WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is considering dropping its case against two former pro-Israel lobbyists accused of illegally disclosing national defense secrets, government officials said Tuesday.
Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman were charged in 2005 with conspiring to obtain classified documents and sharing them with reporters and former diplomats. Like other cases centered around espionage and classified information, a critical issue in pretrial hearings has been how much of the government's case must be aired in open court.
Trial has been postponed at least nine times as the defense and prosecutors wrangled over the handling of classified information and other issues. The defendants won an appeals court victory on that front in February when a three-judge panel ruled that some classified evidence could be presented at trial.
Two government officials said Tuesday the Justice Department has been weighing whether to go forward with the much-delayed case. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose details of internal discussions. Some involved in the case are urging officials to let it continue to trial, the officials said.
Rosen's attorney, Abbe Lowell, declined to comment.
Lawyers for the defendants have argued that what their clients disclosed was not classified or national defense information but the kind of information that is commonly swapped by Washington insiders.
The charges against Rosen and Weissman fall under the 1917 Espionage Act, a rarely used World War I-era law that never before has been applied to lobbyists. Rosen and Weissman, who worked for the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC, are not charged with espionage. The maximum penalty is 10 years per count _ Rosen is charged with two counts and Weissman with one.
While the case has proceeded at a snail's pace in court, it gained renewed attention Monday after a report from Congressional Quarterly that Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., was overheard agreeing to seek lenient treatment for Rosen and Weissman. CQ attributed the information to anonymous current and former national security officials familiar with a transcript of the call recorded by the National Security Agency.
In a letter Tuesday to Attorney General Eric Holder, Harman adamantly denied she had contacted the Justice Department, White House or anyone else seeking favorable treatment for Rosen and Weissman, and she asked Holder to release any transcripts of her recorded conversations.
She also urged Holder to investigate possible wiretapping of members of Congress and selective leaks of investigative material for political purposes, calling the recordings an abuse of power.
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said only that officials were reviewing Harman's letter.
Harman had campaigned to become the House Intelligence Committee chairwoman when Democrats won control of the House in the 2006. The wiretap transcripts raised the question of whether she agreed in a conversation with an AIPAC supporter to intercede on behalf of the two lobbyists in exchange for help in persuading party leaders to give her the powerful post. She didn't get the appointment.
An indictment charged that Rosen and Weissman conspired to obtain, and then disclosed, classified reports on issues relevant to American policy, including the al-Qaida terror network, the bombing of the Khobar Towers dormitory in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. Air Force personnel and U.S. policy in Iran.
A former Defense Department official, Lawrence A. Franklin, pleaded guilty to providing Rosen and Weissman classified defense information and was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison.
Over prosecutors' objections, Rosen and Weissman previously won the right to subpoena former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other top Bush administration officials. The defense believes their testimony will support their claim that the United States regularly uses AIPAC to send back-channel communications to Israel.
Their trial now is scheduled for early June in a Virginia federal court but is likely to be delayed further because a judge has a scheduling conflict.