's omnipotence." But he added, "Those people would have difficulty explaining why the charges were brought in the first place."