Two former employees of an influential pro-Israel lobbying group were indicted yesterday on charges that they illegally received and passed on classified information to foreign officials and reporters over a period of five years, part of a case that has complicated relations between the United States and one of its closest allies.
Although no foreign government is named in the indictment, U.S. government sources have identified Israel as the country at the center of the probe. The Israeli Embassy in Washington also confirmed yesterday that it has been "approached" by investigators in the case.
The 26-page indictment, handed up in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, represents the first formal allegations of criminal wrongdoing against the former employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC is widely recognized as one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in Washington and has carefully cultivated close ties to Congress and the Bush administration.
The indictment also recasts the government's allegations against Lawrence A. Franklin, a Defense Department analyst who had already been charged with disclosing secret information about possible attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and other topics. One of six original counts was dropped against Franklin, 58, of Kearneysville, W.Va.
Former AIPAC director of foreign policy issues Steven J. Rosen, 63, of Silver Spring was indicted on two counts related to unlawful disclosure of "national defense information" obtained from Franklin and other unidentified government officials since 1999 on topics including Iran, Saudi Arabia and al Qaeda. A former AIPAC analyst, Keith Weissman, 53, of Bethesda, was indicted on one count of conspiracy to illegally communicate classified information.
Rosen was instrumental in making AIPAC a formidable political force and helped pioneer the strategy of lobbying the executive branch as energetically as Capitol Hill, beginning in the Reagan administration. The FBI's long-running investigation -- which has involved clandestine wiretaps and other surveillance dating back several years -- has angered many political supporters of Israel and has caused friction between the two governments.
AIPAC fired Rosen and Weissman but continues to pay their legal fees. "AIPAC dismissed Rosen and Weissman because they engaged in conduct that was not part of their jobs, and because this conduct did not comport in any way with the standards that AIPAC expects of its employees," said Patrick Dorton, a spokesman for AIPAC.
A spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, David Siegel, said that Israel was formally approached by U.S. investigators in the case several weeks ago and that "we've expressed our willingness to cooperate in this process." He denied any wrongdoing by embassy diplomats.
Attorneys for Rosen and Weissman also vigorously disputed the charges.
"The charges in the indictment announced today are entirely unjustified," Abbe Lowell, Rosen's attorney, said in a statement. Lowell said he expects the trial to "show that this prosecution represents a misguided attempt to criminalize the public's right to participate in the political process."
Weissman's attorney, John Nissikas, said in a statement: "We are disappointed that the government has decided to pursue these charges, which Mr. Weissman strongly denies."
Franklin's attorney, Plato Cacheris, said the charges were "not welcome but expected." Cacheris said he may request that Franklin be prosecuted separately from the others.
The indictment alleges that, beginning in April 1999, Rosen and, later, Weissman sought to influence people in the United States government, including Franklin, with whom they first met in February 2003, and used those contacts to gather sensitive and classified information.
In announcing the charges in Alexandria, U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty said that while "Washington is a town in which the flow of information is virtually nonstop," there is a clear distinction in the law that "separates classified information from everything else."
"Today's charges are about crossing that line," McNulty said. "Those entrusted with safeguarding our nation's secrets must remain faithful to that trust. Those not authorized to receive classified information must resist the temptation to acquire it, no matter what their motivation might be."
The motivation of Rosen and Weissman McNulty said, was simply to "advance their foreign policy agendas and personal careers."
McNulty said prosecutors had no immediate plans to charge anyone else in the case but said the investigation was continuing. In addition to unidentified U.S. and foreign government officials, the indictment refers to an unknown number of journalists who were in contact with Rosen and, in some cases, allegedly received classified information. Sources familiar with the case have said that one of the reporters in contact with Rosen and Weissman was Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post.
Rosen faces up to 20 years in prison and Weissman faces up to 10 years; both are scheduled to appear in court Aug. 16. Franklin, who pleaded not guilty to the earlier charges, faces up to 45 years in prison if convicted on all counts, officials said.
Staff writer Jeffrey H. Birnbaum contributed to this report.