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Ex-aipac Staffers Pen Joint Defense Agreement

Two former officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who are accused of conspiring to trade classified information are working together to fight the charges, JTA has learned. Steve Rosen, AIPAC’s former director of foreign policy issues, and Keith Weissman, a former Iran analyst, have signed a joint defense agreement to collaborate on their arguments against the charges, according to sources close to the defense.

The agreement suggests that Rosen and Weissman will have similar defense strategies and will not implicate each other.

In their first court appearance Tuesday, Rosen and Weissman plead not guilty to the charges. Appearing stoic, the two men briefly addressed the judge, agreeing to waive their right to a speedy trial.

Both men were told to surrender their passports and were released without bail.

Judge T. S. Ellis III of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia set a trial date for Jan. 3, 2006. He did so expressing concern that the attorneys were seeking so much time to view classified material relevant to the case.

In a foreshadowing of their defense, the attorneys for both men suggested they would seek to suppress evidence obtained during searches of AIPAC’s offices last year and request an explanation for why prosecutors waited so long to indict the men, who have been under FBI surveillance since at least 1999.

Larry Franklin, the former Pentagon aide accused of giving the AIPAC staffers the sensitive material, returned to court as well Tuesday. Seated next to Rosen, Franklin maintained his not guilty plea from a previous indictment.

Rosen and Weissman are accused of receiving classified information from Franklin and two other, unnamed U.S. government officials and passing the information to three officials at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. The Israeli officials include Naor Gilon, a former political officer who returned to Israel earlier this month. Rosen and Weissman are also accused of giving the information to reporters.

All three are charged with one count of conspiracy to communicate national defense information to persons not entitled to receive it, punishable by 10 years in prison. Rosen and Franklin are also charged with communicating national defense information to persons not entitled to receive it, also punishable by 10 years in prison.

Franklin is charged with two additional counts of communicating national defense information and one count of conspiracy to communicate classified information to an agent of a foreign government, which carries a five-year prison sentence.

Attorneys for Rosen and Weissman made separate pretrial requests to the judge Tuesday, but they are working together in preparing a defense, sources said.

Rosen and his attorney, Abbe Lowell, consulted at length with Weissman and his counsel, John Nassikas, before court began.

AIPAC, which has not been targeted in the probe, continues to pay the legal fees for both former employees, who were fired in April as the investigation intensified.

Franklin is not a party to the joint defense agreement, sources said.

Joint defense agreements are signed between defendants to allow consultation and information sharing between attorneys without violating the attorney-client privilege, according to legal experts.

Both defendants and their attorneys declined to comment after the hearing.

A spokesman for AIPAC, Patrick Dorton, also refused to comment about the searches of AIPAC’s offices, which occurred in August and December of last year.

But Lowell suggested in court that the defense would request an evidentiary hearing on the matter.

Franklin, whose case was originally to be heard in September, is now scheduled to be tried with Rosen and Weissman.

But Plato Cacheris, Franklin’s attorney, said outside the courtroom that he was contemplating seeking a separate trial for his client. Lowell suggested Rosen and Weissman’s team may seek severance from Franklin’s case as well.

Severances are rarely granted in conspiracy cases, legal experts said, but often requested. Denied severance requests are often used as a basis for appeal if a defendant is found guilty.

Much of Tuesday’s hearing focused on setting dates for motions and other matters, as well as requests from the defendants’ attorneys to see classified information pertinent to the case.

Kevin DiGregory, the assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said much of the classified information Rosen and Weissman’s attorneys need access to relate to five documents, but he did not elaborate.

But, he added, because of the nature of the investigation and the manner in which it obtained its evidence, significant amounts of classified material will need to be turned over to the defendants for review.

At the hearing, both Weissman and Rosen sought and received permission to leave the Washington area. Weissman asked to visit his mother in New York and tour prospective colleges with his daughter. Rosen asked to visit his son in Madison, Wisc., and travel throughout the Northeast for consulting work. He did not specify what kind of consulting he was doing.

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