Somewhere between the benign inanities of water-cooler gossip and documents stamped “Top Secret” churns a wide gray sea of information that quenches the thirst of the lobbyists, legislators, political junkies and journalists who populate Washington. Most of them ignore the cheap gossip and turn their ears away from the deepest secrets, but the material in between — all of which comes under the vast rubric of “inside information” — is treated like gold here. Careers are made, agendas advanced and ideas are sold based on conversations over intimate lunches and dinners in restaurants, during long phone calls and on chatty, rambling walks.
That could change depending on the outcome of expected trials for the alleged unauthorized use of classified information of two former senior staffers at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and a midlevel Pentagon analyst.
On Aug. 4, Paul McNulty, the federal prosecutor in eastern Virginia, unsealed the Justice Department’s indictment against Steve Rosen, AIPAC’s former director of foreign policy issues; Keith Weissman, its former Iran analyst; and Larry Franklin, a former Pentagon Iran analyst.
In doing so, he made it clear that from now on, those who receive classified information should be as wary as those who dispense it.
“Those entrusted with safeguarding our nation’s secrets must remain faithful to that trust,” McNulty said. “Those not authorized to receive classified information must resist the temptation to acquire it, no matter what their motivation may be.” He said there was “a clear line in the law” against dealing in classified information.
Rosen, Weissman and Franklin all plan to plead not guilty.
AIPAC has hired outside lawyers to review its practices, and others in the Jewish community might soon do the same.
But Jewish and non-Jewish groups wonder just how to refine such practices in a city where no one until now has seriously considered the solicitation of inside information to be criminal.
“The law governing unauthorized disclosures of classified information is not ‘a clear line,’ it is a blurry and discontinuous line,” the Federation of American Scientists said in a statement about last week’s indictments.
“As a practical matter, receipt of formally classified information is part of the daily business of national-security reporting and occasionally of government watchdogging,” said the federation, a nuclear watchdog that advocates against government secrecy. “Mr. McNulty’s public statement is not a reliable guide to law or policy on national-security classification.”
Steven Aftergood, the federation’s secrecy project director, told JTA: “This prosecution breaks troubling new ground, and it means that anyone who works in national-security policy advocacy or as a government watchdog could be liable to prosecution. That’s preposterous.”
Abbe Lowell, Rosen’s attorney, called the charges a “misguided attempt to criminalize the public’s right to participate in the political process.”
Journalists in Washington were on guard. The New York Times has reported that McNulty’s office wants to talk to all reporters who communicated in the past with Rosen and Weissman. JTA has learned that two of the reporters referred to as receiving leaks in 2004 about alleged threats against Americans and Israelis in northern Iraq are Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post and Laura Rozen of the Nation.
A number of lobbyists, Jewish and non-Jewish, told JTA that the practices outlined in the indictment are not too far removed from their own daily practices.
“It’s going to chill all lobbying,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “I think it will chill journalists’ ability to get information. Many of us have conversations with government officials. Can I talk to you about a meeting I had with a government official? I’m not sure anymore. Am I supposed to ask if this is classified or not? It could change the whole nature of discourse in Washington.”
Across the political divide, Edward Abington, a former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem who now lobbies for the Palestinians, agreed that the lines often were vague in Washington’s culture of “overclassification.”
Information he now passes on to the Palestinian Authority “is something I likely would have classified when I was a consul general,” Abington told JTA. “When you go and talk to people who work for the government, you’re exchanging views. You’re telling them things you’ve heard from your clients. They’re telling you things. It’s all oral — information makes this town go around.”
The indictment charges that Weissman and Rosen got classified information on Iran and terrorism from Franklin and two other unnamed U.S. government officials. It also alleges that they relayed the information to officials at the Israeli Embassy in Washington and to journalists.
AIPAC itself, which was not implicated in the indictment, has hired former Justice Department officials now working for Howrey LLP, one of Washington’s leading law firms, to review its lobbying practices.
“The conduct of Rosen and Weissman was clearly not part of their job,” an AIPAC official said. “However, we made a decision that the events of the last year warranted an internal review of policies and procedures related to information collection and dissemination.”
AIPAC dismissed Rosen and Weissman in April, saying their activities did not comport with the organization’s standards. Insiders say AIPAC has scaled back its lobbying of the executive branch, focusing instead on Congress, where there is much less likelihood of encountering classified information.
AIPAC, meanwhile, is continuing to pay the legal fees for Rosen and Weissman.
Some observers link the case to the Bush administration’s zeal to crush the culture of leaks and, more particularly, to a recent investigation that led to the jailing of The New York Times reporter Judith Miller for not revealing sources who allegedly gave her information about a CIA operative.
“There’s a little bit of the echo of the Karl Rove situation,” said Larry Noble, a lobbying expert who is the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political giving.
Rove, President Bush’s top political adviser, is known to have confirmed the identity of the CIA agent to at least one reporter but has yet to face any consequences, while Miller is in jail.
In the AIPAC case, at least two government officials cited in the indictment for leaking allegedly classified information to Rosen and Weissman do not face charges and are not likely to. The officials are not named in the indictment, but one, in fact, was recently promoted to a senior administration job dealing with sensitive security information, according to a source close to Weissman and Rosen’s legal defense.
Taking action against those who receive classified information has been quite rare until now, according to Steve Pomerantz, a former FBI counterterrorism chief who now advises Jewish groups.
Key to such prosecutions is the accused’s knowledge that the information is classified, which would be much easier to prove with a government employee.
The indictment makes note of the security clearance that Rosen enjoyed until 1982, when he worked for the Rand Corporation think tank, apparently in order to establish that he knew the law.
Yet nothing in the indictment suggests that Rosen and Weissman ever saw a document marked “Top Secret.”
Instead, the indictment relies on snatches of taped conversations in which Rosen and Weissman allegedly refer to material as “secret” or “sensitive” — or, in one instance, as “classified.”
The single document mentioned was retyped by Franklin, according to the indictment, and faxed to Rosen — suggesting that it might not have been clear to Rosen that it was classified. Sources close to Rosen’s defense say the fax was simply a list of Iran’s bad acts, which could have been compiled from any newspaper’s database.
Elsewhere, the indictment recounts a March 10, 2003, meeting of Franklin, Rosen and Weissman at Union Station in Washington.
“In the course of the meeting, the three men moved from one restaurant to another restaurant and then finished the meeting in an empty restaurant,” the indictment notes.
One source close to the defense says the movement was a matter of finishing breakfast at one place and stopping for coffee at another.
The absence of clear lines led Howrey, the law firm working with AIPAC, to consult with other organizations engaged in lobbying, an AIPAC official said.
In the Jewish community, there are few if any guidelines. That may now change, officials said.
“It’s definitely worth giving some thought to,” said Martin Raffel, the associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization for Jewish community relations councils and Jewish organizations.
David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said his group would not change what it does but their consciousness of the dangers would be higher.
“You want to be even more certain that even inadvertently people don’t cross a line, however that line is drawn,” he said.
One source familiar with the workings of Jewish groups in Washington said more caution could be healthy: Often, said the source, who asked not to be identified, Jewish lobbyists slip from considering Israel’s view as one of many factors in crafting a position on an issue to simply advocating for Israel.
McNulty suggested he would argue that intent was critical. In a news conference, he described Franklin, Rosen and Weissman as “individuals who put their own interests and views of American foreign policy ahead of America’s national security.”
That would distinguish them from reporters, who are protected by the First Amendment, said Bill Mateja, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Dallas.
“Would you have the intent to get that information to Israel or to Russia during the Cold War?” he said. “It goes to knowledge that it is classified and intent that it is going to a foreign government.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.