By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 15, 2007
Defense lawyers and media organizations are objecting to what they say is a government effort to bar the public from the upcoming trial of two pro-Israel lobbyists charged with violating U.S. espionage laws.
A group of media organizations, which includes The Washington Post, filed a motion late Tuesday criticizing "the government's apparent request to close" the trial of Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman. A federal judge in Alexandria had set a hearing on the motion for today, but it was unclear late yesterday whether the hearing would be held.
The media filing follows a motion last week by defense lawyers seeking "to strike the government's request to close the trial," according to the U.S. District Court docket in Alexandria. But the contents of that motion are sealed, and prosecutors declined to comment.
Yesterday, sources familiar with the case characterized the government's proposal as an attempt to close significant portions of the trial but not the entire proceedings. Judges have shielded some evidence from the public in previous national security cases, such as last year's death penalty trial of convicted Sept. 11, 2001, conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, but only in rare and limited circumstances, legal experts said.
Rosen and Weissman are former employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. They are charged in what the government calls a conspiracy to obtain classified information and to pass it to members of the media and the Israeli government. Their trial is scheduled for June 4.
The case has First Amendment implications, with some lawyers saying it criminalizes the type of information exchange that is common among journalists, lobbyists and others in Washington. Prosecutors argue that disclosing sensitive defense information could harm national security.
Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which spearheaded the media motion, said she recognizes that the case has "national security interests."
"We're concerned that this case is going to be much more secret than necessary," she said. If a judge grants the motion, it would allow media organizations to file further briefs in the case.