The FBI is casting its net at least as far back as the 1980s in its attempt to prove a pattern in the government’s classified information case against two former Jewish lobbyists. The recent revelation that the FBI wants to plough through decades-old files belonging to the late investigative reporter Jack Anderson is the latest sign that the government has not yet prepared its case against Steve Rosen, former foreign policy director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and Keith Weissman, AIPAC’s former Iran analyst.
Government delays in assessing what evidence should be classified and what should be used have pushed the trial back from April to August, and prosecutors still are scrambling to find precedents for a case that the defense and judge say is unprecedented.
The questions also have contributed to concerns among free-speech advocates that the case is an assault on the First Amendment.
“There has long been an unwritten agreement the government may do what it must to deter unauthorized disclosures of classified information and to punish leakers but that, once disclosed, the government does not pursue those who receive or publish the information,” the Federation of American Scientists said in a statement on its Web site.
Mark Feldstein, director of the journalism school at George Washington University, told JTA he was “shocked” when FBI agents came asking for access to Anderson’s files. The family has handed Feldstein the files for archiving and because he is writing a book about the muckracking journalist, who died last December.
“As they explained it to me, they were looking for additional evidence for their case against the lobbyists,” Feldstein said. “They grilled me about which pro-Israel reporters worked for Anderson, and which ones had connections to Anderson.”
Feldstein would not release the documents. The FBI still may pursue them through the courts.
FBI spokesman Bill Carter, who would not comment on the AIPAC aspect of the case, said the government’s interest in the files was natural.
“An individual came to us that had seen the documents and indicated that there were a number of classified U.S. government documents in the collection,” Carter told JTA. “Our concern was that since the plan was to make the documents available to the public, to make sure that no classified documents would be made available to foreign agents.”
Feldstein said the agents acknowledged that the statute of limitations would have lapsed on whatever they might find in the files, but would not otherwise say how it related to the AIPAC case.
However, a central weakness in the government case always has been that the core of the indictment against Rosen and Weissman was a government sting in 2004, when Larry Franklin, a mid-level Pentagon analyst, leaked information he allegedly said was classified.
Franklin’s leak had to do with reports of an imminent Iranian attack on Israeli agents supposedly in northern Iraq.
Other exchanges described in the indictment, also dealing with Iran and terrorism, do not explicitly involve classified information, and in pre-trial hearings, defense lawyers have aggressively pursued the argument that such exchanges were routine between lobbyists and government officials.
If the government were to uncover evidence of Rosen’s role in trading in classified information in the 1980s, it could try to establish a pattern in court. Anderson became ill around 1990, and did not report extensively after then.
Weissman was not employed by AIPAC in the 1980s, but Rosen already was a well-known lobbyist with ties to the executive branch.
AIPAC, which fired Rosen and Weissman last year, would not comment on the case. The government has cleared AIPAC of all wrongdoing in the case.
In a hearing last month, Judge T.S. Ellis III described as substantial the defense’s argument that the government was patching together disparate cases to establish a precedent.
Additionally, Tom Reilly, the Justice Department attorney who represents the intelligence agencies on the prosecution team, acknowledged that the government had not substantially begun to review the evidence to sort out what should be available and what should not. The time needed for that review postponed the trial from the May 23 trial date Ellis had wanted until Aug. 7.
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.