US judge rules against former pro-Israeli lobbyists

James Vicini - Reuters - August 10, 2006

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. judge refused on Thursday to dismiss charges accusing two former pro-Israeli lobbyists of violating the espionage law, clearing the way for a trial in a case involving classified defense information.

U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis rejected a bid by Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, former American Israel Public Affairs Committee officials, to have charges against them dismissed.

Rosen and Weissman are accused of conspiring with a former Pentagon analyst to transmit national defense information to persons not entitled to receive it, including foreign government officials, policy analysts and the media.

The two have pleaded not guilty. Their trial date has yet to be set. The former Pentagon analyst, Lawrence Franklin, pleaded guilty last year to disclosing information to Rosen and Weissman from early 2002 through June 2004.

Judge Ellis' ruling occurred at a time of increased criticism from some civil liberties groups and free-speech advocates of the Bush administration's efforts to restrict the release of national security information.

In seeking a dismissal, the two former lobbyists argued that the 1917 Espionage Act was unconstitutionally vague, too broad and violated their free-speech rights.

Ellis acknowledged it was a difficult case, presenting issues on whether Congress violated constitutional values when it adopted the espionage law to protect the nation's security.

But he concluded that the law passed constitutional muster because it covered only information whose disclosure could threaten U.S. security and because it imposed rigorous requirements for a finding of criminal liability.

Ellis rejected the argument by the defendants that their prosecution represented a novel interpretation of the law because leaks of classified information by persons outside the government had never before been prosecuted.

In the 68-page opinion released on Thursday, Ellis, who is based in Alexandria, Virginia, also rejected the argument that the law only applied to the transmission of actual documents, and not oral transmission of the information.