Yet another delay is expected in the trial of two former pro-Israel lobbyists accused of disclosing US secrets after prosecutors told a judge they plan to appeal a critical ruling on how classified information will be introduced at trial.
The ruling issued this week by US District Judge T.S. Ellis III is sealed, but a lawyer for one defendant portrayed prosecutors' decision to appeal, announced Friday, as the latest in a series of setbacks to the government's case.
Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, former lobbyists with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, were accused in 2005 of illegally disclosing sensitive national defense information. Their trial originally was set for 2006 but will now have to be rescheduled an eighth time - the latest date had been set for next month.
"It's now pretty clear that the government does not want to try this case," said Rosen's lawyer, Abbe Lowell. "They filed these charges without thinking them through, and there appears to be no one in government with enough authority or courage to admit they made a mistake."
A spokesman for the US Attorney in Alexandria declined to comment.
Even if the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond hears the appeal on an expedited basis, it will likely take at least several months.
The charges against Rosen and Weissman fall under the 1917 Espionage Act, a rarely used World War I-era law that has never before been applied to lobbyists. They are not charged with espionage.
The indictment alleges that Rosen and Weissman conspired to obtain classified reports on issues relevant to American policy, including and US policy in Iran, the al-Qaida terrorist network and the bombing of the Khobar Towers dormitory in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 US Air Force personnel. The men are accused of sharing the information with reporters and foreign diplomats.
Rosen and Weissman have argued that the information in which they traffic is commonly traded by Washington insiders, and that government officials tacitly support such disclosures.
Over prosecutors' objections, Rosen and Weissman have already won the right to subpoena Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other top 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.
Lawyers have been meeting for weeks in secret hearings in an effort to take classified evidence and develop unclassified substitutes that can be used at a public trial. The process is frequently unwieldy, but has been especially so in this case.
Ellis has voiced frustration several times at the inability of prosecutors and the defense to agree on the wordings of the substitutions.
Ellis previously rejected an earlier proposal by prosecutors to use a series of secret codes to conduct the trial, in which lawyers would have referred to "Country A" or "witness B" to keep classified information out of the public realm. Defense lawyers had said the plan would have been tantamount to holding a secret trial.