WASHINGTON (AFP) — A judge ruled Friday that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and White House National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley can be subpoenaed to testify in a sensitive spying case that has focused attention on pro-Israel lobbying in the United States.
Federal court judge T.S. Ellis ruled to allow the request by lawyers for Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, former employees of the influential pro-Israel lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), to subpoena Rice, Hadley and 13 other current and former top government officials to testify in the case, according to court documents.
Rosen and Weissman hope the testimony of the government officials will support their defense that they were not engaged in spying. They are charged with conspiracy to pass secret US defense information to unauthorized people between April 1999 and August 2004 while they worked for AIPAC.
“The defendants claim that testimony from these current and former officials will tend to show that the overt acts reflect nothing more than the well-established official Washington practice of engaging in ‘back-channel’ communication,” according to Friday’s ruling issued in Alexandria, Virginia.
The White House and the State Department declined to comment on the ruling, which rejected government arguments that the officials’ testimony in the case, which involves key issues of national security, would be immaterial and even harmful to the defendants.
“We are aware of the order authorizing the potential issuance of subpoenas in the Rosen and Weissman case should the case go to trial,” said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
“It is our understanding that no subpoenas have been issued at this time. We cannot comment further because this is an ongoing criminal prosecution.”
“We are not going to comment on an ongoing legal matter,” said State Department spokesman Tom Casey.
Rosen and Weissman and Department of Defense official Lawrence Franklin were charged in 2005 under the Espionage Act with conspiracy to communicate national defense information after they were documented in a lengthy FBI investigation sharing sensitive US intelligence with each other and with Israel.
US officials alleged that between 1999 and 2004 Franklin passed secrets to Israel using AIPAC as the conduit; at the time Rosen was the lobby’s policy director and Weissman an analyst on Iran.
The sealed indictments, according to court documents, record 57 overt acts in the mishandling of the secrets, including meetings and telephone calls involving communicating the information with both US and foreign nationals.
The intelligence involved terrorist activities in Central Asia, US intelligence and policy regarding Middle Eastern countries, and Al Qaeda, according to the court documents.
Rosen and Weissman maintain that the secrets were not closely held by the US government and their disclosure did no damage to the country, the court documents said.
Franklin, a former assistant to former undersecretary of defense Douglas Feith, pleaded guilty after a series of closed hearings and was sentenced in January 2006 to 12 years and seven months in prison and a 10,000 dollar fine.
The pre-trial ruling will allow Rosen and Weissman’s lawyers to proceed with subpoenas for Rice, Hadley, former senior State Department officials Richard Armitage, Marc Grossman, Matthew Bryza and William Burns, former top defense department officials Feith and Paul Wolfowitz, and others from US defense, diplomatic and national security circles.
For 15 of 20 requested subpoenas, Ellis rejected government arguments that the testimonies would be immaterial to the case and unfavorable to the defense. Specific explanations on each of the cases were to be placed in classified, sealed files, Ellis said.
Protected from testifying for reasons that were not revealed were retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, former US diplomats Dennis Ross, Mark Parris and Edward Walker, and former national security advisor Bruce Reidel.
The case is expected to go to trial next January.